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Pandemic Watch: May 5, 2020

It’s Cinco de Mayo. Going by Stitcher’s pandemic timeline (which, at this point, somebody should copyright), we’re now in Week 10, or nine weeks into life after the widespread implementation of stay-at-home measures. The big picture news, of course, is that several American states are beginning the patchwork process of opening back up in fits and starts, which will almost certainly be incredibly complicated, and any congealing notion of a so-called “New Normal” will be tossed back into swampy uncertainty.

Meanwhile, last night’s coronavirus update from Podtrac suggests the continuation of a stabilizing trend: downloads during the week of April 27 – May 3 were flat, while audiences inched up by 2%. Second week in a row of relatively good news. Two interesting things about genres in the Podtrac sample: True Crime is crawling back up, while Comedy appears to have had a strong showing over the past few weeks.

Moving on, a quick word on something that stood out to me this week. For a bit now, there has been a conventional belief forming that the pandemic-triggered lockdowns won’t necessarily result in a strong disruption of new show or episode productions. Sure, there might be more risk associated with launching certain kinds of new projects, as we discussed last week, but there is a sense that most podcast teams could still reasonably move forward with making more episodes, because it seems that podcast production is able to shift into remote production workflows with relatively little friction compared to other mediums.

There are some strong exceptions to this, obviously. Most notably, investigative podcasts that require travel for reporting probably won’t be able to resume production for a while. A prominent example of this would be APM’s In The Dark, which had been working on its third season when the lockdowns started kicking in. They’ve since shifted to producing a smaller spin-off series, about COVID-19 in the Mississippi Delta (the setting for its second season), which dropped its first episode last week.

But now I’m beginning to spot other developments that might further complicate the aforementioned conventional belief. For one thing, there’s been at least one instance of a noteworthy podcast cutting back on its publishing schedule due to pandemic conditions. The specific case I’m thinking about is Slate’s Culture Gabfest, which is temporarily moving to a biweekly schedule because of budget cuts at the publisher level. That said, I hear that the company has every intention to move back to a weekly schedule once the market settles, and when the amount of culture and entertainment news comes back up to level. Furthermore, Slate is still moving forward with new season launches, as in the case of Hi-Phi Nation, which kicked off its fourth season this past weekend. However, that fourth season run only consists of eight episodes, published weekly.

There have also been podcasts going on what appear to be unplanned hiatus periods due to life changes resulting from the pandemic. A Hot Pod reader, Danielle D, wrote in to point out that two podcasts she follows closely — Mom Rage and Comfort Food — are both taking unplanned breaks because the hosts are slammed between juggling their full-time jobs and childcare, with kids still being out of school. The dynamics of motherhood and labor applies to podcasting just as it does everywhere else.

Moving on, Spotify announced earnings last week, and as expected, COVID-19 factors heavily into the findings and the narrative.

You can find the shareholder letter here, but four things to highlight for now:

  • The platform reported continued growth in Monthly Active Users and Premium Subscribers, even as Daily Active Users and actual consumption took a hit under pandemic conditions.

  • “Every day now looks like the weekend” — that’s the big quote from the letter, referencing the change in listening behavior now that the daily commute has mostly disappeared. It was further noted that this trend was more present in podcasting than in music.

  • Spotify reported that ad revenue and expectations saw significant drops, as the economic fallout from the pandemic has caused advertisers to pull back their spends.

  • Finally, the company remains bullish on its efforts and investments in podcasting. “We continue to believe that our investments in podcasts will benefit the platform as a whole, and see an overall benefit to both usage, engagement, and retention across both Ad-Supported and Premium,” says the shareholder letter.

Every day does, indeed, look like the weekend, in so many ways.