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Follow-up to Digital News Report and Google Podcast App

Plus: Cadence13 partners with UTA on an "influencer" podcast network

Follow-up to The Reuters Institutes’ Digital News Report. I have to say that the report came at an exceedingly fortuitous moment. As mentioned in one of the check-in dispatches during my May hiatus, one of the bigger reader requests had been for more coverage on the podcast industry outside of the United States — and the West more broadly.

And so it was really interesting to see that, according to the “Audio and Podcast” breakout section of the study, the three countries with the highest levels of podcast usage turned out to be in Asia: South Korea (58 percent), Hong Kong (55 percent), and Taiwan (47 percent). My initial reaction was, to be frank, utter surprise… and more than a little skeptical. Still, it’s a reputable study from a reputable institution, and all I was really doing in this week’s newsletter was aggregating the report anyway, and so I decided to print the finding with a minor caveat.

Since Tuesday, I grew to feel more skeptical about the finding. It simply didn’t square with (a) what I anecdotally know about digital life in Asia — for whatever little it’s worth, I’m from Southeast Asia, I regularly communicate with friends and family based in Hong Kong, and consumer technology in Asia is a pet fascination of mine — and (b) what I reckon we would have found in the geographic distribution of podcast downloads among major publishers typically covered in this newsletter. Given the high proportional rates of podcast usage among the three Asian countries listed, one would figure that they might appear with some minor prominence in a geographic breakdown sheet of a given publisher, should that publisher have an audience development or marketing person actually keep tabs on stuff like that. Of course, the natural counter-argument here is one of the split between absolute numbers and proportional percentages: South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong all feature considerably smaller populations compared to the United States — 51 million, 23.6 million, and 7 million, respectively, versus America’s 325.7 million. Still, 58% of South Korea’s 51 million is still over 29 million people, which is a notable fraction of the US: 33% of 325.7 million is slightly over 100 million.

This number might seem to be broadly within the neighborhood of the Infinite Dial’s number of people who’ve ever listened to podcast: an estimated 124 million. But that’s the number for people who’ve ever tried out the medium — it’s on the lighter end of the engagement spectrum. The Digital News Report pegs its number at “proportion of people who accessed a podcast within the past month,” somewhat presenting an MAU number, and that should more appropriated be attached the Infinite Dial’s own “listened within past month” number, which is found to be around an estimated 73 million. A quick meta-note here: I’m slapping the numbers from both the Reuters and Infinite Dial reports up side by side to get a broad feel of the picture being painted, but it’s really important to note that an apples-to-apples comparison between the two is not appropriate if you’re looking for precise differences. The Infinite Dial report uses “nationally representative survey research—a random probability telephone sample – comprising both mobile phones and landlines,” while the Digital News Report study was conducted by YouGov using an online survey method. I’m told that, as a rule of thumb, online surveys tend to skew towards heavier internet users and, more importantly, discounts the presence of people who do not have internet access altogether. As a result, the presence of internet behavior, including podcast consumption, tends to be more prominent in online survey studies.

All of which is to reiterate that the radically high placement of South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in that finding seems really off to me. Or, more specifically, the report might have fallen into concept communication when executing the survey. The possibility of this was flagged in another data point within the report, one that pertains to the UK: “There may also problems of definition with the term podcast not equally understood across countries. In the UK, for example, much listening comes via the popular BBC iPlayer radio app but on-demand streams and downloads accessed this way are not labelled specifically as podcasts and may not be understood as such in surveys such as ours.” Reacting to that line, I wrote in Tuesday’s newsletter: “I’m curious if this can also be applied to the inverse; that is, on the three Asian countries with the highest rates of podcast usage.” In hindsight, I should have broken that sentence into its own paragraph.

One way in which the numbers could mean what they should be meaning is that if there are active and vibrant podcast publishers operating in the region that we’ve completely missed. This isn’t beyond the realm of possibility — as you can probably tell reading Hot Pod over the years, my work has been distinctly US-centric, mostly for reasons stemming to my starting conditions as lone individual covering this space and, you know, me being an occasionally solipsistic human. But still, I would have heard something from the region… and I simply haven’t.

I’d love nothing more for there to be more podcasting in Asia, and this is a thread that I’m going to keep pulling on. Anyway, I’d love to hear if you’re seeing anything different about podcast life outside the West. A couple of readers from Asia — hello, by the way! — have already written in stating their doubts on the numbers, but I’m curious if there’s another angle that I’m just not seeing.

Follow-up to the Google Podcast App. Two components to this:

(1) Some readers took umbrage with my use of the word “standalone” when categorizing the app. The concept implies a self-contained app experience and infrastructure that’s independent from other aspects within the Android OS. What Google rolled out instead is a kind of “short-cut” app that routes users to functionalities already baked into the core Google app on Android. One reader pointed out that it’s similar to what the company did with Google Lens, the image recognition app from last year.

A totally legit claim. But I’m doubling down on the term for two reasons: Firstly, it’s being packaged and presented as a standalone experience that would ostensibly serve as a clear, delineated, and focused point of relationship between the user and the podcast universe. To put it another way: a casual looks upon the thing as a “thing to do in and of itself,” as opposed to “a thing that I’d secondarily do while dicking around down search rabbit holes.” That’s my personal point of focus here. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, it’s the term confirmed by a Google spokesperson when I was putting together the piece. If they’re calling it standalone, I’ll call it standalone… for now.

(2) So, a consistent thread that I’ve noticed from early reviews and responses to the Google Podcast App seems to revolve around its relatively spartan nature: there’s not a ton of bells and whistles — yet, as the team plans to roll out its spiff AI-assisted features as the months roll on — and there isn’t much that makes it superior compared to many other apps that have been in active operation for some while. A common refrain I’ve seen: “This probably isn’t going to make me switch away from Pocket Casts and/or Overcast.” Which, I guess, is totally fair, but it’s also besides the point.

The point, as it always has been, is for Google to suck in every Android user who isn’t already listening to podcasts into their podcast consumption experience. And so the traits of relative ease and simplicity is probably a hell of a lot more important than any substantial emphasis on features that allow for greater power listening. The way I see it, the situation is a little bit like the split between mobile gaming and PC gaming: the former is developed and designed for super casual folks along with their moms and uncles, while the latter is for the types of people who’d shell out cash money for one of those neon-colored gaming chairs that wouldn’t look out of place in a Formula One car. Two very different sorts of humans, two very different sorts of needs, imperatives, and barriers.

So, I don’t own an Android mobile device, but I’m definitely going to pick one up — probably without a phone plan, just some sort of internet plan — to start developing a relationship with Google Podcasts. What kind should I get? Let me know, if you’re the kind of person who has an opinion on this.

UTA partners with Cadence13 to build a new podcast network. Normally, I don’t like to build newsletter items around new podcast networks, because new networks are a dime a dozen these days — and because most of them probably won’t be around for too long. But I’m writing up this one because… well, UTA.

From the press release:

Cadence13 [has] announced a partnership with premier global talent and entertainment company United Talent Agency (UTA) to create Ramble, a podcast network uniquely dedicated to amplifying the voices of influential digital talent. The network will extend beyond podcasting to encompass other platforms such as social media, events and merchandise to expand how audiences connect with established and emerging digital talent.

So, I’m officially an old person, as none of the names mentioned in the release mean anything to me nor have I heard of them before: Natalie Alzate, Josh Peck, Hannah Hart, and so on. But initiatives like these aren’t for me anyway — a 29-year-old immigrant person-of-color who does things like fish and read books on horticulture and builds an entire week around the NBA draft despite not having any money on the line — they’re for those pesky young people who drive advertising choices and apparently decision-making in household discretionary income.

Three things on this:

  • As you’ve probably noticed by now, talent agencies have become increasingly active in the podcast space these days: they drive IP-creation, they’re creating incentives for publishers to create more of a certain kind of genre, they’re bringing more money into the space. And, it seems, they’re getting more involved in developing programming — and hence, becoming competitors of a kind — themselves. You’d probably want to tie this UTA development with whatever’s going on at Endeavor Audio, a budding podcast network within the IMG Original Content group, which is a sister company to the talent agency WME. There’s a whole family tree situation over there.
  • I don’t have much a reaction to Ramble in specific, but I do think something worth thinking about is whether the age group targeted by this initiative is one that means very much for podcasting. The narrative around podcasting may well be that it well serves younger demographics… but younger in comparison to traditional broadcast radio. The target demographics of the “influencer” class, I think, tend to skew a whole lot younger, and may already have very different kinds of media needs/behaviors. In my mind, the age group slots somewhere above the “kids podcast” crowd and well below the “typical” podcast listener demo. Hmm…
  • Whether or not Ramble actually gains any traction with what it’s intending to do, I suspect there’s some value in the overall structural idea: bundling together a bunch of similarly-oriented talent from WME-UTA-CAA’s client list to build some sort of podcast programming package around. But the problem that needs to be solved first, I think, is the nature of the actual package. A name simply isn’t enough, I don’t think. Not here. Not today.