Issue 252,  published March 31, 2020

Pandemic Watch: March 31, 2020

Let’s kick off with some data. Podtrac published their latest report on listening trends amid the coronavirus crisis last night, which draws from data up until Sunday, and the growth slowdown continues.

Some top-lines:

  • US podcast downloads — for shows measured by Podtrac — decreased by 4% in the week ending on March 29. For greater context, downloads decreased by 2% in the week ending on March 22, and 1% in the week ending March 15.
  • Slightly different picture for unique US podcast numbers: that measure decreased by 5% in the week ending on March 29. It had decreased by 8% in the week ending March 22, and 2% in the week ending March 15.
  • Big picture, though: year-to-date US download growth is still up 25%, and unique audience growth is up 8%. (Though, you should consider that the start of the year is a holiday period, typically thought to be a lull for podcast consumption, which suggests that the YTD measure would be naturally high to start out with.) To put it another way, download and audience levels haven’t been brought down to, or below, holiday levels. Not yet, anyway.

The post also contains genre-specific findings, with newly expanded categories. Some really noteworthy things in there:

  • It appears that the biggest losers in terms of week-over-over download growth between the week ending on March 29 and the week ending on March 22 are Technology (-19%) and History (-17%).
  • Meanwhile, the biggest winners in that same measure are Fiction (+19%), Business (+10%), Science (+9%), and Kids & Family (+9%).
  • Fiction is particularly interesting. The genre had been seeing a significant decrease in download growth on the whole since the start of the year (-32%).
  • Keep an eye on the True Crime numbers. Could get interesting.

So, where are we? Though it might still be relatively early, it’s safe to say that podcasting is taking a noticeable hit in the aggregate amid the coronavirus crisis and the behavioral changes it has incurred.

But as always, consider the layers. To begin with, Podtrac’s findings only speak to changes to the shows and networks they measure, which is significant but not total. Furthermore, an aggregate decline doesn’t automatically mean universal decline: as I noted last week, there are publishers and shows that have seen increases in listening — Vox Media and Slate’s audio divisions, PMM’s portfolio, and so on — or are at least seeing steady listenership.

What can we infer, then, from a situation where overall downloads and unique listenership are dropping, but where there are nevertheless some individual gainers? From my perspective, we’re looking at a scenario where value is potentially being concentrated within a smaller group of players. And it’s not that much of a stretch to guess that most of those players are already bigger and well-established.

Adding to that, I’m inclined towards the hypothesis that this is a uniquely difficult time for shows just starting out, podcasts with more casual appeal, and newer podcast talents that haven’t cultivated a strong following yet. Doubly so if they’re not offering coronavirus-related fare.

Another thread worth discussing is the centrality of the commute to podcast listening, along with other “in-between” contexts believed to be prime podcast consumption settings (working out, taking walks, and so on). Early as it might still be, it’s evident from the dip that the curtailing of these prime settings has been detrimental to podcast consumption. What does this tell us about podcast programming as a whole, and more importantly, how it can adapt to the moment?

Alright, before moving on, one last data thing: Podsights, the podcast advertising analytics tool company, has a blog post up discussing the results of a survey on audience and advertising that they ran with their client base. Note that the publisher component of that base is described to be “overwhelmingly” made up of bigger companies. Worth a skim.

I run this thing.