Media consumption habits during the past two months have been a lot like a snow globe that has been shaken pretty severely, says Edison Research Senior VP Tom Webster, with commutes coming to an end and homeschooling becoming commonplace. “Initially there was incredible disruption in unpredictable ways, but the flakes are settling a bit,” said Webster during a virtual roundtable on Wednesday. The data from Edison’s quarterly Podcasts Consumer Tracker is offering a near real-time look at the impact on podcast listening, and the news is encouraging.
Edison says weekly podcast listeners spent about 6.5 hours a week during March listening to podcasts, roughly the same as what it found in January before the coronavirus lockdowns changed everyday life. “I think a lot of people early-on assumed it would increase listening to podcasting if we are all staying at home. And in some cases that is true,” Webster said. “Things have shifted around a little bit, but overall the reach has remained and the number of hours that humans are listening to podcasts – though they are redistributed a bit – hasn’t really changed that much.”
There is, however, a clear winner during the coronavirus crisis in terms of the genre of podcasts getting a lift in Edison’s data which is collected continuously through each quarter. “There was a huge boost in news podcasts,” said Webster.
Between January and March, the News category showed a 25% jump in the number of podcast listeners who said they’d consumed at least one News show. At the start of the year, Edison found 31% of podcast listeners said they’d listened to a News podcast. But last month that number rose to 39%. Edison also sees a flight to comfort shows with podcasts in the Self-Help, Religion and Philosophy categories showing gains during the past several weeks, while the Sports category has taken a hit from a lack of games being played. “We’re hearing from clients now that especially with the NFL draft that those numbers are staring to recover too,” said Webster.
Stephen Dubner, the host of Stitcher’s Freakonomics podcast, thinks the very nature of how fans follow a show works to blunt the impact. “If we have a great episode we get 2.2 million listens after 90 days. If we have a crappy episode it will get 2.04 million. It’s not that much variance because most people subscribe,” he said. But Dubner also noted content does matter, admitting an underperformer in recent weeks was a “sad and difficult” episode about ventilator rationing.
As confirmed by the Edison data, one of the industry’s most at-risk genres is sports. With most shows built around what’s happening on the field, the pause of play-by-play has presented a unique challenge. Barstool Sports Chief Revenue Officer Deirdre Lester said her company isn’t immune, saying there has been “some drop-off” in listening, particularly around sports-specific podcasts. But she said the company’s focus on being more than just what happened in the big game is helping it weather what COVID-19 is doing to the sports calendar.
“While we are a sports network, and sports is a major through-line in most of our shows, we’re not just sports. We’ve always been about pop culture and lifestyle,” Lester said. “Our hosts are finding ways to pivot and interact with athletes to help keep that audience engaged.” There has also been an unlikely upside for guest bookers. “A lot of our flagship shows rely on interviews and athletes and celebrities are more available than they have ever been before. So that’s propping us up to a degree,” she added.
Payoffs For Debuts During Uncertain Time
NPR continues to have the largest podcast audience. Podtrac says it had 26.5 million unique U.S. listeners during March. That was a drop of just 0.4% compared to February for its portfolio of podcasts. Anya Grundman, SVP of Podcasting and Program Innovation at NPR, said their portfolio of four dozen shows has helped the public radio network maintain its podcast reach by offering people who want the latest news – and those who want to escape the headlines – something to listen to. “Our audiences are holding steady and some of our downloads have grown,” she said. Grundman said NPR also has set a new in-house record as its new Coronavirus Daily podcast became the fastest-growing show that NPR has ever released. She credits the podcast’s 10-15 minute length. “A few years ago we started to do shorter programs and they seem to be doing really well in this moment because people habits are changing,” Grundman said. She noted that the in-between moments when people are commuting from home to work have been erased from most people’s lives – time that was often used to consume podcasts.
“We have noticed with our research that as commute times have changed, listener times have changed,” agreed Ad Results Media CEO Marshall Williams, whose company hosted Wednesday’s virtual roundtable.
Barstool Sports has also launched a new podcast called Token CEO in recent weeks hosted by its own chief executive, Erika Nardini. She had been talking about launching her own podcast for several months with the show’s name and logo ready to go, but Nardini hadn’t found the time to get it going. With the New York office now closed and people working from home, she made it a reality with the debut of a ten-minute daily podcast. Token CEO is about what’s going on in her life and what Nardini is thinking about, with an interview episode on Fridays.
“That’s been extraordinarily well-received,” said Lester. “There are these good things that are going to come out of this and we are all going to come out of this a little bit stronger.