Podcast Listenership Falls Off as Coronavirus Halts Commutes

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Key insights:

As the coronavirus pandemic shortens the commutes of most office workers to a matter of steps, the podcasts that would otherwise fill stretches of subway or car-bound boredom are suffering.

Data from measurement firm Podtrac shows audience growth for titles across the board dropped by about 15% through most of March—2% the first full week of the month, 8% the second and 5% for the week ended March 27—while downloads fell about 10% during the same time period.

The figures are still up overall from where they were at the beginning of the year, thanks to the medium’s general upward trajectory. But the pronounced drop last month erased a significant chunk of that growth, particularly in unique audience listenership, which dropped to just 8% for the year to date from a peak of around 24%.

Podtrac founder and CEO Mark McCrery said he expects those numbers to fluctuate a lot week-by-week as workers settle into new remote routines and potentially get bored of the types of binge-able streaming media that may seem like a novelty now. Measures like shelter-in-place orders and the shutdown of nonessential businesses meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 are now expected to last at least through the beginning of May.

“We’ll see what happens in the weeks ahead,” McCrery said. “[I was watching a talk show] where someone said, ‘Well, last week, we were binge watching Netflix. And now we’re sick of that, and we’re on to board games.’ I think that’s interesting, right? What are the new day-to-day habits and mini-habits that go along with those and how do they change over time?”

Changes in download numbers between individual categories may reflect some of those fast-changing tastes. While audience growth for news podcasts increased sharply in the first week of March, then saw the slightest decline of any category the following week, it plummeted last week, perhaps as listeners began to feel overwhelmed by dire headlines.

Meanwhile, business podcasts remained more or less level through the first half of March but saw an uptick last week. All other categories—comedy, sports and society and culture—saw steady declines throughout the month.

News podcasts have still fueled much of the audience growth for the medium as a whole this year, with 67% higher listenership than last year. “They’ve been up considerably overall, driven by publishers in the news category like NPR [and] New York Times’ The Daily,” McCrery said.

Download growth across more narrow categories also seems to paint a picture of a listener base stuck inside with family or friends, trying to understand and/or seek escapism or solace from an invisible threat. Smaller categories that saw recent growth included science, kids and family, fiction, true crime, religion and spirituality and TV and film.

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