Intimacy Gives Way To Companionship As Podcasts Connect With Pandemic-Weary Listeners.


Isolation, loneliness, and stress – such emotions hang over 2020 as home and work lives continue to be disrupted by a pandemic no one saw coming as the decade began just months ago. That rapid change in America’s psyche may be helping drive more people to podcasts and spoken word content. 


Edison Research Senior VP Tom Webster told the Podcast Movement conference on Tuesday that podcasting, long labeled as an “intimate” media for its proclivity to be consumed through headphones, is another expectation that has crumbled. “It’s just not true,” said Webster. “Podcasting has become the greatest companion medium because you can listen to a podcast and it can be a friend. Now is a good time to be friends with our listeners and make them feel like they are part of a community, and not an audience.”


That conclusion is based on data collected for the annual Spoken Word Audio Report. It showed 42% of monthly podcast listeners exclusively consume episodes alone. But Webster pointed out that means 58% listen with others. “What we want out of podcast right now I don’t think is intimacy,” said Webster. “Podcast audiences have changed. We have had six months in quarantine and now in 2020 and the foreseeable future we want connection. And it is providing that connection that is incumbent upon every podcast creator and producer to find ways to connect people.” 


With that connection comes an all-time high for on-demand audio listening. For the first time since Edison’s Share of Ear study began tracking audio consumption in 2014, podcasting’s share of all audio listening is now 6% of consumption.


The Spoken Word Audio Report, which Edison produced with NPR, revealed 26% of audio time now goes to spoken-word content, an eight percent increase from a year ago, with the biggest growth coming from women, 13- to 34-year-olds, African-Americans and Hispanics. It also showed that the reason podcast listeners have increased their time with spoken word audio isn’t just because it can be consumed while doing something else. A majority of podcast listeners surveyed said they were consuming such content because it was seen as a break from the “negativity” of other media. And two-thirds said it makes them feel less lonely. “All of this really paints a picture of people that are looking for more connection and less isolation from all the stress that we’re going through,” said Webster.


The pandemic has given comedy, self-help, religion, spirituality and even gardening podcasts a lift this year, all signs that “we needed some kind of stress relief, we needed an escape,” Webster said.


Just as 9/11 and the Great Recession changed consumer habits, Webster thinks the current crisis will have a lasting effect even after a hoped-for vaccine returns life to pre-pandemic normalcy. “Things are not going to go back the way that they were, history tells us that’s not going to be the case,” he predicted. “Many of the habits that people rely upon during the pandemic are going to be carried with them even as this fades into history.”


That would be good for podcasters. Edison Research has discovered weekly podcast listeners have actually found a half hour of additional time for their podcast consumption during the pandemic. But before that growth data arrived, the route listeners took gave some publishers a bit of indigestion along the way.


“When the quarantine first began, there is no question that podcast listening went down. A lot of people saw some fairly sharp declines in their downloads,” said Webster. “That happened in late March and early April for some fairly obvious reasons. Our commutes went away for the most part and we also lost our me-time.” 


But as Americans adapted to the new lifestyle, podcast listening time actually rose. During second quarter, Edison data shows the typical person spent 6 hours and 45 minutes per week listening to podcasts. That was a 30-minute increase from the first quarter, prior to the pandemic.


Webster said that should not be a surprise considering what his company’s research has consistently shown through the years. “The number one location for podcast listening is actually at home,” he explained. Webster said most people are unable to listen to podcasts while at work, and even though some people do listen while in their car, it is still not as many as who listen at home. 


Edison’s data shows 73% of all audio listening in the second quarter occurred at home, versus 18% in the car – it is normally more than 30% -- and at work had a 7% share. “The pandemic disrupted our lives and our audio consumption enormously,” said Webster.

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