Brad Hill: Tom Webster is senior vice president of Edison Research. He’s been with Edison for nearly eight years. He has keynoted at conferences around the world. The Infinite Dial is Edison’s flagship consumer research in the audio field cited worldwide across all media coverage of online audio. If there is something to be known about consumer audio choices, habits and trends, Tom knows it. He offers a newsletter called I Hear Things, which distills his knowledge as an audio researcher and extends his measurement work into enterprise wisdom for podcast creators at all levels. It’s a great pleasure to speak with Tom today and a privilege to have him inaugurate the Podcast Business Lunch series. Thank you, Tom, and welcome.
Tom Webster: Thanks, Brad. It’s a lot of pressure to be the inaugural speaker! I’m afraid I’m going to set a horrible warning and not an example.
Brad Hill: That’s impossible! I’m thrilled to have you.
Edison has been doing the Infinite Dial consumer survey since 1998, and the podcasting trend lines go back to 2006, I think. Do you have a number one finding in that 15-year history of podcast year over year comparisons?
Tom Webster: That’s been kind of funny, Brad, it’s been a very linear, steady growth slope for podcasting. It never really took off in the way that online video did, but it never stopped either. It just kept kind of chugging along bits at a time. I’m rarely surprised by things because we have so many data instruments out in the field at all times.
But one kind of counterintuitive finding was a couple of years ago when the number of podcasts that weekly podcast consumers listen to dropped. And I think if you weren’t a number savvy person, you might look at that as some kind of warning sign. And it wasn’t a warning sign at all! There were so many new listeners, and they were casual listeners, and they were coming in through kind non-traditional ways at the time. Platforms for podcasting like Spotify, like YouTube which years ago were not really part of the parlance of the podcasting universe. And these were just lots and lots of new people coming in, listening to a couple of shows a week or one show a week.
To me, when that number of weekly podcasts dropped, I took it as a healthy sign that podcasting was coming kind of out of its shell — of only satisfying a core group of people — to having secondary and tertiary listeners. And that is really the sign of a healthy medium. So when that happened, I think some people looked at it and were a little stunned by it, or shocked, or asking questions. It all looked normal to me. And so I think it didn’t necessarily surprise me, but it was an unusual thing to see. And we dug into it.
Brad Hill: Mm hmm. I remember that. It was startling and I remember you addressing it at the Infinite Dial presentation that year. Speaking of number one findings: In the U.S., Latino podcast listenership last year grew 44 percent. I bring this up because that was your number one finding in 2021. (You do a number one finding every year.) I’m not asking for a prediction of a key 2022 metric, but what are you most looking forward to finding out in 2022?
Tom Webster: Well, I’m not a forecaster — that’s something I’ve resisted constantly in my career, so I’m not going to predict whether or not podcasting grows, or how much it grows. I think that interferes with my job — my job is to describe the present as best I can. What I’m really curious about, though, is the relative popularity of the various genres and topics of podcasts. This is something that I do write about from time to time.
I mean, right now, if you look at the top genres in podcasting, Comedy is number one in our Podcast Consumer Tracker. But you have things like True Crime that are very, very high. And we’ve had a weird couple of years, right? You know, COVID 19 disruptions. That’s what it is at this point. And I think that’s impacted what genres are popular, and what genres aren’t popular. But I wonder — is True Crime really the catnip of this medium or not?
One of the things I like to look at: What are the most popular movies, what are the most popular TV shows? They don’t look anything like the most popular podcasts. On one hand you can look at that and say, that’s because podcasting is its own weird and wonderful snowflake. And it is. But on the other, you can also look at it and say, maybe there’s even more potential for podcasting to reach mainstream Americans who have yet to really find their show. And really, that’s all it takes. I think for people to embrace the medium is just to find their show.
Brad Hill: Yeah, I have watched with amazement as the true crime category deepens and deepens, and seems to continually verify the decision to produce Serial, which arguably launched the modern era of podcasting. And when it comes to comedy, I have a bone to pick here with how comedy is characterized, because shows which are not funny and do not particularly try to be funny, but are hosted by comedians like Marc Maron, for example, or DAX Shepard — they’re very popular. But they’re really just interviews shows, and there doesn’t seem to be a chat category or an interview category which could break up that comedy stronghold a bit. What do you think?
Tom Webster: I think there’s something to that, Brad. In some ways, when we are tracking those things in our podcast consumer tracker data, we’re matching the podcast that people name to the Apple API to match the category for that. And so we’re limited by that. And we’re not making those judgment calls — it’s actually the producer of the podcast that’s entering it in, comedy or whatever. Certainly you can listen to Armchair Expert, you can listen to WTF with Marc Maron. You can listen to Joe Rogan. And on any given day, they’re not very funny. And I they could probably slot into current affairs, politics, sometimes alternative health and wellness. I don’t know where you would put some of that stuff. We are sort of limited by that category designation that people do use — and again, that the producers use.
But I think ultimately, humor is important in a lot of the genres that are out there … and a lightness, I think. That I think is certainly relevant to where we’ve been the last couple of years. And I think podcasting has become an escape for a lot of people.
One of the things that I like to talk about in terms of the media related disruptions of COVID 19 — what really kind of went away in the early days of the pandemic was “me time.” You know, we don’t have to go to the office anymore, or at least we didn’t — I’m still not in the office. But the thought that we would have lots of spare time was not true. There’s all of this stuff to do at home. Many of us were home schooling children. And so, what went away for a large stretch of the pandemic was, you know, “me time.” I think for a lot of people podcasting started as primarily an educational vehicle. I think listening to podcasts in the early days primarily to learn new things became very much an escapist vehicle for people over the past couple of years. So, you know, while I think comedy does get overstated, it ain’t nothing. And having a good laugh is something we could all welcome right now.
Brad Hill: Yeah, I do recognize that [the categories] are self-selected by the producers.
Infinite dial measures three podcasts listening levels. First, whether the respondent has ever listened to a podcast. Second, monthly listening or having listened to a podcast at least in the past month. And third, weekly listening. To me those engagement levels represent “Unengaged” for the never listeners; “Dabbling” perhaps for the monthly; and “Habituated” for the weekly. Is that a sensible way to look at it? And which of those three charts interests you the most?
Tom Webster: I think that is a sensible way to look at it, I mean, if you are in the kind of “Evers” and are not a monthly or weekly listener, then the system has failed you somehow. The one thing I can tell you is with over four million podcasts listed in the podcast index, there’s a podcast for you out there and the system has failed you. There is the ratio that I like to look at, from weekly to monthly to “Evers.” You know, they are almost twice as many “Evers” as there are “Weeklies.” Is that a ratio that can improve? I think it can. As people discover podcasts more, and discover the right show for them. But I do think that’s a that’s a fair way to look at it and ultimately, I like to look at the weekly podcast consumers, because those are the people that haven’t just found a show – because many of the most popular podcasts are not ongoing every single week. They are, you know, miniseries, they’re short series, they’re limited engagements. But when you do make time for podcasts every single week, then I think you’re really habituated to the media, as you say. So I do like to look at that. That’s why we base our podcast consumer tracker research on weekly listeners. I think when you when you are a weekly listener, it’s a part of your life. It’s not just “I happen to find a random show.” That’s where we like to start our analysis.
Brad Hill: In your international consumer studies, a picture of podcasting around the world comes into focus. Different regions organize around podcasting at different times and at different rates and in different ways. Looking at it all, is there an international podcast trend or interesting metric that stands out for you?
Tom Webster: Certainly, you have to look at how much content is being generated in the native language of that country. And there are stories out there that are only just now beginning to be told. I think there’s an enormous surge of podcasts in Brazil, for instance. There are lots of people doing podcasts about football.
I think the rate-limiting factor for podcasting continues to be the cost of data and the availability of ubiquitous cheap wireless broadband. That’s the rate limiting factor that we have seen country-to-country, for example. In Canada, we’ve done infinite dial research for the last four or five years, and podcasting and streaming audio both took a significant step up when the data plans in that country got a bit more sensible. You know, four or five years ago, the per capita cost as a percentage of income that mobile broadband was in Canada, I think, among the five highest in the world. It was enormously expensive and that was a real brake on the growth of all forms of digital audio. That brake has been largely removed, and you’ve seen the demand catch up. We see high demand in many of the infinite dial countries that we’ve researched — Australia, Canada, and some other countries where, you know, mobile broadband is either not quite as developed or it’s more expensive. The last time we looked at Germany, for instance, you do see the usage a little bit lower, but I think there’s pent up demand there, and I think there’s demand that is only going to get greater as more and more content is produced in the native language of those countries.
Brad Hill: Let’s swing over to podcasts and smart speakers. From your viewpoint of what is, and what could be, is podcast listening on smart speakers at a good level?
Tom Webster: Well, at a good level — I’m not going to cast a value judgment here. I will say that podcasting underperforms on smart speakers compared to how it does on smartphones. I mean, the smartphone has really been the driver of podcast consumption globally. And you could look at this one of two ways.
- You could look at this as an opportunity. Perhaps it’s not as easy to listen to podcasts on smart speakers. It is very difficult to look at an evergreen back catalogue of podcasts. That’s very hard to do on a smart speaker that doesn’t have a screen.
- But I think you also have to look at the modality that people are in when they’re listening to a podcast, versus when they are using their smart speaker. Most people already have a perfectly good way to listen to podcasts. So you can say that podcasting punches below its weight on a smart speaker — a failing. Or you could just say that we haven’t really been given a better reason to do something different. Really, we can listen to podcasts just fine on our smartphones. We’re used to doing that.
As a fan of the medium, I’m not interested in relitigating that, and trying to get another behavior tacked on to there. But there’s no question that podcasting is more difficult [on smart speakers]. I think podcast listening is more difficult without a screen for going back and searching for exactly the right show. And some of that also has to do, I think, with voice search. If you look at the what we call podcasts, even a show like The Daily — in our Podcast Consumer Tracker research it is the #2 most widely listened-to podcast in America, right? Enormous reach, second only to Rogan, but it takes some sort of special accommodation by a voice search engine for you to ask a smart speaker: “Play The Daily.” and for it to know what you’re talking about! It’s a fairly generic term, right? So I don’t know that we will ever see podcasts consumption on smart speakers equal to the smartphone. I’m not sure it’s meant to be. I think we know how to listen to podcasts and we’re fine listening to them wherever that is.
Brad Hill: Indeed. And I noticed in the Smart Audio Report, co-produced by Edison Research and NPR, that the word “podcast,” doesn’t appear in the report at all.
Tom Webster: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely something that we track, we have years and years of research going back on it. And I think really, we’re looking at more holistic usage of these devices in things like the Smart Audio Report. And people do tend to use them for more utilitarian purposes. We noted two things in the Smart Audio Report. The longer you’ve had these devices in your home, the more important they are to you in terms of something you don’t want to be without. But the longer you’ve had them in your home, the fewer things you do with them. And I think this is a bit of a conundrum for people working in voice technology, in that we have grown accustomed to them as utilities to do some very simple things that help us out. But we’re not necessarily interested in going deeper than, “Set a timer for me.” “Tell me when my laundry is done.” And, you know, “Play the radio for me” or Play a streaming service for me.” So I think that’s an innovation challenge for people that are in voice technology … because mostly what we want is something that helps us when our hands are full. It’s a very utilitarian device.
Brad Hill: That’s a good way to put it. It’s fair to say, Tom, that in your keynotes and newsletters, you bang on YouTube’s drum. Or to put it differently, you bang on podcasters to get on YouTube. Explain why, please? And also, is it working? Have podcasters thanked you for that advice?
Tom Webster: Podcasters rarely thank me. I’m like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down for podcasting sometimes.
Here’s why I think it’s important. Number one, we know from our research, beyond a shadow of a doubt, YouTube is an incredibly important channel for trial. Now, it may not be how you regularly consume podcasts. But when you ask people, “How do you ever listen to podcasts?” And they can choose multiple selections here — YouTube has been first for quite some time now. And it’s the place where you might encounter something now. Maybe later on, you’ll listen to it on a dedicated podcast client or some other channel .. but you find stuff on YouTube.
And what’s important here is that YouTube is a possible solution to one of the most common problems we hear about from podcasters. The medium is discovery, and I’m not sure that podcasting as an entire medium has a discovery problem, but your podcast has a discovery problem. It can be really hard to get your podcast out there. And yet we have this incredible search engine for content, possibly the best search engine for content — one that is universally available to people and does not require an account, does not require a premium subscription.
If I tell you to find something and I want you to find a particular show, I don’t know if you have a particular podcast client. I don’t know if you have a Spotify account or a Pandora account, but I know you can find it on YouTube — and that’s what’s important to me. And I think for most podcasters. It’s mostly not working right. It’s mostly not working because what works best on YouTube are things that are made for YouTube. It’s video. It’s bespoke for the channel. But I think YouTube gives you the possibility to showcase your content in a way that people can find — if you commit to that channel for that purpose.
There are a couple of ways that people are thinking about it now, but I think the answer is the third way. I think the two ways that people are thinking about it now is: “Let’s just dump my podcast on YouTube” I’m not sure that works great. I think that works fine. If you’re somebody like Pod Save America and you are actually having video of Jon Favreau talking and you know, there’s a thing to watch. But if you just dump your podcast on YouTube, I’m not sure that works great and you can get punished by YouTube’s algorithm if you’re not engaging people.
And the other way to think about it is, a place to put up a trailer. Well, I think people are interested in trailers if they already know they’re interested in a podcast, if they’re already looking for a thing. But YouTube is an incredible way to suggest content for people, and coming up with a “third thing,” a thing in and unto itself. It’s not a tease like a trailer is, but it’s something that pays off — beginning, middle and end, right there and says, “Look, this is an interesting little bit of content.” Maybe you can get more by subscribing to the podcast, but thanks for watching us on YouTube. Here it is. It’s a little piece of content. It’s not a trailer. It’s not a tease. It’s not dumping the whole thing on. That’s the thing that’s made to showcase the quality of your content, in and of itself. And I think as people begin to commit to the channel more than just a dumping ground for existing content. I think they’ll see that it actually is one of the potential solutions to podcasting’s “discovery problem.”
Brad Hill: Those are great suggestions. I’m going to quote from a recent newsletter of yours. You said “n-demand music shows are the last, best frontier for podcasting. When this happens, everything will change.” I think you’re referring to the legal riskiness or outright illegality of putting music (that has not been cleared for use in podcasting) into a podcast. I agree that on-demand music shows could be eruptive for the industry. My question is, will it ever happen?
Tom Webster: As my real estate agent said, “With money, you can do anything.” And I think it will. I think it is happening on Spotify to some extent. It’s not easy to do. It’s not the quality of a listening experience that a radio show is, but it’s getting there. You can use licensed music in a music show on Spotify, and that’s–
Brad Hill: And you did. I don’t know whether viewers know that.
Tom Webster: I did Brad, thanks for bringing that up. I did a show called Deep Six for a while as an experiment to see how that would work out. And it was unsatisfying to me. I didn’t enjoy it. I couldn’t produce good segues. I couldn’t keep a flow to the station.
Brad Hill: I Did the same thing, and the segue issue was a problem for me as well.
Tom Webster: Yeah. And I think people underestimate the segue. It’s easy to underestimate how propulsive that can be in providing forward momentum for listeners. So I think the experience isn’t there yet. And to some extent, that’s a technical challenge more than it is a licensing challenge. But you’re seeing the door open a crack. And once the door opens a crack, the genie does not go back in the bottle.
Brad Hill: Tom, this is going to be a complicated question. In Share of Ear (the Edison Research study of time spent listening to all forms of audio in the U.S.), podcasts enjoy a six percent share [of time spent listening]. Streaming audio has an 18 percent share. Now, when I look at the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, streaming music revenues in the U.S. totaled about $10 billion in 2020 for that 18 percent share. Podcasting is reaching for $1 billion in revenue, even though they have about a third of the share that streaming music does. So, it’s a revenue disparity. And I know from the RIAA reporting it’s due to streaming music subscriptions, which dump so much revenue into platforms like Spotify. So, let’s talk about podcast subscriptions. Several big networks jumped into the Apple product when it launched. In your opinion, was that a box that needed to be checked, or is there really compelling consumer value in paying for podcasts?
Tom Webster: I think it’s a part of the puzzle. The thing that I’ve always maintained about podcasting is that it’s going to thrive if there are multiple streams of revenue and multiple ways to make money. So, are subscriptions important? Yes, they are.
I think it’s important not to compare podcasting with streaming audio in that sense. Because if you subscribe to Spotify or Apple Music or Amazon Music, you are subscribing to “all of the things.” You know what I mean? You’re not paying ten dollars a month for the Dua Lipa subscription. Because podcasts are largely available for free, and we have gotten used to that. But in some way we are used to paying for music.
But podcasting is healthy when there are multiple streams of revenue, and I think it’s important for people to have the option for a subscription revenue. Direct response revenue has been the driver of the medium for so many years. But if I were going to point to why podcasting, revenue-wise punches below its weight. Frankly, in the audio sphere, [revenue growth is] just more and more brand advertising. And I think that’s coming as brand advertisers are getting more comfortable with the medium and are starting to find ways to demonstrate the efficacy of brand advertising in podcasting. Those are the dollars that I think will start to flow in, and make up that difference.
Brad Hill: Tom, I have a final question for you. And it’s a scenario. A beginning podcaster knocks on your door. You, being you, invite them in, and serve them coffee. They ask what single thing – or maybe three things – should they do to become a sustaining podcaster? A sustainable podcaster. What would you tell them?
Tom Webster: Well, the first thing I would tell them is: Know who you’re for. And to me, this is the question that so many podcasters really fail, because you’ll get trapped in one of two ways. You will either say, “I think it’s for everyone,” which is a recipe for nobody [listening]. Or you’ll get trapped into an interest area, like: “Well, it’s a podcast for people that are interested in X.” There’s a million things for people that are interested in X!
Knowing who you’re for, is knowing more than that. It’s knowing a level deeper about the audience that you actually want to reach. It isn’t everyone. And it isn’t people interested in needlepoint. It’s some – I don’t know — wacky version of people who are interested in needlepoint. And your podcast is doing a thing for them that either challenges, or entertains, or provides expertise — but ultimately that you’re proud of. So that would be the first thing I would say.
Second thing I would say is: Master your craft. Master your craft and we can all get better. I am not a great podcaster, Brad, but I’m a better podcaster today than I was five years ago, or than I was 10 years ago. I’m trying to master my craft. Right? I’m trying to get better at things, and not just sort opening the mic and rambling I. I really try not to do that! I do a podcast every other week for my newsletter, “I Hear Things,” and I write the whole thing out. I spend a lot of time writing it out, so I don’t have to spend so much time on editing because I’ve done that in the beginning of it, right?
And then I think the third thing I would suggest is: Don’t be afraid to tear it up and do something else. Se hear a lot about podfading. I absolutely hate pod fading. I’m going to give you some shows that have podfaded. Seinfeld. Cheers. Right? They all podfaded. Don’t be afraid of pod fading if it’s not working. Scrap it. Do something else. Don’t be afraid to tear it up. And that whole stigma of podfading is a ridiculous thing that gets applied only to podcasting, and not to every other medium. The difference between podcasting and television — one of many, but the salient one — is that in television, somebody else cancels you. But in podcasting, nobody cancels you. You can keep doing a crap show forever if you want to. But if you learn something new, don’t be afraid to scrap it. I’m a big fan of: If you’re starting out, putting those first five, or 10 podcasts under the bed. Think about them for a while and then decide if they are really what you want to release.
It’s really difficult to make it in podcasting. Don’t do it for the money. It’s the wrong reason to do it. It’s a trailing variable. It’s very, very hard to make a living in podcasting.
Brad Hill: And on that note of trailing variables, I thank you, Tom, for being our inaugural guest in the Rain Podcast Business Lunch. It’s a delight to talk to you as always. I hope to see you some year soon, in person. And in the meantime, be well.
Tom Webster: Thank you, Brad. A real privilege and an honor. It’s great to talk to you again. Thank you.
The Podcast Business Lunch is a weekly series of conversation webinars with leaders of the podcast industry, hosted by Brad Hill, and a RAIN News production. Go to www.rainnews.com/pbl for information and free registration to upcoming shows.