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Infinite Dial 2021

If you’re a longtime Hot Pod reader, you probably know that I hold Edison Research’s annual Infinite Dial study in high regard. The survey-based study of digital media usage has been the longest-running measure of podcast audiences going back to the medium’s earliest days, and as a result, the story they’re able to tell is the one I consider the most reliable.

That said, I didn’t spend as much time covering last year’s edition of the study for what should be obvious reasons by now: It was released at around the same moment that the United States began its descent into the COVID-19 pandemic. Leafing through the report at the time, it didn’t make much sense to me to allocate much attention to the year that had come before when what lay ahead felt so deeply unpredictable.

I don’t need to tell you that a lot has happened over the last twelve months. From a purely podcast standpoint, the wave of lockdowns that began last spring — then ebbed, then flowed, then splayed out into a messy patchwork system — resulted in some initial declines in listenership as the morning commute went away, along with a significant restructuring of work processes and mild consternation over whether there’ll still be a podcast business on the other side of the pandemic.

Eventually, though, podcast consumption rebounded as its structural advantages within the context of pandemic conditions came into sharper view. The medium lent well to remote-production workflows, which in turn attracted more participation from creators and celebrity talent and media companies, which in turn led to the creation of more podcasts and greater recruitment of their respective followings into the medium. Listening behaviors as a whole ended up adapting, moving away from the morning commute and towards more afternoon consumption. The case began to be made that podcasting, more so than many other new media infrastructures, was uniquely suited to meeting the moment. But the question was: To what extent?

The 2021 edition of the Infinite Dial study, published last week, gave an answer: to a considerable extent.

Let’s break the report’s podcast-specific findings out. To begin with, the study recorded gains in the major audience sizing metrics:

  • 41% of the total U.S. population over the age of twelve, or an estimated 116 million Americans, can now be considered monthly podcast listeners, up from 37% the year before.

  • 28% of the total U.S. population, or an estimated 80 million Americans, can now be considered habitual weekly podcast listeners, up from 24% the year before.

  • Meanwhile, podcast familiarity — that is, the extent to which Americans are aware of the medium — continued to grow, present among 78% of the total U.S. population, or an estimated 222 million Americans, up from 75% the year before.

The American podcast audience was also found to have grown more diverse from a gender and ethnicity standpoint, with the study arguing that it has drifted towards a composition that more closely reflects the American population. (One specific finding that leapt out: There were exceptional gains among Hispanic listeners over the past year in particular.)

The report also found that the American podcast audience has deepened their engagement with the medium more generally. This is represented in the finding that weekly U.S. podcast listeners now average eight podcasts per week — typically interpreted as “podcast episodes” — up from six podcasts per week.

A quick note on some methodological progression here: This year’s report also includes a new “average podcast shows in the last week” measure, made distinct from a “podcasts per week” metric. The specific finding on that front: Weekly U.S. podcast listeners averaged 5.1 podcast shows in the last week.

Let’s pause on this beat for a second, because there’s a vast universe of analytical angles baked into this one data point. On a gut level, that feels like a small average number of shows per active podcast consumer especially when held up against an ever-expanding podcast ecosystem, with new shows launching just about every week (or day, or hour). At any rate, it’s worth introducing some level of complexity to that feeling: Not all shows possess a regular weekly publishing cadence, not all shows should be built to compete for everybody’s regular listening slots, and not all niches are adequately covered in the current spread of what’s available. In my mind, there’s room to grow in all directions, and besides, I’d be curious for this ratio of average consumption per user to average production of whole medium to be weighed against other media, whether it’s books, video games, or even the ever-increasing preponderance of products distributed over streaming video services.

Anyway, as always, I highly recommend you go through the report in full, if only to get a better sense of the change over time. But before we move on, I wanted to flag a few other things from other parts of the report.

It should be clear by now that the podcast ecosystem is being fundamentally stitched into other media systems, whether we’re talking about the medium’s competition for listening time against other audio formats (like audiobooks) or how it’s being increasingly absorbed by competition between the large audio streaming platforms.

To that end, here are some of the relevant findings that I’m tucking away in the back of my head:

  • The report argues that “Spotify has solidified its spot as the largest single-source for online audio, and has played a role in the growth of podcasting (especially with younger listeners).” The platform leads in all the important measures, with Pandora consistently coming in second place.

  • Audiobook listening seems to be flattening back out. After a spike in the 2019 study (50% of the total U.S. population, up from 44% the year before), that measure now hovers at 45% and 46% of the total U.S. population over the past two studies.

  • Some interesting findings within the context of in-car media consumption. Of course, the broader point to consider is the fact that folks are driving less during the pandemic, but it’s still interesting to see that AM/FM radio has dropped to 75% of population from 81% of population in the “audio sources currently ever used in the car” measure and that half of the total U.S. population engages in online audio listening in the car through a cell phone, up from 45% of the population the year before.

Finally, shout-out to the new survey questions on Twitch live streaming in there. I know I’ve been watching a hell of a lot more random streams since the pandemic began.