The State of Podcast Listening for 2021: Podcasting Finds a Way

On Thursday, March 11, Edison Research and Triton Digital released the 2021 edition of The Infinite Dial, America’s longest-running study of consumer media habits (you can watch a replay of the webinar and download all of the slides here.) The podcasting community pays very close attention to these numbers every year, and personally I am extremely proud to have been a part of this work from the very beginning of podcasting. I know that these numbers end up in thousands of business plans, presentations, and media kits, and we literally spare no expense in time or treasure to ensure their accuracy and reliability.

The last year has been an odd one from a media consumption standpoint. It started normally, and then within the space of a few days, Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert got sick and the world shut down, though the former did not cause the latter. In our ongoing tracking studies, the Podcast Consumer Tracker and Share of Ear®, we observed rapid declines in all forms of audio listening as many of us a) stopped commuting, and b) watched Tiger King. Podcast listening in particular went down in the early phases of the pandemic. Despite all of our extra time at home (the number one location for podcast listening) many of us were faced with opening up residential offices, daycares, and schools all on the same day, and whatever “me” time we were accustomed to simply vanished. Until we got all of this sorted out, we took the earbuds out of our ears for a bit.

Luckily for the burgeoning podcast industry, that phase didn’t last long. While many of us are still not back to some semblance of our pre-COVID lives, over time we began to reclaim our opportunities for listening. We went for long walks. We played audio on our smart speakers more. We even listened to podcasts with other people. By the autumn of 2020, not only had the declines in podcast listening been reversed, but weekly podcast consumers were listening to podcasts a half hour more per week than they had prior to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

We field the Infinite Dial research in late January every year — well clear of the hullabaloo of the holidays (which, I venture to guess, you spent at home) but early enough in the year to get a true annual benchmark. We spend weeks fielding, checking, weighting, and contextualizing all of the data we collect to produce annual estimates of the podcast listening audience, and it pleases me to say that those annual estimates have played a role in the very development of a “podcast industry” and the economy to support the creators and producers of podcast content, whose creations have kept my ears company for over 15 years.

It is against this backdrop that I would like you to consider the sheer normality of the numbers we published in the Infinite Dial 2021. First, the percentage of Americans 12+ who say they have ever listened to a podcast is now 57%, or approximately 162 million Americans.

That’s enough to be the ninth-largest country on earth, or one person for every dollar Dak Prescott just got from the Dallas Cowboys. Congratulations, podcast industry and Dak Prescott, you’ve made it. We also know from this year’s data that 78% of Americans are at least familiar with the term “podcasting,” which wasn’t an Inevitable Thing when we first published data on podcasting 15 years ago.

More importantly, however, podcasting saw significant gains in both monthly and weekly listening. First, the monthly numbers:

With 41% of the US population 12+ listening to at least one podcast in the last month, the odds are pretty good that the next time you go to a “place” and talk to “other people” (which will be later this year, I trust,) the odds are pretty good that you can talk about podcasts with the people you meet, and not only won’t they look at you funnily, they will likely have a favorite show of their own. At the end of last year, The Daily (from New York Times) was reported to have about 4 million listeners per day, greater than the number of primetime viewers to the most-watched TV news network, FOX News. In fact, NPR’s deduped weekly audience for their news podcasts exceeds 7 million persons per week. The only prime broadcast or cable shows that drew more than that in the last week were 60 Minutes, The Equalizer, and Young Sheldon. Oh, and that Oprah/Royals thing you might have read about.

And this leads me to the percentage of Americans who are weekly consumers of podcasting — these are the people for whom podcasts are truly a habit. And for 2021, we saw a marked uptick in that number:

I see a steady stream of public and client-facing data every week at Edison, and am thus rarely surprised by numbers like these. But let me be the first to admit — the increase from 24% to 28% year-over-year did surprise me, even if only by a point or two. In a year in which absolutely nothing was normal, podcasting grew even more than it had the year before (17% growth, compared to 9% growth in 2020.) The weekly audience for podcasts has nearly doubled since 2017 — not too shabby — and exceeds the percentage of the population who report currently ever using Twitter, TikTok, or Snapchat.

Most significantly, perhaps, the podcast audience has also achieved something else that it did not have in 2006 — diversity. Today, 43% of the monthly podcast audience is non-white, compared to 40% of the US population in general. Much of that is driven by the surge in younger listeners — the population’s diversity is being driven by youth, as 50% of Americans 16 and under are now non-White. When podcasting first started, the audience was 2/3 male and very white, but over the last fifteen years the brilliant work of podcasting’s creators has fashioned content to appeal to every underserved and underrepresented group in America. There truly is a podcast for everyone — and podcasting is for everyone.

We’ve summarized some of the most important numbers in the infographic below, and we will continue to put out new data and analysis on the podcast space as the months of 2021 march on. But I want to close by coming back to where we were last year at this time, and what happened to podcast listening in the early days of the global pandemic. The Infinite Dial reports significant gains in podcast listening for 2021 in a year in which even remaining flat would have been a victory for the medium. We have all restructured our days in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated at the beginning of last year, and even with that — even with many of the “containers” for podcast listening shifting around or even disappearing — it’s worth paraphrasing a quote from one of the most important mathematicians of our time, Dr. Ian Malcom: Podcasting finds a way.

So, dear podcasters, when you look at these numbers in that context, I would suggest that you think about your audience, and think about all of the containers of their lives that have had to shift around in the wackiest year of our lives. I can’t tell you how to feel about all of that, but if I may make a suggestion, it would be this: gratitude.

Photo credit: By Wilson44691 — self-made; Mark A. Wilson[1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3793531

SVP, Edison Research. Co-author of The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer, The Social Habit, and other widely cited studies. Newsletter http://ihearthin.gs

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