Issue 257,  published April 7, 2020

Pandemic Watch: April 7, 2020

It’s April 7, 2020. American life continues under stay-at-home orders (for the most part), and it’s all but certain to remain this way for quite some time. Within the podcast context, the looming question of the moment is how listening numbers will continue to change as Americans shift out of a transition phase and settle into an extended period without significant travel, not to mention the daily commute, widely considered to be one of the primary environments for podcast consumption.

Will listening pick back up in the aggregate as audiences find new ways to re-integrate their podcast habits back into their lives? Or will it continue to dip as other media formats — whether it’s YouTube or broadcast radio or Twitch or… *checks notes* Quibi, I guess? — claim those habit gaps instead?

For now, some hindsight numbers. Last week, I led the newsletter with Podtrac’s analysis blog post that sought to illustrate how US podcast listening had been impacted by the pandemic, using their measurement sample. That sample is significant but not total, and among the companies not included in their measurements is Stitcher, the Scripps-owned podcast company that operates one of the larger portfolios in the industry.

This week, we’ll be focusing on them as a case study. Yesterday, Stitcher sent over some data points on how social distancing measures have affected listening across its shows, and here’s the big takeaway: overall listening across the Stitcher portfolio — that is, both owned and operated shows, and shows that they rep for ad sales — decreased 8% on average over the past four weeks relative to the first week of March, which was used as a baseline to indicate the pre-pandemic environment. But there are signs suggesting that the listening decline across its portfolio may be leveling out over the past week.

By way of methodology, the company looked at hourly downloads across March, and broke the period up according to five week-long stretches. Week 1 (March 2-8) was thought to be “Normal Times” as in prior to COVID-19 social distancing measures, Week 2 (March 9-15) was understood as “Initial Measures,” Week 3 (March 16-22) was “Aggressive Measures,” Week 4 (March 23-29) was perceived as a period in which listeners were “Adjusting to the New Normal,” and Week 5 (March 30-April 5) was considered the “New Normal.” The measured sample involves just podcasts represented by Midroll, the sales arm of Stitcher, said to be around 200 shows, all of which are hosted on Omny.

Using that framework, Stitcher saw:

  • – 1% listening change in Week 2 (“Initial Measures”), compared to Week 1;

  • – 11% listening change in Week 3 (“Aggressive Measures”), compared to Week 1;

  • – 9% listening change in Week 4 (“Adjusting”), compared to Week 1; and

  • – 11% listening change in Week 5 (“New Normal”), compared to Week 1.

It might have to take another week before we can tell if -9% to -11% is the range of the “New Normal” here, but the team has come to see the past three weeks as being largely stable in terms of listening. And so the big question here, then, is whether we’re seeing a true leveling off with regards to the pandemic-related dip.

Like many others, the company cites the absence of the morning commute as the primary cause of decrease in overall listening, observing in their analysis that average listening between 5 am and 10 am had dropped by about 20% while average listening during other hours was down just 4%. A slight uptick in listening during non-commute hours was detected by the start of April, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the commute loss.

So that’s Stitcher. A few other data threads to peruse:

  • Podtrac has updated its study of the pandemic’s impact on listening data in its measurement pool through April 5. Among other things, their findings mirror the possibility that the listening dip is leveling off over the past week, as was suggested in Stitcher’s data. You can find the full dive here.
  • A Spotify blog post from March 30, 2020 indicated that the audio streaming platform has seen “increased interest in news podcasts,” and that they, too, have seen “an increase in the streaming of Kids & Family content.” No specific numbers were provided, however. The broader context, from Rolling Stone: “Music Streaming Is Down in the Time of Social Distancing.”
  • An Acast blog post from April 2, 2020 claims that the company has seen its listening figures continuing to follow “the upward trajectory seen year on year — including record breaking listens (+8.4% globally) during the past two weekends.”
  • According to The Hollywood Reporter, iHeartRadio is claiming to see podcast listening “up 6 percent month-over-month, a number that is even higher in cities where there are shelter-in-place mandates.”
  • Meanwhile, Chartable, the podcast analytics company, dug into its own sample — which pulls data through its analytics prefix used on over 7,000 client podcasts — and the resulting write-up provides some further texture to the overall listening dips. Personally, I’d ignore the bit on reviews, and I’d consider the discussion regarding the way they think about the “listen” metric.

Before we move on, let’s zoom back out for the bigger ad picture. From the New York Times:

Overall spending on digital ads for March and April is down 38 percent from what companies had expected to lay out, and ad spending has fallen 41 percent on TV, 45 percent on radio, 43 percent in print publications, and 51 percent on billboards and other outdoor platforms, according to the trade group IAB.

Hang on tight, folks. 

I run this thing.