Some mediums have naturally developed for groups to enjoy together. Podcasting is not one of them.
According to Radio Joint Audience Research’s (RAJAR) 2022 report, 93% of people listen to podcasts on their own as opposed to 56% of radio listeners. For two mediums that are, on the face of it, extremely similar, what explains the difference?
Yasamin Heshmat, a UX researcher at Unity, wrote a paper on podcast-listening habits as part of her PhD. The paper’s title – “Quality ‘Alone’ Time through Conversations and Storytelling” – gives you an idea of some of the findings. “I even suggested ‘Do you listen to your podcast solo or with other people, and people were like, ‘Ew, no,’” she recalls. “It’s really like ‘me time’. It’s really the time I need to relax and reflect.”
The comedian Matt Forde, host of ThePolitical Party and Alice Levine’s co-host on British Scandal, completely relates to that sense of weirdness. “I can't think of a time when I would listen to podcasts communally,” he tells PodPod. “It would seem so odd to listen to it through a smart speaker or to sit around and listen to it, like the family would have radio in olden times.”
In his early podcasting days, he would end his shows by asking listeners to get in touch and tell him where they were listening: “A bit like the joy of a message in a bottle.” Listeners would email that they were enjoying the podcast doing everything from fixing copiers in Norway to hiking through the mountains of Japan. But there was no indication that this was ever a group activity for any of them.”
“I think it's partly because podcasts are longer form and more detailed,” he continues. “We all know that awful feeling of having found a funny video or a clip you think is interesting and showing it to someone and going, ‘This is the bit, this is the bit!’ I mean, with a podcast, you'd be stuck there for 40 minutes.”
Not that he’s complaining: his interviews with politicians usually go on for 90 minutes plus, and could comfortably go on for longer, if it weren’t too much of an ask on the guest’s time.
“I'm just really happy that it disproved all the nonsense that people have short attention spans,” he says. “There was a period of time in entertainment where people said, ‘If it’s longer than three minutes people won't listen.’ And I will say, that was bullshit. If it's something I'm interested in, I will listen to it for 10 hours. I mean, literally. I don't mind as long as an episode is good enough.”
The near-infinite array of podcast subject matters helps with this interest, of course. No matter how niche your interest, it will be covered somewhere.
“If you Google pretty much any hobby, you will probably find a podcast or set of podcasts,” says Sophie Hind, a radio industry veteran at Global and now managing director of audio production company Voiceworks. “I think because they are so specific, that's what makes us tend to listen to them individually.” She recalls how she stumbled across a whole series devoted to pens while making a presentation.
A separate RAJAR finding could be another part of the puzzle: the podcast is often a soundtrack to the mundane, when your hands are busy but your mind is free to wander.
Only 15% of respondents said that a podcast would be their sole focus, with others using podcasts as the soundtrack for work (33%), driving/travelling (22%), exercise/hobbies (10%), household chores (10%), cooking/eating (4%) or washing/dressing (2%).
Frances Harlow, co-founder of the podcast consultancy and production studio Arcana Audio, thinks this is key to podcasts’ solo reputation. “I think some of it is correlated to what people do when they're listening,” she says. “They're usually multitasking and doing somewhat boring life stuff that has to be done.”
Megan Moe, a professor of communication at Lee University who has studied the parasocial relationship between podcast listeners and hosts, says that this kind of multitasking offers a “narrative transport” that takes them “out of everyday life mentally”, even if they’re mechanically doing something else. “They might be washing the clothes or taking a walk,” she says, “but mentally, they're in another space.”
This lack of dedicated focus also changes the way the medium is delivered. While TV and radio were born in ages where dedicated, largely fixed hardware was required to enjoy shows, podcasts were designed with portable hardware in mind and thus largely consumed on headphones.
This changes the dynamic and there’s some evidence to suggest that listening to voices through headphones changes how people perceive the speaker: they cease to be presenters, and feel like something more akin to friends.
“That was one of our findings, too, that it feels like somebody's whispering in your ear, and that’s very intimate, right?” Heshmat says. “It feels like a trusted friend talking to them, so they didn’t want to share that.”
Again, this isn’t a surprise for Forde, who feels this familiarity when fans talk to him about the podcast. “If you’re putting out even one episode a week, so much of your personality is coming through almost by accident,” he says. “People are correct: they actually know you very well.”
This familiarity isn’t unique to podcasts, of course. “I’ve run radio stations, and when you change a presenter, you would not believe the ‘feedback’, shall we say, that you’ll get from the audience,” Hind says. “People feel very invested in that person, and I think it’s the same [with podcasts].”
A more social experience
There’s no real demand for podcasts to transform into a different kind of social animal, but hypothetically, how could listening habits be nudged in that direction?
Two answers emerge, oddly enough in opposite directions. Heshmat refers to Serial – a podcast that invited post-show discussion. Like Game of Thrones or other blockbuster shows, couples would listen together to discuss it afterwards.
Harlow, meanwhile, feels that if she’s going to listen with someone else, then the more informal the better – though that’s in part due to her audio production background. “If anyone says any words, I'm going to be like, ‘I'm sorry, can we rewind it so I can just make sure to catch the scoring?’” she laughs.
For her, comedy improv podcasts work better for group listening. “When it’s actually good, it does lend itself more to communal listening,” she says, name-checking the sci-fi podcast Mission to Zyxx. That’s not just because it’s like “everyone’s watching the movie in their head at the same time” but because its frivolous nature means it doesn’t matter if you miss too much.
Some podcasts are experimenting with a different kind of communal listening – a shared experience that’s not in the same room.
“They’re not necessarily doing it through the podcast medium,” Moe explains, with hosts recording YouTube Live events to later release as podcasts via the usual channels. This remains “more of a premium type of thing in the podcast world”, she says – it’s typically for Patreon backers and the like – but it’s a small example of how solo listening doesn’t have to be completely isolated, as users chip in live-text comments with their fellow fans along the way.
Other podcasts are even more shaped by their audience, with the popular ones getting live spin-off episodes of their own, which inherently changes the dynamic. Not everyone feels the change is for the better (“I might just skip them altogether,” says Moe, who doesn’t believe they do the narrative transport thing so well), but the difference is undeniable.
“It's totally different,” says Harlow. “It's a completely different experience where you're performing in front of an audience, and you're getting an audience reaction. It's more like a play or a concert or something that is inherently live.”
Indeed, the vast majority of Forde’s Political Party interviews are recorded in front of a live theatre audience in London’s West End, and the difference between them and his studio-recorded episodes is light and day.
“The audience is crucial because it creates a completely different dynamic in the room,” he explains. “If you're in a radio studio and you ask me something that I clearly don't want to go near, and I kind of parry it away, the ball is in your court. The claustrophobia between us grows.
“With a live audience, if a politician says ‘I don’t want to go there,’ and the audience is going, ‘Oh, come on…’ You know, the pressure to please a live audience is something that not just politicians feel keenly. Any guests would.”
While Moe suggests that hearing an audience reaction could impinge on the unique parasocial relationship listeners have with their favourite hosts, Harlow thinks it could work the other way: helping you feel like you’re part of a community, even if it’s remote.
“If you can literally hear an auditorium full of people who are nerding out about the same podcast that you love, even if you can't be there, you're like, ‘I'm gonna make it next time,’” she says.
If you join your tribe in person, the demographics may not be what you expect. “It's very interesting sitting in an audience of a podcast and seeing what the other listeners are like,” says Hind. “When you go to see a band of a certain era, you look around the room and go, ‘Oh God, they're all my age group.’ But sometimes with podcasts, I’ve found it quite surprising.”