Nearly half of top US podcasts rely on audience for financial support

Subscriptions and merch are key revenue streams for many podcasters, according to Pew Research

Financial support from fans is the main revenue stream for 47% of the top-ranked podcasts in the US, according to a new study from Pew Research Centre.

The report, which was released 15 June, profiled the 451 top-ranked podcasts in the US, identified by analysing the top 200 podcasts on Apple Podcasts and Spotify from the start of April to end of September, with chart data provided by Podchaser.

Of the 451 top podcasts, only 31% identified as independent, while the rest were either affiliated with news organisations (18%) such as The New York Times and NBC, or other organisations such as podcast networks like Wondery and iHeartMedia. 

According to the report, independent podcasters are more likely to seek financial support from their audiences compared to podcasts that are affiliated with larger organisations. More than half of the top-ranked independent podcasts (60%) sought support from their audience either through offering subscriptions, selling merchandise, or asking directly for donations. 

43% in the top-ranked podcasts affiliated with other organisations also asked for support from their audiences, and organisations such as Wondery offer monthly subscriptions for fans with incentives such as early access to episodes, bonus content, and ad-free listening. The New York Times also recently introduced an audio journalism app for news subscribers with bonus podcasts and access to back catalogues of its pre-existing ones. 

More organisations are starting to look at subscriptions as an alternative monetisation model to direct advertising after macroeconomic conditions led to a slow down in the ad market last year. One example is podcast production studio Tenderfoot TV, which operates a subscription scheme via SupportingCast with incentives such as access to its hit UFO podcast High Strange as a boxset for binge-listening purposes. 

Tenderfoot TV founder Donald Albright previously told PodPod that the company plans on “doubling down on subscription over the next 12 months” with more ‘binges’ and exclusive content coming to its wider portfolio of podcasts.

“You want to have options, especially when there's an economy that’s kind of up and down,” Albright said. “You want to make sure that you have different levers to pull for diversifying your revenue.”

Other key findings from the Pew Research Centre report highlight the growing popularity of video for creators, with 51% of the top-ranked podcasts including video components that accompany episodes. According to the latest Digital News Report by Reuters, YouTube is the most preferred podcast platform for consumers in the US while Spotify was the number one most popular in the UK, Australia, and Germany. Both platforms are known for offering video podcasts with top creators such as Joe Rogan, Emma Chamberlain, MrBallen, and more. 

The top-ranked podcasts also vary in formats from deep reporting, interview shows, and commentary, while episodes of the top podcasts tend to run for less than an hour, with six-in-ten averaging less than 50 minutes. While true-crime was the most popular genre amongst the top-ranked podcasts with 24% revolving primarily around that topic, news also proved to be increasingly popular with 15% having that as their focus, and 18% being affiliated with a news organisation.