Each year, Edison Research produces the longest-running study of consumer media usage and behaviors in America, the Infinite Dial report. Since 1998, Infinite Dial has covered a wide range of topics, from streaming audio to social media, using the most rigorous sampling methodologies to ensure that the study produces nationally representative estimates that are projectable to the entire US population.
In 2006, Edison added podcasting to Infinite Dial, and has tracked it every year since, becoming the industry standard for sizing and characterizing the audience for podcasts. And every year the percentage of Americans who have listened to a podcast in the last month, or in the last week, has grown — until this year. The period of time comprising 2020 through 2022 will forever be marked by the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic lockdowns that changed so many of our media habits for a time. On March 23, we released the latest iteration of our work, the Infinite Dial 2022 from Edison Research, Wondery, and ART19, and the media patterns we report there clearly show that for at least some segment of the population, we started to return to offices and schools at the end of 2021 after more than a year at home.
Certainly, that transition is still happening for some, but for a significant part of the population, the flexibility we once had to consume media at home was at least partially curtailed by a return to commuting to work. If we compare the percentage of American workers (ages 18+) who primarily worked outside the home in our 2021 data to our most recent report, we see at least five percent did indeed shift their primary place of work:
Now, this is five percent of the 56% of Americans who work at least part-time. What this does not show is the percentage of children who also went back to school after a year of remote education. It’s not difficult to imagine that, in total, the percentage of Americans 12+ who dramatically changed their media consumption habits from the end of 2020 to the end of 2021 exceeds ten percent of the population.
This, then, is the backdrop for our annual look at the audience for podcasts. There is certainly good news and more growth ahead for the medium, but this must also be tempered by a realization that the 2021 Infinite Dial numbers may have enjoyed a temporary boost due to the significant increase in at-home work and school — after all, listening in the home is by far the number one location for podcast consumption, and we spent a lot of time at home a year ago.
First, some good news: podcasting as a term is more familiar than ever, as the word continues to penetrate the consciousness of America:
As I often remind people, this doesn’t mean that 79% of the population knows exactly what a podcast is — there is certainly a great deal of confusion out there among the Americans who have heard the term, but have yet to listen to a podcast. Fortunately for the medium, that percentage continues to shrink — and this year, we can report a significant increase in the percentage of Americans 12+ who have at least tried a podcast at some point in their lives:
That’s 177 million Americans 12+ — by comparison, that is roughly the number of Americans that used Facebook last year, according to Infinite Dial projections. So, the encouraging news here is that there is at least more sampling of podcasts happening, which leads to a greater chance that new listeners will, in fact, find that perfect show for them.
Much of that trial happened as we were spending more time with media, especially in early 2021. By the end of 2021, however, those patterns had changed — and in particular with the segment of the population who listens to podcasts, a segment that definitely indexes higher for information work, higher education, and other activities that primarily shifted to the home during pandemic-related lockdowns.
With podcast listeners in particular, we see some of that in our related research study, the Podcast Consumer Tracking report. This quarterly report, which surveys a large sample of weekly podcast listeners, clearly shows that anywhere from five to seven percent of that group switched away from their desktops/laptops to their mobile phones, and away from at-home listening to the car (where there is proportionately less listening time available):
If you look at the differences between Q1 2021 and Q4 2022, you can clearly see that at least some portion of the podcast listening audience did indeed dramatically change what their “average day” looks like, and that had an effect on the media that they consume. In our other quarterly research service, Share of Ear, we see that play out in the percentage of total audio time Americans 13+ devoted to podcasting last year, compared to now:
All of this serves as context, and corroboration, for what Infinite Dial 2022 reports for the total monthly podcasting audience today:
If 2020 through 2022 were “normal” years, one might more easily jump to the conclusion that podcasting is no longer growing, or worse, shrinking. But in the context of millions of Americans returning to offices and schools, it is more likely that the 2021 numbers were artificially inflated by a surfeit of “home time” that is now normalizing. What I would point to instead is the fact that the monthly number is up from 2020 (a number collected in January of that year, one of the last “normal” months before lockdowns) and that the overall trend line continues to rise.
The impact of lockdowns on the population, it turns out, was unevenly distributed. Certainly, by gender, both men and women were equally affected by the pandemic, and that holds true for monthly podcast listeners as well:
The same cannot be said for age, however. Without question, while the youngest Americans were the least likely to get sick from COVID-19, nevertheless they were the most significantly impacted by the pandemic in terms of work and school. For those under 21, most saw schools and colleges shuttered in favor of remote learning. Yet another cohort, performing job functions that were easily displaceable to remote work, spent nearly two years in front of laptop cameras instead of at the office. And finally, it has to be said, the youngest part of the workforce were also more likely to be unemployed as a result of the economic consequences of COVID-19.
When you factor all of that into media consumption, it is easy to understand why the 12–34 demographic saw the most significant impact in podcast listening:
Again, note that all of these numbers are up or at least flat over 2020, so the trend line is not necessarily worrying. And the 35–54 demographic, long the “wheelhouse” for podcast consumption, actually grew significantly from 39% to 43%. But we can now see the bump in 12–34 listening from 2020 to 2021 as at least partially pandemic-influenced, and those numbers have now settled.
One of the brightest stories in podcasting over the last several years has been the increasing diversity of the podcasting audience. When podcasting first started attracting a measurable audience in the mid 2000s, listeners were primarily white and male. The gender disparity is slowly approaching that of the US population over time (currently, 48% male and 51% female), though we aren’t quite there yet:
It is the race/ethnicity of the podcast audience that is the real story, however. Currently, podcast listeners are at least as diverse as the US population:
Someone coming into the space today might take that for granted; however, it wasn’t that long ago that the audience was mostly white:
This is a great story for the medium, and with the resources being made available to podcasters who serve Black and Latino audiences, and the commitment to creating more diverse content among the largest producers in the medium, it is not hard to imagine the podcast audience becoming more diverse than the US population in just a few years.
One final point to make about the current state of podcast listening — and this relates directly to the Share of Ear data cited above. First, let’s take a look at the weekly audience for podcasting in Infinite Dial 2022:
These data track very well with the monthly figures, and show the exact same forces at work: a dip from pandemic-influenced listening, but growth over 2020 and a positive trend line. One of the questions we ask weekly podcast consumers is how many podcast episodes they listen to in an average week (the number of individual shows and other more specific data is available in our Podcast Consumer Tracking report). This year, as it was the previous year, that number is eight:
We thought it would be interesting, in light of the demographic data presented above, to also look at this statistic by age:
Two things should immediately jump out: first, while 12–34 listeners do consume a lot of podcasts in a given week, they are much less likely to be in that 11 or more category than ages 35–54, which remains the strongest demographic in podcasting. And second, how significantly lower that number is with listeners ages 55 and older. Both of these numbers are reflective of an opportunity the podcast industry has to do better — to create more content specifically designed for tweens, teens, and younger Americans than it currently does, and also to do the work to understand the content needs, wants, and desires of older Americans — and it isn’t podcasts about retirement funds. The buying power of this demographic is currently unparalleled in American history as medical science prolongs our lives — and the effective time in the workforce of persons 55 and older.
Going forward, we don’t forecast or predict what the size of the podcast audience will be in Infinite Dial 2023. But it will only keep growing if the entire industry makes a concerted effort to tell the story of podcasting to all Americans, and makes a commitment to understand underserved audiences of all ages, genders, races, and backgrounds to create content for them that only podcasting can deliver.
In other words, back to work.