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“The pandemic is podcasting’s moment,” said iHeartMedia EVP of Smart Audio Intelligence Insights Hatel Patel. She said the consumer behavior stars had already been aligning in podcasting’s favor and when the coronavirus pandemic changed media habits, the medium was perfectly situated to take advantage. “In-home listening exploded, so listening to a podcast on different devices with different people and it created this boom for podcasting amid the pandemic,” said Patel.

During a “State of Podcasting” presentation put on last week by the iHeartPodcast Network ahead of this week’s IAB Podcast Upfront, Patel said the release of new technologies in recent years have opened up consumers to embracing new media habits. Change became even more rapid in 2020 as evidence by the way Zoom and Instacart have suddenly changed how Americans do business, go to school, and shop.

“New technologies forced us to pick up new habits. These habits got shifted to media,” said Patel. “This has allowed people to experiment and try newer things, and that happens to be podcasts in this case. Because there was increased media consumption and we started to see new listeners rolling in.”

Like other podcast publishers, Patel said beginning in April they saw a shift in content preference. “Podcasting was known for crime – but then we started to notice this was a time when consumers were craving escape – and comedy spiked,” she said. “I’m seeing evidence that is lasting a little bit longer.” 

Conal Byrne, President of the iHeartPodcast Network, told advertisers iHeart has also seen growth in news-focused podcasts as people looked for information about the rapidly changing world around them. “Suddenly new genres were becoming dominant in podcasting while others were flat lining a little bit. They have now started to grow a little bit,” he said.

Even as iHeart enjoyed growth during the pandemic months, some others haven’t been so fortunate. But whatever downtick they experienced is likely to be only temporary. Patel said the data shows consumers are “extremely addicted and engaged” with podcasting. “It’s a medium that lets you go deep – it entertains you; it educates you; and also gives you an escape when you want one,” she said. In terms of advertising Patel said that also plays out in marketers’ favor since ad-skipping rates are “extremely awesome” compared to any other medium out there. “Because it is a consumer favorite, it is also a brand favorite,” she said.

The business climate has been unpredictable this year and a survey released by the IAB last week found seven in ten ad buyers did not have any clear indication on what their marketing budgets would be next year. Patel said with ad budgets being scrutinized, it plays to podcasting’s advantages. “It’s an extremely flexible medium,” she told buyers.

Content Teams Adapt

The pandemic has meant more than just changes in listening and advertising. The actual creation of shows has changed. Jack O’Brien, an executive producer of iHeart podcasts, suddenly found his team going into the homes of A-list actors like The Ron Burgundy Podcast creator Will Ferrell.

“They were all really flexible and interested in being able to create content from their homes. We found it’s very convenient for people to record from their homes at all hours of the day,” said O’Brien. In some cases it has also meant shipping equipment to hosts like actors Zach Braff and Donald Faison and walking them through setting it up as they launched Fake Doctors, Real Friends during the pandemic. “It’s given us the ability to be flexible and sometimes record even more,” said O’Brien.

Not all mid-pandemic adjustments have been so easy such as when the iHeart-produced Forgotten: The Women of Juárez still needed more material from across the border in Mexico. But Mangesh Hattikudur, SVP of Podcast Development, said the result is a series that has created a buzz like no other podcast he’s worked on. That has been given a boost by the heavy on-air promotion iHeart has given the series on its radio stations. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to be able to use the pipes that iHeart has to broadcast this to such a wide audience,” said Hattikudur.

Will Changes Stick?

Looking ahead, Patel said it will be interesting to watch if media habits return to pre-pandemic norms in the coming months. “During this time people have picked up new habits that are drastic changes in what your preferences are, but it’s going to be a little bit of wait-and-watch to see if new habits stick and do they displace old habits or do they go on to create more media time,” she said. “But August has been the highest-ever downloads ever in podcasting, so if this was starting to level-off we would have started to see some signs of leveling at this point. I am extremely optimistic that these new habits that people have picked up are going to stick.”