Podcast Listening Starts Steady Comeback After Early Pandemic Slowdown

People are coming back to their podcast listening habits, as life amid a pandemic becomes the norm, for better or worse.

Listeners in the U.S. of all podcasts dropped suddenly in March, when most of the country was on lockdown in an effort to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. People were simply listening less as commutes ground to a halt and people stayed at home. Downloads fell by about 10 percent between the start and end of March and, for the top 10 publishers, another 5 percent in April, according to data from Podtrac, which follows user trends in the space.

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Total unique listeners fell by 20 percent in the early weeks of the pandemic, with the drop-off rate of downloads varying by category. Once high-growth subjects like true crime and comedy showed audiences shrinking by 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively, but even news podcasts fell by 10 percent.

Since then, as millions of people adjust to still working from home months into the pandemic, driven by surges in the number of cases across the U.S., it seems podcast listening is on an upswing. By the end of May, when some state lockdowns were starting to loosen, Podtrac said “downloads during peak weekday commute times” had been tending up and weekly listeners across all podcasts in the U.S. was up by 13 percent week-over-week.

On a monthly basis, Podtrac data shows that for the top 10 podcast publishers in the U.S., downloads have grown by about 6.5 percent in June and 3.6 percent in July, hitting 793.2 million downloads. That’s a 17 percent increase from April and Podtrac said downloads have grown 20.6 percent year-to-date. The top 10 podcast publishers for July in order of listeners were iHeartRadio, NPR, The New York Times, Barstool Sports, Wondery, PRX, ESPN/ABC, NBC News, WarnerMedia and Cumulus.

Given podcasting is still a growth category, even with an estimated 1 million different podcasts out there offering an estimated 30 million episodes, the medium is expected to continue making gains among advertisers.

This year, podcast advertising is expected to increase by about 10 percent to $782 million, according to analysis from eMarketer. In 2021, advertising is expected to jump 45 percent to $1.1 billion, the first time ad spend on podcasts will have exceeded the $1 billion mark. The following year, growth is expected to slow again to 17.5 percent, with $1.3 billion in ad spend on podcasts.

Ad spend in podcasting is a fraction of the digital ad market, which came in last year at $129 billion just in the U.S. But effects of the pandemic have hit the ad sector very hard. The digital ad market contracted by an estimated 33 percent, equaling about $40 billion in the early weeks of the pandemic. Most marketing executives said they expect the ad fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which is ongoing, to be worse than that caused by the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009.

Even with many companies hitting pause on marketing spend in the first half of this year, Shelleen Shum of eMarketer said in a note that “we expect a rebound in Q3 and Q4,” at least for podcasting. Only a partial recovery for the rest of the digital ad market is expected by mid-2021.

“The continued growth in podcast advertising is no surprise, as investments have made podcasts accessible to a wider audience,” Shum added. “The news genre, a focus of many podcast advertisers, has performed well during the pandemic.”

EMarketer also predicted that the audience for podcasts will continue to grow year-over-year, from an estimated 105 million people this year to 131 million people by 2023. The firm noted, too, the advances the format is making in programmatic and measurable advertising, moving away from “untrackable baked-in ads toward dynamically inserted ones.” This is expected to make advertisers even more willing to spend on podcasts.

For More, See:

What People Are Shopping for Now, Months Into a Pandemic

A Lot of Companies Spent More on Facebook Advertising Amid Boycott

Coronavirus Poised to Be Worse for Advertising, Media Than Last Recession