Issue 259,  published May 19, 2020

Pandemic Watch: May 19, 2020

It’s Week 12, according to Stitcher’s pandemic timeline, or eleven weeks after the initial widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures in the US. The word from last night’s Podtrac coronavirus update: the metrics continue to crawl up, with the week of May 11-17 seeing a 4% increase in downloads and a 3% increase audiences compared to the previous week.

Over the weekend, Podcast Addict, a popular listening choice on Android, was suspended by Google because it lists content related to COVID-19, violating a new policy that requires any app referencing the virus to be properly authorized by “official government entities or public health organizations.” Frankly, the policy, which is presumably meant to combat misinformation spread, puts third-party podcast app developers in a really tough spot. As The Verge’s Ashley Carman wrote, “Podcast app developers… are just surfacing the content, similarly to a search engine, so they can’t necessarily filter out misinformation or individually screen every RSS feed and episode that populates. The policy might be well-intentioned, but it’s hard to police.” Additionally, Hiroshi Lockheimer, SVP at Google, has apologised on Twitter to Podcast Addict users, saying: “We are still sorting out kinks in our process as we combat Covid misinformation, but this app should not have been removed.”

Meanwhile, let’s check in on France. I’ve been trading notes with Charlotte Pudlowski, the co-founder of Louie Media, an independent podcast company based in Paris, and she described the scene as follows: France went through a strict lockdown period from March 16 to May 11, enforcing measures were far more involved than anything that was ever implemented in the US. Not only were non-essential businesses closed, but citizens were only allowed to leave their homes once a day, and even then, they were generally restricted from moving further than a kilometer away from where they lived.

Those strict measures have since eased up, but she describes the gradual reopening process as “mostly messy.” Free movement is allowed again, but citizens are advised to only do so for “compelling professional or family reasons.” Some schools and shops have reopened, but not all. Masks are mandatory, obvs. And restaurants will remain closed until June, after which only those operating in areas less hit by the coronavirus can open back up. (Paris, unfortunately, is still hit hard.)

Within that context, Pudlowski tells me that Louie Media saw a drop in listening during the first days of lockdown, only to see the trend reverse about a week later. The ensuing numbers are kinda fascinating: Pudlowski says that audience numbers across Louie Media’s portfolio experienced a 40% rise in the second week of lockdown, and by the end of the first month, listenership was up 80%. It increased an additional 40% in the following month.

Some of this can perhaps be attributed to Louie Media’s own efforts: they adapted a few of their active podcasts, in some cases doubling episode output, and launched new ones — including one called Travail (en cours), or “Work (In Progress),” about work disruptions — to meet the new needs of the current environment. But Pudlowski also suggests that there’s a cultural aspect. Though she characterized France as being “at an earlier stage” compared to the US in terms of podcast consumption, she also argues that the country nonetheless possesses a strong audio culture fostered by an equally strong public radio network: Radio France. “People are used to listening to audio here, not only on their commutes,” she said.

While Louie Media appears to be enjoying a listening bump, they’re also weathering the effects of economic turbulence. Unsurprisingly, some advertisers have started pulling out of buys, causing the company to lose out on a good amount of revenue. They’ve managed to sign some new accounts, but they’re also responding to the situation by ramping up the launch of Club Louie, a direct revenue program that offers supporters extra material like previews, exclusive content, and workshops. Response to the program exceeded expectations, so they say.

On balance, it seems like Louie Media is in a workable spot, all things considered. But like everybody else, they’re working hard to hunker down, push forward, and, of course, keep themselves as safe as possible. The team has had their scares: over the weeks, two staff members had tested positive cases of COVID-19. They have since recovered, Pudlowski notes, but it remains a deep hazard of the times. “We’re trying to be reasonable and rigorous as possible with the way we work,” she said.

Before we moving, let’s pull back a bit: I found it a little difficult to get a clear sense of the extent to which Louise Media’s experiences were representative of broader French podcast listening. For what it’s worth, Acast tells me that overall French podcast consumption across the major platforms did, indeed, see a 31% increase over the lockdown period — from 1.7 million in the March 16-22 stretch to 2.2 million in the April 20-26 stretch.

So there’s that.