Podcasts have risen in popularity over the last decade and have been commended for their accessibility, giving anyone who wants it the chance to create a platform and broadcast their voice to the world. As of 2023, most estimates put the total number of active podcasts at between three and four million, varying across a range of genres from sports and pop culture to documentaries and social activism.
However, according to a report by Edison Research and Sounds Profitable, half of all podcast hosts in the US are white – and only 14% are Black. In the UK, a 2020 study from Spotify Sound Up, an annual programme that amplifies the voices of female-identifying podcasters from underrepresented backgrounds, reported that less than 5% of the UK’s top 100 podcasts are hosted by Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic women or non-binary people.
That being said, when representation does exist and the listeners find themselves connected to the podcast host, the engagement does soar. New insight from Edison Research and SXM Media’s Black Listeners Report 2.0 revealed that 43% of the Black US population listened to a podcast in the last month, which is 5% higher than the general population. Of those monthly listeners, over 50% responded that they would listen more to podcasts if they either included Black stories and perspectives or were presented by Black hosts.
While podcasting is no longer an emerging medium, there continues to be a gap in the market for podcasts targeting more diverse audiences, and the first step forward is understanding what Black listeners want to see on their podcast charts.
More representation within the charts
Many brands and publications use observatory events such as Black History Month (BHM) in October as an opportunity to amplify representation across their platforms by either creating lists dedicated to promoting Black voices for that period or even holding announcements of relevant new shows until the month starts. This pattern can be seen again across LGBTQ+ History Month, South Asian Heritage Month, International Women’s Day, and so on.
Shelina Janmohamed, podcast host of Global’s The Shelina Show and advertising executive for Ogilvy, calls this the “diversity trap” in which brands start off with the intention of having more diverse voices that then get pigeonholed into a time-limited event such as BHM. These voices then get lost after the event is over and stop being promoted enough to reach new audiences.
“I think, unfortunately, one of the traps of diversity is that once you've commissioned it, a brand thinks that they've been there and done that,” said Janmohamed. “But actually, it can't be a one-off investment. It has to be something that they invest into building over time so that voice becomes embedded in the community but can also become more widely listened to.”
In the Black Listeners Report 1.0 released by Edison Research and SXM Media in 2021, 37% of the respondents agreed that they find it difficult to discover topics that they are interested in from Black voices because “the podcast platforms make it difficult” to do so. Although the same question wasn’t asked in this year’s survey, 63% of the respondents also said that they would listen to more podcasts overall if they were easier to discover.
BIPOC Podcast Creators, a community group that empowers Black, Indigenous and POC podcast creators, told PodPod that a useful starting point that podcast companies can take is to support more independent podcasters from underrepresented groups and grow these communities within the company itself.
"We would love to sit down with any company that is genuinely interested in improving inclusivity because this work requires multiple nuanced approaches,” said a spokesperson from BIPOC Podcast Creators. “We also keep hearing that companies struggle to find talent from underrepresented communities when we know these people are actively looking for opportunities within the industry.
“It behoves podcast companies to partner with multicultural-focused organisations, like BIPOC Podcast Creators, to connect them to the talent and audiences they need. That's why we started the Service Provider Directory and have other initiatives like this in the works intended to amplify creators of colour."
Providing a platform for stories with Black voices and perspectives
A particular area that stood out in the Black Podcast Listeners 2.0 research was that the listeners are looking for more Black Stories and perspectives (63%) across all sorts of topics from history to fiction. In fact, comedy was the most popular genre among Black podcast listeners, with nearly half of the respondents preferring it, followed by music, sports and true crime.
Additionally, when it comes to what those listeners are actually searching for and wanting to learn from, self-care is a topic that was most popular among the respondents, and that provides insight to podcast platforms on what kind of subjects with Black perspectives they should be commissioning. Other topics that the respondents searched in the past year include social and racial justice, celebrity news and drama, Black films, reality TV, financial mindfulness and ‘Black excellence’.
Janmohamed says that it is the podcast industry’s responsibility to promote Black podcast hosts and the subjects they are working on throughout the year and allow a longer period of time for listeners to get used to new voices.
“If listeners are not used to these new hosts, it is going to take time for them to be found and it is going to take time for them to build that relationship with their audiences,” said Janmohamed. “But it's also going to take time for wider listenership to get used to having those new voices and that latent idea that they're only supposed to talk about a particular subject when, actually, they could be really interesting for all sorts of people.”
The report also shows that Black Queer voices in particular are a majorly underrepresented demographic in podcasting, with only 6% of the respondents identifying as LGBTQ+.
Gay Times senior podcast producer and founder of AiAi studios Aiwan Obinyan previously spoke about wanting to see more innovation in the genres within Black Queer communities beyond pop culture and comedy.
“I feel like audiences aren't dumb, and if something's good, they will open up to it,” said Obinyan. “So let's see more innovation in other genres for LGBTQ+ people of colour as well, because you don't know until you hear it that you like it or that you want it.”
How brands and advertisers can reach more Black listeners
During her interview with PodPod, Obinyan also revealed exclusive insights from a survey that she conducted at UK Black Pride 2022 on what queer people of colour would like to see from the podcasting industry. One of these insights revealed that 71.6% of the respondents have never bought a product after listening to a podcast advertisement.
“I don't really know what the effectiveness of ads is, I know that that's one of the ways that people try to monetize their podcasts,” said Obinyan. “But I don't know. Maybe there's some innovation to be done there.”
The success of advertising within a podcast heavily relies on the trust and engagement that a podcast can have with its audience. According to AudioBoom VP Mike Newman, host-read advertisements are the most common way to make revenue and to get direct responses from the listeners, so carefully choosing the voice that will be promoting your brand is essential.
For example, Black podcast listeners are likely to be more engaged with brands that are promoted by a Black host, according to the 80% of respondents to Edison’s survey who said that they are either likely to trust and purchase from a brand in that case.
“The findings really resonate with the consumer equality work that we've done around having people, influencers, that connect to people's community and identity which builds trust,” said Janmohamed. “And it's about the place that they are in the podcast but also in the relevance and engagement they have, and advertisers can see podcasts with those hosts as actually delivering both. There was a lot of resonance with what we found in terms of advertising and media placement and the kinds of voices that really deliver engagement for brands.”
*Methodology: The data used in Edison Research, SXM Media and Mindshare’s Black Podcast Listeners Report 2.0 is based on online interviews conducted in September 2022 with over 2,500 adults aged 18 and above who identified as Black or African American across the US.