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The Most Shocking Audio Stat of the Year and What it Means

· By , from his I Hear Things newsletter · 7.1 minutes to read

I am not often surprised by data. I’m not saying that because I am bitter and jaded (I mean, I am, but let’s focus here.) No, I’m rarely surprised by a stat because a) I see a lot of other data every day that contextualizes things, and b) the bigger and older a measured thing is, the less likely it is to behave erratically. You are very unlikely to see podcasting double next year. Smartphone penetration isn’t really moving at all now. You get the picture.

Last week, though, Edison Research put out a stat from our Share of Ear® research that got the exact same reaction from every single person in the company: “Wow.” That was literally what I said, full stop. I’ll quote the exact release here:

The Share of Ear study, which requires respondents to keep a detailed daily diary of audio usage, shows that pre-COVID-19, the point in the day when 50% of those in the U.S. age 13+ recorded their first entry of their audio day was around 7:15 am. During Q2 fielding of Share of Ear, it was not until 8:30 am that half of respondents had recorded any audio usage.

You probably haven’t changed what time you wake up in many years, and if you did, it was an individual decision based on a new job, a change in your commute, etc. Not enough to move the needle on a large study like this. But what this study implies is that, at least in terms of when we start listening to audio, COVID-19 caused an entire country to hit the snooze button for 75 minutes.

Seventy-Five Minutes. That’s bananas.

Now, starting our audio day at 8:30 instead of 7:15 doesn’t necessarily mean we are sleeping in later, but I am sure that’s true for many people. I’m not getting any more sleep, I can tell you that, because… [gestures broadly at the outside world.] But one of the many things COVID-19 hath wrought is a drastic reduction in the Great American Commute. On any given day, work can throw you a curveball, kids and family can have their issues, but the commute is ritualized behavior. It’s one of the reasons that AM/FM remains the leading source of audio in the car—it has been expertly designed to serve that ritual.

In April, most of the country (and the world) was shut down, and EVERY form of media had a dramatic consumption shift. Podcasts, AM/FM Radio, even Audiobooks, all went down. “Tiger King” went up (man does that seem a long time ago?) We didn’t just lose our commutes—we lost the gym, we lost our “lunch hour,” and we lost something crucial for listening to many podcasts and audiobooks, Me Time. If you thought quarantine was going to give you more Me Time, you didn’t think through the impact of being a 100%-on-duty spouse, son, daughter, mother, or father, in addition to whatever your job entailed for those of us lucky enough to still be working.

Gradually, however, overall audio consumption has returned to something approaching pre-pandemic levels. We might be starting our audio days 75 minutes later, but COVID didn’t permanently rob us of 75 minutes of audio listening. Comparing Q2 2020 to last year, we are down about 10 minutes per day, not 75. We’ve settled into the this that is whatever this this is. Podcasts are fitting back into our lives.

The press is replete, however, with stories of some notable declines in AM/FM radio. The surface reason is simple enough: we aren’t commuting, and much of radio’s time spent listening is in the car on the way to and from work. Without the commute, that time has gone away. If the commute comes back, so will radio. Or so the prevailing wisdom is. But many people also listened to podcasts while they commuted. April may have upset that applecart, but podcasts are bouncing back and many are right at pre-pandemic levels again, even without a commute.

It’s helpful, I think, to consider all of this not in terms of time robbed. Our commutes were not “taken away;” our commuting time was given back to us. What really changed was what the late Clayton Christensen, one of our most influential thinkers on business and the man who literally wrote the book on disruptive innovation, would call jobs to be done.

Thinking about content, not in terms of environment or context, but the job it is doing has been a part of my media work for two decades, and it is a way of thinking about the needs of an audience that is productive and profitable for podcasters and broadcasters alike. Morning radio is not about a block of time. It’s about what jobs we need it to do in that block of time. A typical morning radio show generally does well because it does those jobs. But today, in July of 2020 and maybe in July of 2021, fewer of us need those jobs. Consider some of them:

Traffic, you’re fired.

Weather, you’re fired.

Entertainment News, you’re on shaky ground.

Sports: You are on probation. Let’s revisit your job in a month. [cues fake crowd noise]

In short, everything we are listening to is doing a job for us. And what COVID-19 did wasn’t just to keep us off the road, it changed many of those jobs. We got new jobs that needed doing. And we gravitated to the sources of entertainment and information that do these new jobs.

See if this isn’t true for you: today, you are eating and shopping at different places than you were in February. For me, here in Boston, my favorite places (Stoddard’s, The Avery Bar,) are gone. The snow globe of my dining habits was shaken up, but those flakes had to settle somewhere. They settled on a handful of new-to-us places that very quickly became habits. If Bizarro-Thanos were to snap his fingers tomorrow and destroy every COVID-19 virus on earth, we are still going to be eating at these new places. They served us well. We won’t forget that. They are doing the jobs that need doing, so we aren’t going to fire them.

Today’s new jobs are being done in some cases by the shows and programming we were already listening to, but in many cases, they are being done by new podcasts, new smart speaker skills, new businesses. And for many of us, those new jobs are being done well—in the words of my great former boss and mentor, Frank Cody, people don’t fire their friends. If 2021 sees the widespread distribution of a vaccine and we can resume “normal” life again, don’t assume everything is going back to the way it was in 2019. I can assure you, it won’t.

My point here, for all of my podcasting and broadcasting friends (and thank you for considering subscribing), is that the best thing you can do, right now, is to consider what are the jobs to be done, right now, and it isn’t just the same jobs but later in the day. How can you do those jobs well? Because that’s how you get your foot in the door in 2020 and keep it in the door in 2021.

I mentioned the podcast Curiosity Daily a few newsletters back. We listen to it every weekday without fail. Yes, it is entertaining and informative, but it started out as a show that did one of these new 2020 jobs that needed doing: what is a thing we can listen to with our newly-at-home-and-requiring-education children? It’s not like I can put my headphones on and go back to The Last Days of August when all of a sudden I have kids here on a weekday. Curiosity Daily stepped in and did the new job I needed. Now we reliably listen to it without the kids. People don’t fire their friends.

We all have new jobs that need to be done. Many of us will have kids home full- or part-time in the fall. Many of us now take lunch with our spouses, not our co-workers. Many of us are cooking more. Many of us are working out at home more. Many of us gave up working out. Many of us gave up. All of these things imply new jobs to be done.

Context is also part of this way of thinking, but only in that it changes the nature of the job. That How-To video you wanted to create for your business might have been a very prosaic, by-the-book explainer because the Job To Be Done was to teach someone email marketing in an environment in which people are in offices and cubicles next to them, and there are always other pairs of eyes on what you are doing. Today? A little creativity might be rewarded because the new Job To Be Done is “teach me email marketing during my Me Time.”

Don’t wait for things to go back to the way they were. Do the jobs we need now. Really think through the reasons why someone would listen to your show, and not someone else’s show. What is the job that needs to be done? Can you do that job?

Right Now?

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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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