Nic Newman is research associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and lead author of the Digital News Report, based on the world’s largest ongoing survey on news consumption.
Audio is attracting new renewed interest from publishers as mobile listening grows and on-demand technology in the car disrupts linear radio listening.
At home, voice-activated speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are creating new opportunities to distribute linear podcasts as well as create new audio products.
In terms of consumption, a third of respondents to the Digital News Report (34 per cent) across 22 countries listen to a news-related podcast at least monthly but there are significant country differences.
In Asian countries like South Korea (58 per cent) and Taiwan (55 per cent), strong smartphone penetration together with high levels of social sharing have helped podcasts grow rapidly.
In the United States, which has produced much of the innovation in terms of formats (Serial, S-Town) and business models (sponsorship and targeted advertising), a third (33 per cent) say they have accessed a news podcast in the last month.
Surprisingly, podcasts seem to be least accessed in North European countries with a strong audio tradition such as Finland (24 per cent), Germany (22 per cent), the UK (18 per cent), and the Netherlands (18 per cent).
This may be because popular public broadcasters have little incentive to undermine their linear radio listening by producing or promoting podcasts. On the other hand, there may also be problems of definition, with the term podcast not equally understood across countries.
In the UK, for example, much listening comes via the popular BBC iPlayer radio app, but on-demand streams and downloads accessed this way are not labelled specifically as podcasts and may not be understood as such in surveys such as ours.
Podcasts are a good way of reaching younger audiences
The most striking demographic trend is the extent to which young people have embraced podcasts. The chart below compares the proportion of each age group that uses podcasts at least monthly with those that listen to radio news at least weekly.
This is a slightly unfair comparison given that monthly radio listening will be somewhat higher than the chart suggests. Even so, just under half of under 35s are using news-related podcasts, which is almost certainly far more of this group than listen to traditional radio news.
Which podcasts are most popular?
Through open-ended survey responses we have also been able to look in some detail at which podcasts are accessed in different countries.
The US podcast scene is vibrant and varied. Over 500 different podcasts were mentioned by respondents, ranging from political talk shows like Ben Shapiro and Rush Limbaugh, adapted public radio shows like This American Life and Freakonomics, and digital-born shows like Pod Save America, a progressive podcast run by four former aides to Barack Obama, Every Little Thing from Gimlet media, and Guys We F**ked, a podcast about sex from comics Krystyna Hutchinson and Corinne Fisher.
In the UK, respondents referenced almost 100 different BBC programmes. Successful US podcasts were also widely consumed, while UK newspaper publishers like the Guardian, The Times and the Telegraph feature in the list, with podcasts ranging from politics to sport, and health.
New political podcasts consumed include one from Brexiteer and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – known as the Moggcast.
Following the release of iTunes analytics in December 2017, early data suggest that most podcasts are listened to for at least 90 per cent of their duration, giving the lie to the view that young people have minimal attention spans.
With advertising spend on podcasts in the United States rising to $220m, they could offer a significant commercial opportunity for publishers as well as a route to attracting hard-to-reach millennials.
Podcasts a platform for free speech in some countries
In addition to the 22 countries shown above, we also asked about podcasts in Turkey. Here we find more than two-thirds of our urban sample using podcasts monthly, partly as a result of improving connectivity and ubiquitous smartphone use amongst the urban population.
Improving English-language fluency is a key motivation for using podcasts in Turkey, but the medium also provides an alternative platform for free journalism.
Many of the top Turkish-language podcasts are critical of the government, with three outlets in particular, Acik Radyo, Ünsal Ünlü, and Medyascope, providing news and debate in this context. One of them is a radio channel, and the other two broadcast through Twitter’s Periscope platform. The output is also then reversioned for podcast.
Ünsal Ünlü runs one of the most popular podcasts in Turkey, regularly reaching around 45,000 people with broadcasts across all digital platforms. His podcast subscribers alone have more than doubled in the last year.
Implications for publishers
Podcasts are both a threat and an opportunity for existing broadcasters. They enable new audiences to be reached beyond national boundaries – and on new devices – but the low barriers to entry have also opened up competition to a vast array of new entrants, including both newspapers and digital-born brands.
The New York Times has found success with its Daily Podcast, a 20-minute audio briefing, which has been downloaded more than 100m times.
Other newspaper brands are also showing interest, while the BBC has appointed its first commissioning editor of podcasts to take its output to the next stage.
In many (European) countries podcasts are also challenging the relatively neutral tone of radio broadcasting by injecting both stronger opinions and a greater variety of views.
In less free societies they also offer a relatively open platform for democratic debate that is, in theory at least, a bit harder to shut down.
Critically, the demographics of podcasting are explosive. The younger generation is embracing content at a time and in a format that works for them – a trend that looks unlikely to be reversed any time soon.
More details of the 2018 Digital News Report can be found here. In a spotlight talk at newsrewired on 11 July, Nic will reveal details of the latest Reuters Institute research on podcast usage in 22 countries. Find out more about the event here.
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