Podcasts in Lockdown: The COVID-19 effect

Last week I was asked to contribute to an article by MediaTel about the effects that the Coronavirus and the resulting lockdown was having on the podcasting sector. It's an interesting area that I think is worth a little more exploration.

Many people within the industry predicted a massive spike for podcasting when the UK Lockdown was first announced. The belief was that a combination of increased time at home and a contraction in other forms of content being consumed (such as live sport and certain TV shows) would mean people turned to podcasts in greater numbers. Whilst there has been some evidence of this (as detailed in MediaTel's post) it hasn't had quite the impact that some expected.

Within podcasting, there are, maybe predictable areas of growth. As schools and colleges closed the edutainment genre received a bump and, as always with major events in the news cycle, specialist focused podcasts digging down on COVID-19 are seeing a boost as the audience seeks information and expert views.

Whilst there are certain boom areas of the medium, equating to a global increase of around 7%, other genres are seeing the opposite effect to their listener numbers.

Much of this downturn, I believe, is down to a change of routine rather than appetite. Personally, since I began working from home my listening habits have changed dramatically. The short form, daily podcasts that I once consumed during my commute (largely news format podcasts and a Spanish language show) have almost completely dropped off my radar to be replaced with longer-form shows that I would listen to as part of my "me time". This is a scenario is no doubt repeated up and down the country as normal routines are distorted.

This change has been reflected in digital audio as a whole with Spotify reporting the global streaming numbers of their service dropping by a massive 11.4% and music streaming an even bigger 33% since Feb 7th.

One of the biggest challenges has been for Sports podcasting. Not only do they face a routine change for their listeners but there has also been large scale disruption within the subject matter itself. Sporting fixtures served as a regular reminder to listeners that they should check in on their favourite shows - a powerful social marker that would help drive audiences. Also, with that lack of content, producers have been forced to think creatively about the content they are making. When a show format is based around discussing the week’s sporting news, what do you do when there is no news? It might not be what your regular audience want to hear.

At Sport Social we have faced this exact challenge; Our Podcast title Football Social Daily is a daily Premier League focused show that discusses the day's football news from the English top flight. Because of a lack of content, we took the decision to "downsize" our daily podcast and instead produce 3 podcasts a week. The focus would remain broadly the same; we would still use these to cover off the bigger news stories as and when they happened. But, we are also using them to explore more creative content, ideas, and discussion points that normally we may not have the airtime to consider. In other words, rather than mothballing the podcast until football started again, we adapted to the situation. The results have been interesting. 

Although fewer shows have led to a predictable decrease in weekly reach our "listens per episode" have seen an increase of almost 50% - which proves that the audience is still out there for the right content.

The social situation across the world right now is pretty fluid and podcasts are in a great place to react to that rapidly changing landscape. Where video requires expensive technology, long production processes and people to be in the same location, audio can be done relatively cheaply and with a range of technological solutions (such as Cleanfeed), that can bring guests, hosts and collaborators, together in a virtual space but still maintain a reasonable audio quality. Where other media type may struggle podcasting has the ability to carry on (relatively) as normal - this is a huge strength in the sector.

In the short term, there will be disruption but I think those podcasts who CAN weather the storm will be stronger for it. As is the case across all genres of podcasting, the best shows are those that shine for the WAY topics are treated rather than what the topics are. Those are the types of shows that will adapt best, especially within a Sports environment. Strong hosts, great personalities and creative content delivered now, will no doubt pick up listeners from other shows that have taken a hiatus whilst the situation blows over. This will leave them in a great position when things return to normal and routines kick back in.

Even during the current climate, I expect to see an element of COVID-fatigue in the coming weeks. Right now it's a topic that tops the news agenda but inevitably, interest will inevitably fade, leaving space in people’s podcasting diet for new options and old favourites. 

How this current global situation changes the landscape remains to be seen: will podcasts suitable for communal listens become vogue as families spend more time together? Will download peaks move from Mondays to Fridays as people fill their weekend free-time with fresh content? As with the world view right now there are a lot of unknowns in the podcast ecosystem.

Ultimately, presently we are experiencing a massive change in terms of what podcasts people consume and how they listen to them. I'd imagine that most titles will experience a 20-30% downturn in their audience over the coming months. This also presents an opportunity however and those who continue to produce strong content and regular shows at the times when people are actively seeking new podcasts to fill their ears, and their time, will no doubt see benefits in the long term.