Podcasts: The New Old Media

Dec 18, 2014

I have a new obsession. Well, not really a new obsession, as much as an old, new obsession. This Thanksgiving I found myself in an unsavory situation: I had to drive from Boston, Massachusetts all the way down to Arlington, Virginia the day before Thanksgiving. By the fourth hour on the road, when I was stuck trying to get through New York City, I had grown tired of music and was beginning to lose it a bit. I did something I haven't done in a while. I put on a podcast.

In the past few years, I ‘ve only listened to one podcast on a regular basis, and, technically, it's a radio show. This American Life has gotten me through some long work days, but I never thought to listen to it during a long commute. Silly, I know. When I popped open the iTunes store on my iPhone while sitting on the Tappan Zee Bridge, and found that there were hundreds and hundreds of podcast options for me to download beyond This American Life, I was both ecstatic and shocked. When did podcasts become mainstream again?

Apparently, over the past few years, podcasts have seen a resurgence in popularity, and I couldn't be more thrilled. Take, for example, the wildly popular podcast, Serial, from the producers of This American Life. According to NPR, every week 1.5 million people are listening to this murder mystery podcast. And that's not all. Last year, Apple announced that it had reached 1 billion podcast subscriptions. With numbers like that, there's no doubt that podcasts are slowly shedding the title of a niche media and gaining traction to become a new, old media behemoth. 

And it's not just older listeners tuning in; listeners as young as 18 are now jumping on the bandwagon. According to Pew Research, "A May 2013 survey found 27% of internet users ages 18 and older download or listen to podcasts, up from 21% three years ago in May 2010 and 7% of internet users in 2006." Pew Research even goes on to note that younger internet users, particularly those ages 18-29 (33%), are more likely to download podcasts. That's right. Digital Natives are leading the podcast charge.

But why the change in media consumption? Podcasts have been around for about a decade. They aren't new, and they haven't changed very much. Sure, there are more topics to choose from, from comedy (my favorite podcast is How Did This Get Made?), to storytelling (The Moth), to good old fashioned history (Backstory). But that can't be it, right? According to The Financial Times, the surge in smartphone users has played a big role in the rise of podcasts. "More than half of US podcast listeners use a smartphone, tablet or portable digital audio player, up from about a third in 2013." It makes sense. After all, Pew Research notes that 58% of American adults own a smartphone-they can't all be using them to just check Facebook or real time traffic. 

It's important to note that while these numbers are big, they aren't stellar, but they are large enough to catch the attention of advertisers looking for a new way to reach a particular audience. As the Financial Times explains, "Advertisers are taking notice, giving rise to companies such as Midroll, which sells commercial space on 150 popular podcasts. Podcasters say advertisers are willing to pay more to reach engaged and loyal audiences." And advertisers aren't the only ones funding popular podcasts-loyal listeners are stepping up as well and donating to keep their favorite shows going. For example, according to The Verge, Gimlet Media, which produces the podcast StartUp, asked listeners to help them reach a $200,000 goal to keep the podcast afloat. They raised the money in an hour. 

What does this all mean for media companies? One word: opportunity. It's always easier to talk about seeking out and seizing new opportunities to reach audiences than to actually do it, but the popularity of podcasts presents a wonderful new way to do just that. Not only do these shows need advertisers and sponsors, they have a listener base that is willing to contribute their own funds in order to get quality content they can rely on. It's almost the perfect storm for content marketing. And if there is one lesson we should all take away from the burgeoning popularity of podcasts, it's the fact that no form of media is ever really dead, especially not when quality content takes the forefront. Now go subscribe to Serial and start listening, I promise you won't be disappointed.