The changing habits of podcast listeners

Podcast listeners have far more choice in 2023 than they had in 2006 — but have we reached saturation point?

Sandy Warr, a British broadcaster with nearly four decades of experience, has been teaching radio at City University of London since 1998. But about four years ago, she spotted a change in the students applying for the course.

“We started to notice that the students were not radio listeners, but they were podcast listeners - Go figure,” she laughs. 

The university responded by offering a podcasting option on its radio Masters course. Almost immediately, 140 students signed up — more than four times the normal amount they’d expect for such a module. At the same time, Warr noticed something else: her students were graduating into jobs in podcasting rather than going into radio first. The university responded to this “moment of maturity”, and its first Master’s degree dedicated purely to podcasting starts this September.

It’s another sign that podcasts are now firmly mainstream, with everyone from popstars to politicians launching their own podcasts, but looking back at the history of podcasting - before it became the hottest platform around - reveals some interesting insights into its potential future.

The growth flashpoints

Clearly, podcasts are big business now, but that wasn’t always the case. Edison Research has been keeping tabs on the medium since 2006 as part of its Infinite Dial digital media study, and in the beginning, the numbers didn’t really justify podcasts’ inclusion alongside TV and radio. “It was around maybe 90% of people said they did not listen to a podcast,” recalls Gabriel Soto, senior director at Edison Research. “[But] you see those numbers begin to climb and climb as the years go on”.

Digitally-distributed audio recordings have existed since before the term ‘podcast’ was coined in 2004, but the iPod’s portability and user-friendly podcast management tools represented a real turning point for the format. Podcasts now have the distinction of outliving their namesake technology, with Apple retiring its final iPod last year, but it’s actually another Apple product that podcasts owe their breakaway success to: 2008’s original iPhone. It was the first breakthrough smartphone that “allowed podcasting to spread like wildfire”.

“We have a graph that we put out this year, that shows the time or percentage of people that use online audio against smartphone ownership,” Soto says, “and they both climb together”. 

The arrival of another Apple product in 2012 — the Apple Podcasts app — would give the medium another shot in the arm, before another big jump occurred in 2014. This was partly attributable to improved hosting platform infrastructure, but mainly thanks to podcasting’s first break-out hit: Serial. Still within Edison’s top 50 tracked podcasts and with more than 300 million downloads to its name, Serial remains a ‘gateway drug’ to the medium for outsiders.

More recently, Spotify’s full integration of podcasting to its platform of 515 million users pushed podcasting further towards ubiquity, helped by the purchase of big-name shows, including The Joe Rogan Experiencewhich remains the most listened-to show by some distance, according to Edison. “It’s just so massive, and it’s a lot bigger in terms of reach than the number-two show that we measure,” Soto says. That’s Crime Junkie, in case you’re curious.

These high-profile podcast superstars, along with the ever-increasing accessibility of podcasting, have led to a similar spike in the diversity of genres and topics podcasts cater to, which has led to wider uptake from audiences, and by 2019, over half the U.S. population had listened to a podcast.

Big business

Today, this huge variety of shows and vastly improved accessibility to them has created a medium that takes up a serious slice of the average consumer’s listening time. In the US, the average podcast listener now listens to nine shows per weekup from six in 2013, back when the audience was a quarter of the size. Right now, Soto says, podcasts account for 9% of all daily audio listening time, which includes radio, music and audiobooks— up from 2% just eight years ago. 

With the average American consuming audio for four hours each day, that scales up to more than 140 minutes per week, up from 35 in 2015. Crucially, these averages are brought down by those who don’t listen to podcasts. Take out music — which feels like an unfair comparison anyway — and podcasts account for “about a third of all spoken-word audio.” 

There are some demographic trends, too; Soto notes that men generally prefer podcasts around sports, business, and politics, while women favour true crime, self-help, and a lot of entrepreneurial podcasts. Comedy, however, is a unifying genre: “[it’s] always at the top for both.” The way listeners tend to jump between genres can also be neatly predicted, Soto confirms, although the firm doesn’t have hard data to release on that point.

“Fiction podcast listeners are more likely to listen to true crime than a business podcast listener,” he explains, “while listeners to business podcasts are more likely to listen to news than a true crime listener.”

Power users

Averages can smooth out interesting demographics, of course, and the most serious of podcast listeners often prefer a dedicated solution beyond Spotify or YouTube (the first and second most popular podcast platforms in the U.S.). 

Ellie Rubinstein has been in charge of the veteran podcast app Pocket Casts for a year. Its users average eight to ten hours per week of listening time — markedly higher than the 20 minutes per day that Edison tracks — and have done since data recording began in 2018. 

“In general, the trends in our data correlate to feature releases more than anything else,” Rubinstein tells PodPod, highlighting Pocket Casts’ introduction of folders and a WatchOS app as big moments.

In terms of broader patterns, the average Pocket Casts user subscribes to 31 podcasts, with 58% following less than 20 and 40% subscribing to fewer than ten. Only 29% subscribe to more than 30, with power users skewing the average somewhat; the most a single account subscribes to is 11,000 — which almost certainly feels like an anomaly.

Celebrity saturation?

If even hardcore podcast listeners’ averages have remained stubbornly at the eight-to-ten-hour mark even after five years of explosive growth, then it seems that there could be a ceiling on podcast consumption for all listeners — and that raises a question about saturation. 

“I don’t know if it’s saturated, but there are so many podcasts,” says Rubinstein, reflecting on a recent visit to the Podcasts Movement conference. “That’s probably a big impact of the pandemic: actors, celebrities and more known people were sitting at home, thinking about how they can reach an audience, and podcasts were one way to do that.”

The results have been mixed, with some celebrities able to use their massive reach to establish large audiences quickly, while others have underperformed and quietly dropped out. Will fans stay with the medium if their favourite celebrities depart in a post-pandemic haze? 

“I think they will,” says Warr, “because I think one thing people have discovered about podcasting is its incredible flexibility and portability.”

Some podcasters will probably drop off, she says, but “that might mean that the quality products sustain and actually, that’s quite good for the long-term state of the industry.”

Mike Carr was an early evangelist for the celebrity format during his time as head of BBC Sport, where he launched That Peter Crouch Podcast in 2018. Now CEO of Crowd Network, the company has repeated the formula with other celebrity-led shows, but he acknowledges that there’s a risk involved in sticking with the familiar (albeit so-far-winning) formula.

“I think there's a bit of a crossroads; you have to be prepared to take risks on formats, but it can be expensive,” he says. “I think there's a danger that the celebrity weekly repeatable formats — which are very successful as a family — there might be too many of those coming out.”

“I don't think we've even scratched the surface of the creativity of the format of podcasting, but it's like, who's prepared to take that risk?”

New media

So, what do these current trends in listener behaviour tell us about the future of podcasting? While some podcasts can get away with stretching into multi-hour episodes, anecdotally, Rubinstein believes that tastes will lean shorter in future, citing “a preference for short-form content” and pointing at platforms like TikTok as a potential driver of this change.

Warr agrees that less can definitely be more. “My take on it when I'm training people is that it's quite a dangerous mindset to say, ‘I will just let this ramble on as long as we need to’, and then not really tightly produce it… If you don't do that editing process, you're not using the platform or the artefact to its full advantage.” 

Carr similarly notes that “there’s no excuse for anything in podcasting to be boring: you just edit it out”.

Another area of podcasting ripe for experimentation is video. “The medium is evolving,” says Soto. “We know that younger listeners are more likely to consume a podcast via video than older listeners. Same thing with Latino and Black listeners.”

Rubinstein agrees that this is one possible avenue for the future of podcasting, even if it “kind of contradicts the way we see people listening to podcasts”. Whatever degree of attention listeners/watchers devote to it, that “will add another dimension to the experience,” she says.

This may seem like sacrilege to veteran listeners who predate the iPhone, Serial and Spotify’s pivot to the medium, but podcasts have been evolving since the beginning, and to assume that what we have now is the finished article is naive. Short-form, long-form, informal, formal, video-first, audio only — there are plenty of avenues still to explore.

“That’s what I always loved about podcasting, and still do,” says Carr: “there’s no set of rules.”