Podcasts have nestled their way into our hearts and ears, becoming a constant, invisible companion riding shotgun on the journey of our lives. They have also completely defied traditional media wisdom—long-form content vs. short, audio vs. visual, 1:1 vs social, niche vs. mass—yet have still seen massive adoption and growth.
How big are podcasts, really, and when did they become a thing? 2014 was the year podcasts were put on the map with the dawn of Serial, catapulting this medium into the audiosphere and kicking off exponential yearly growth.
By 2019, the percentage of people 12+ who had listened to a podcast grew from nearly one-third to over one-half, tipping the adoption scale in America to the majority as you can see from the chart below.
While more than half of Americans have listened to a podcast, so far it is only making up about 3% of their audio listening diet.
For podcast enthusiasts, however, 22% of the population is listening to podcasts weekly, averaging about 7 episodes a week. Podcasts make up 28% of their audio diet, which is more time than they spend with AM/FM radio and streaming audio, and 9x more than the average listener.
So who are these audiophiles anyways?
From a demographic standpoint, they are educated (1.7x over-index for grad school), affluent (over-index for $100K+ HHI) and bi-coastal (over-index for living on the east and west coasts).
They are voracious consumers of media across the board—according to Helixa, those who engaged with podcasts on social media are also passionate about reading, art, music, design and entertainment.
You can see their intellectual DNA light up when you look at the top reasons why they listen to podcasts—to learn new things, to be entertained and to stay up to date on the latest topics.
Many of them are business professionals who are in constant search for interesting information and ways to stimulate their brain, which is validated by the other media they consume from the likes of NPR and PBS.
Why do they love podcasts so much?
Podcasts are the perfect companion for any sort of multi-tasking activity: audiophiles listen while doing household chores (59%), driving (52%), cooking/baking (50%) and taking public transportation (33%).
But what’s fascinating is that their obsession with podcasts is revealed when you look at the number one activity and place they are listening—at home (90%) while not doing anything else (70%).
For this group, podcasts have become a major alternative to other forms of entertainment. Search interest for crime podcasts has reached parity with crime shows and crime movies—it's looking like crime podcasts are solving just as many murder mysteries as their video counterparts.
Why are podcasts so tantalizing? Because they are literally "personalized" by our brains. The way that someone experiences video vs audio storytelling is drastically different. While video evokes many of our senses through sight, sound and motion, audio activates our brains to create our own picture in our head.
In some ways, you could argue that audio storytelling is more powerful than video. The Atlantic reports a conversation with Emma Rodero, a communications professor, who says, "Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production, and that of course, is something that you can never get with visual media."
By nature of putting in your headphones to listen to your favorite voice narrate a story just for you, podcasts are arguably the most intimate media channel.
It’s worth noting that nearly one-fourth of audiophiles are listening to podcasts for companionship. Presumably, for many people, Ira Glass has become more like a best friend than just a host of a radio show.
NYT dives even further into the effects of audio storytelling, reporting on a study where scientists mapped the reactions in people’s brains to a range of stories told via The Moth.
The scientists describe that "widely dispersed sensory, emotional and memory networks were humming, across both hemispheres of the brain; no story was 'contained' in any one part of the brain, as some textbooks have suggested," as evidenced by the image below.
And if you’d like to go down a rabbit hole today, you can actually play with the interactive brain map here.
What are the key factors contributing to the growth of podcasts? Although audio storytelling has been around since the early 1900s, a few recent factors are making this medium a major force—new distribution channels, the rise of smart speakers and GenZ.
We’re in the midst of another media consolidation cycle and it’s an arms race to become the best podcast aggregator and creator—Spotify purchased Gimlet (a premium podcast provider) and Anchor (a podcast developing platform), and Sirius XM (which purchased Pandora for a cool $3.5B) recently announced plans for original podcast content.
With these new distribution platforms, discovery and consumption of podcasts have become way easier. And with any new distribution channel comes the ads.
Advertisers are channeling their inner Mike Tyson to get a piece of audiophiles’ ears—according to the IAB and PwC’s Podcast Revenue Study, US podcast advertising revenue is expected to grow more than 110% by 2020, to $659MM.
If you’re not convinced podcast ads work, please recall the Mailchimp ad in Serial that spawned memes, articles and was deemed "the year’s biggest marketing win."
The rise of smart speaker adoption has contributed to an increase in audio consumption.
53MM people 18+ now have a smart speaker, which is a 36% YOY increase, according to NPR and Edison’s Smart Audio Report. And over half of those surveyed said they are listening to more audio since getting a smart speaker. Now it is even easier to turn on your favorite podcast, thank you, Alexa!
Finally, the largest group adopting podcasts are GenZ, contributing to a new wave of listeners. 12-24-year-olds are now the largest demographic group listening to podcasts, leap-frogging 25-54-year-olds this year.
Have we hit peak podcast already? According to Amplifi Media, there are now more than 540,000 podcast titles and the number is rising by 2,000 on a weekly basis. Everyone is jumping on the original pod-wagon—from digital media brands like Barstool to restaurants like McDonald’s to influencers like Lauren Conrad.
With that being said, only 25% of all 540,000 podcasts are actually still in production, because with any type of content, it takes time, effort and expertise to make it.
What does this all mean? Podcasts are giving brands and marketers impactful, new ways to tell stories and influence their audiences across different touch points. If podcast consumption continues to rise, perhaps binge-watching will take a backseat to binge-listening sooner rather than later.