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How Big is Podcasting's 'Independent' Audience?

· By , from his I Hear Things newsletter · 4 minutes to read

At some point next year, the newly-formed Podcast Academy is going to hand out its first awards for various categories. While I am sure there will be recognition for independent podcasts, I doubt the list of winners will look anything like the annual slate for the People’s Choice Podcast Awards, which has been honoring indies since 2005.

I’ve been thinking a lot about independent podcasters lately. I’ve never thought that podcasting has a discovery problem. Your show might have a marketing problem. But when indy podcasters worry about the larger networks occupying their airspace, those concerns aren’t unfounded. There is a part of me that could just download the new Wondery app, or NPR One, and be just fine with whatever they serve up and nothing else. Some parts of the podcasting audience are certainly like that. But I’ve been listening to podcasts for over 15 years now, back when pretty much the entire space was “indies,” and they remain an important part of my listening.

A few months ago, we put out the above graph at Edison Research.

Here’s what I wrote about it:

One of the reasons we started the Podcast Consumer Tracker here at Edison Research was to answer some of the most common questions media buyers and agencies have about buying podcast advertising. While in its early days podcasting was not considered a “reach” medium, today with the growing size of the leading podcast networks, efficient buys at scale are now increasingly possible.

We took a look at the cumulative data from Q4 of 2019 (we are just about to deliver Q1 2020 to clients) to get a sense of the unduplicated cumulative reach of the leading podcast networks. The top network in our tracking study currently reaches 22% of all weekly podcast consumers (which, according to the Infinite Dial 2020, is currently 24% of the population ages 12+.) When you add the second leading network into a hypothetical buy, and eliminate the duplicated listeners, leaving only the new, unique listeners of the second-leading network, a media buyer can then reach 31% of weekly podcast consumers.

Our research shows that 50% reach of weekly podcast consumers can be achieved through buying the top five podcast networks. Achieving that kind of reach 10 years ago would have meant buying thousands of individual podcasts, but as these reach numbers continue to change, buying podcasts at scale is more feasible than ever.

A number of prominent industry folks took some exception to this, as I recall. For some, it made them queasy to think that this once fiercely independent space had been rolled up so neatly into a handful of companies. Others questioned the math, believing that since the vast majority of podcasts are independent, that there was simply no way buying five companies would get you access to half the audience.

On that last bit, I think we are pretty good at math, thank you very much. But on the first concern, it’s important to remember that an audience isn’t exclusive to anyone. That 50% who listen to those five networks also listen to other podcasts, including independents, and the fact that it is now easier for brand advertisers to buy scale in podcasting doesn’t invalidate the other ways podcasts can make money. It just gives the medium another way to make money and more is more gooder.

Still, it got me wondering just how big the “independent” audience really is, which it turns out is a stat that our Podcast Consumer Tracker is uniquely qualified to measure. When we looked at the percentage of weekly podcast consumers who listened to at least one “independent” podcast in the last week, we arrived at a figure of 49%. That means that over 33 million people listened to an indy last week, if you do the math from our Infinite Dial estimate. A couple of caveats about that number: first, it is best on the best available information we have (there may be underlying relationships between some shows that aren’t public) and second, Joe Rogan is technically “independent.” Still, 49% is an interesting number. I don’t know if it is an encouraging number or a discouraging number, to be honest. We have nothing else to compare it to, and the methodology that enables this calculation was only developed last year, so there is no historical data for reference.

But it is a number that I’m going to keep an eye on a few times a year to see if it is going up or going down, and I’ll share it with you regularly. If the size of the podcasting audience is growing rapidly enough, small decreases in that percentage won’t bother me much. But regardless of how you view 49%, one thing is certainly true: 51% of the weekly podcasting audience doesn’t listen to any indy shows. That’s nearly 35 million people who know what a podcast is, have a weekly habit of listening to podcasts, but have not made independent shows a part of their media diet. Finding ways to get your show in front of those people is the actual low-hanging fruit of audience growth.

Back in the mid-2000s, I got hooked on This Week in Tech, Geek News Central, Coverville, Grammar Girl, Manager Tools, and others. I still listen to some of those shows, but it is admittedly hard to find the time for more. But, I’m always listening. Is there an indy podcast that has captured your attention recently?

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The above is adapted with permission from Tom Webster’s newsletter, I Hear Things. Subscribe here, and get the whole thing, free, every week.

Tom Webster is Senior Vice President at Edison Research, and is co-author of a number of widely cited studies including The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer and The Podcast Consumer Tracker. He lives in Boston MA, USA.

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