New show launches and holiday-themed specials helped the podcast industry overcome traditional disruptions in day-to-day habits as December brought an increase in listeners for the top publishers, according to Podtrac. That growth also significantly narrowed the race for No. 1 as iHeartRadio saw a 10.1% increase in its U.S. unique monthly audience last month compared to a month earlier. NPR, which posted a 6.7% increase, managed to hold onto the top spot but the 423,000-listener gap was the smallest since iHeart had a split decision last February with more downloads than NPR. In addition to several hit shows, the iHeartPodcast Network has also benefitted from more than doubling the size of its catalog. Podtrac says it had 349 active podcasts in December compared to 129 a year earlier. NPR has grown too, increasing its active podcast list to 70. That’s up from 46 in December 2018. NPR still has a slightly larger lead in terms of global downloads and streams.

The battle for No. 1 will continue to play out in 2020, but 2019 ended on a high note for podcasters overall. Podtrac reports among the companies it tracks the top 10 publishers had a 5% increase in their combined unique monthly audience last month. And it was up a more significant 44% versus the prior December. 

Wondery moved up to third place in December as its U.S. unique monthly audience increased 7.3% compared to the prior month. That pushed the New York Times back to fourth place as its audience shrank 4.2%, despite a busy news month in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail. PRX remained at No. 5 with a 6.4% month-to-month increase in its U.S. audience.

The sports podcast battle also remained heated during December with both Barstool Sports and ESPN laying claim to a win. Barstool Sports’ U.S. unique audience increased 4.6% versus November. ESPN’s U.S. uniques dropped, but its portfolio of podcasts had four million more global streams and downloads than Barstool Sports during the month.

With the release of the December rankings, Podtrac expanded the amount of information it is making publicly available. What had been a top ten list now features the 15 biggest publishers, a move that comes after recent additions to the ranker, including Kast Media, NBC News and All Things Comedy.

Here’s a look at Podtrac’s December 2019 numbers —

Under the standards developed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Tech Lab, Podtrac has strict guidelines as to what constitutes a download. First, someone needs to listen for a full 60 seconds before it counts as a download. The IAB’s Podcast Measurement Technical Guidelines 2.0 also stipulate that if someone were to listen to a podcast, press stop, then play again, that can only count as one download. Previously, Podtrac would have counted that as two.