Podcasts: Who, Why, What, and Where?

In the Executive Summary we saw how podcast consumption is growing in a number of countries and how monetisation models are emerging. In this section we explore the demographics in more detail, as well as the most popular types of podcast, the preferred locations for podcast use, and some of the motivations for listening to these episodic audio experiences.

Most Podcast Listeners are Young

The most striking aspect of podcast consumption is the appeal to younger people. In Sweden and the United States, two countries that have embraced podcasts most, we find that over half of under 35s have used a podcast monthly compared with less than a fifth of over 55s.

By contrast, these older listeners are twice as likely to consume traditional radio news as the young, many of whom do not even own a radio. This is the plugged-in smartphone generation and it’s no surprise that the majority of usage is through these connected devices, many of which come pre-installed with podcast apps and now come equipped with high fidelity wireless headphones. In the UK, 55% of listening takes place via smartphone, a figure that rises to 62% for under 35s.

United Kingdom

Which, if any, of the following device(s) do you use to listen to podcasts?
Source: UK YouGov Profiles, nationally representative sample, March 2019. Base = 921.

Where do People Listen to Podcasts?

The majority of podcast usage is at home (64%), commuting on public transport (24%) or via private transport such as the car or bike (20%). Around a fifth (18%) listen when out and about generally (going for a walk or to the shops), with a similar proportion (16%) listening when taking exercise. A further 16% finds the time or opportunity to listen to podcasts at work. Younger groups are slightly more likely to listen on the move, whereas over 45s are twice as likely to listen in the home.


Commuting Time

The average length of podcasts – typically between 20 and 40 minutes – is partly influenced by the time taken on the average commute. This is particularly true for the news industry where the Guardian’s Daily News podcast Today in Focus gets much of its listening during the morning rush hour. Post Reports from the Washington Post is released in time for the evening commute. Americans are much more likely to listen in the car, according to our data, where they spend more time generally, while Europeans are more likely to listen when using public transport. One exception is Denmark where listening to podcasts or music on a bicycle has become a part of daily routines for many.

Why Podcasts?

Across all our countries, the main reasons for listening to podcasts are to keep updated about topics of personal interest (46%) and to learn something new (39%). Other motivations include to fill empty time (25%) and as a change from music (22%). But these reasons do not play out equally across age groups. Older listeners are more interested in keeping updated whereas the young are looking for podcasts that entertain them or fill empty time.

Looking specifically at the UK we also can see important differences between the younger age groups: 18–24s – which we have previously referred to as Gen Z – are less likely to be looking to learn or be updated, and more likely to be looking for entertainment or a change from music; 25–34s, or Gen Y, are also looking to be entertained, but want to fill empty time with content that is educational and keeps them updated.

Further insights on motivation came from our in-depth interviews with young people, supporting this year’s research. The first relates to the convenience. Podcasts are great for multitasking but they also don’t require complex interfaces:

I think it’s a bit more passive … You’re able to multitask. Like, I can cook and listen to a podcast, for example.

Sam, 25-30, US

In this sense podcasts bring information to listeners in a way that is effortless, but the linear nature is a welcome break from the usual distractions of digital media. On the other hand, they maintain the element of control and choice that is second nature to millennials and digital natives, but that traditional radio lacks:

[With] radio you can’t control what shows are on, whereas podcasts you can.
Mark, 31–35, US

Then there is the content itself, which young people feel is often more diverse, more entertaining, and less stuffy than traditional radio. The characters and hosts often bring a more informal style and they tell stories in a more natural and less affected way.

[Podcasts are] more of an outsider source of news or opinion, so you have a diverse range of news ideas and thoughts from vastly different people; not your traditional people who look and act a certain way.

Chloe, 31–35, UK

What Podcasts?

Given the insights above, it is worth noting that politics and news (15%) is just one part of the content universe. Other popular genres include lifestyle content (15%), true crime (15%), specialist interest (14%), and sports (9%). But many podcasts defy classification with news often discussed in new ways through comedy and celebrity. Young people are listening to podcasts that entertain and inform. This is why many daily podcasts like The Daily from the New York Times use narrative storytelling techniques pioneered in true crime formats such as Serial to add suspense and jeopardy, to keep listeners hooked. Vice and others are applying these techniques to blockbuster documentaries (e.g. Chapo, Kingpin on Trial).

In this chapter we have seen how podcasts carry many of the same benefits as radio – such as multitasking and ease of use – but they have characteristics of their own which are enhancing audio storytelling and engaging new groups.

In the home, the flexibility and control offered by podcasts is supplementing and in some cases replacing traditional radio, but podcasting is also taking audio to new locations where there is no easy access to radio. Audio rich smartphones enable audio to compete with newspapers, apps, and websites on public transport for the first time and it makes routine tasks like walking the dog or exercising in the gym less boring and more productive.

Critically, podcasts are bringing fresh voices and production techniques to a medium that has changed little in a generation. Low barriers to entry, combined with high levels of creativity, are shaking the foundations of the radio industry.

For publishers many questions remain, not least the overlap with traditional news, the influence of platforms, and the questions of monetisation. The platform picture is changing fast with Spotify and Google joining Apple in a race for the best content. Business models are still emerging but the evidence in this chapter about the underlying drivers of this change suggest we are a long way from reaching ‘peak podcast’.