The Biggest Problem with Podcasting is…


Everyone’s abuzz about podcasting!

Well, kind of.

Maybe not everyone.

You’ve probably seen the 2016 stats: According to Edison, 21% of Americans ages 12 and up have listened to a podcast in the past month.

That’s followed by this spin on trends: “That is up from 17% in 2015. Monthly podcast listenership has increased 75% since 2013.”

Everyone deserves a high-five, right? Those numbers are huge!

But wait a minute.

I think folks in the audio space are missing the bigger story: Only 21% of us have listened to even one podcast in the past month.

Consider that there are 47 million Netflix subscribers in the US. And since one “subscriber” usually equates to a family of viewers, there are probably at least 100 million Netflix consumers nationwide. HBO likewise has about 50 million subscribers in the US, again suggesting an audience of at least 100 million US consumers. That’s at least 31% of the US population – each. And while “podcasting” is an entire category, Netflix and HBO are only two platforms within a much larger category.

Meanwhile while 21% of us have listened to a podcast in the past month, more than 85% of us watch TV and more than 90% listen to the radio – and not just to one show in 30 days!

This argument is not intended to diminish the importance or growth trajectory of podcasting. It is important and it is growing.

Rather, I’m suggesting that the podcasting world should stop slapping itself on its back and ask the bigger question: Why are we still so small?

You can blame technology, of course, and the speed-bumps associated with discovery and usage. Those are real. But if you want to talk about speed-bumps let’s talk about the $10 per month an HBO or Netflix subscription costs. It seems to me that $120 per year is a bigger speed bump than what most of podcasting faces.

I think there’s a bigger problem, and that problem persists despite an ocean of podcasts – and hundreds of new ones coming online every day.

The problem is not that there isn’t enough choice or even enough discovery. The problem is the absence of a hit.

You know what makes the speed-bumps of HBO or Netflix vanish? The fact that there’s only one way to watch Westworld or Orange is the New Black. And that way is to buy a subscription. In other words, where there’s a strong enough will, there’s a way.

The problem isn’t that we lack instructional videos on “how to listen to podcasts.” The problem isn’t simply to make the tech less techy or discovery easier. The problem is to make a hit that’s must-hear and can be heard only here.

What makes people subscribe to HBO or Netflix? Their hits. Their exclusive hits.

What makes people buy a song? A hit worth listening to, over and over.

What makes people visit the movie theater? A hit that’s must-see and can’t be found on VOD.

Now this is important: The newer the category, the more important is the hit.

That is, when a category is new, the category doesn’t create the hit, the hit creates the category.

What accounts for the modest jump in podcast usage over the past year? Most likely the hubbub surrounding the Serial podcast, a bonafide hit. And by “hit” I mean something that’s bigger than the category that gave birth to it and drives interest and tune-in to the category.

Too many podcasters are obsessed with cross-promoting their podcasts so as to leverage each other’s audiences to benefit our own. That’s a way of looking at the world which assumes the pie will never grow so we had better fight harder for the biggest slice of the pie we have.

And that’s silly.

The problem with podcasts is all the folks who ignore them.

And if you really want to grow the category and solve this problem, you need to aim well beyond the limits of the category itself.

You need to make a hit.

* = required field
  • Rob @ podcast411

    Serial the “Hit” was listened to by less than 5% of people that have ever listened to podcasts. Compare that to Mash or Seinfeld – that were watched by over 50% of US TV viewing population at some point (Mash Finale was watched by 77% of the population with TV’s in the US). To your point of a hit. Serial is hardly a “hit” compared to other mediums.

  • That’s interesting, Rob.

    But note my definition of “hit”: “And by “hit” I mean something that’s bigger than the category that gave birth to it and drives interest and tune-in to the category.” I think Serial absolutely did that.
    That said, a “hit” also has to achieve scale to really be a hit. So I take it what you’re arguing is that there are, in fact, ZERO hits in the category, right?

  • Rob @ podcast411

    Podcasting made Serial – Serial did NOT make podcasting. With out podcasting Serial could never have happened. What Serial did was offer good content that’s primary psychographic was newspaper reporters – and hence you have a resurgence in Press coverage. But actually podcast consumption did not spike – just like it did not flounder before serial. Podcast consumption has steadily been growing year after year. You give too much credit to Serial. Again really what it was responsible for was extra Media coverage. Which is good. But if you you look through history – you will also see every year since 2007 – someone has claimed a podcasting resurgence is under way.

  • Well I have to disagree, Rob.

    From this Google Trend chart alone you can see that the spike in interest in “Serial Podcast” is absolutely timed with a marginal but real increase in interest for the topic of “Podcast” overall. And previously interest in “Podcast” was stable for years.


    Based on the Edison data that increase can be considered a spike in my book. But none of this addresses the point of my piece: That consumption is still thin and that’s the problem facing podcasting.

    You seem to be focused on whether or not Serial was a “hit.” I will acknowledge it’s no “Game of Thrones,” but it did bring fresh attention to the category and has, I think, contributed to interest in it among both publishers and, more importantly, advertisers.

    As for the annual chorus that podcasting is undergoing a resurgence, I was never in that chorus.

  • Rob @ podcast411

    Except the data you point to is flawed. I am looking at Raw data of actual downloads from libsyn – the number one podcast host. Libsyn will deliver over 25% of all iTunes downloads this year (no one else will even be over 10%) As such it is very valid numbers – unlike survey’s that are well survey’s I am looking at hard cold numbers – and the real numbers for downloads – and there has been growth every quarter – every year. You are looking at hype numbers from Edison and Google Trends – I am looking at consumption numbers.
    What brought attention to advertisers was many years of hard work by many different companies – educating media buyers and doing many different test ad buys. Like many you are giving Serial too much credit and seem to be caught in the hype of Serial. iOS 8 being native on iPhones did more – much more for podcasting.
    Serial was a very good show – but it did not make Podcasting or bring Advertising to Podcasting. Advertising has been in podcasting for a long time. And it too has been growing steadily year over year.
    Per your problem of consumption being thin. I would say it is steadily growing and has grown every year. Podcasting is long form content – and it has been and will continue to be a long term project for growth. There is no Hockey stick moment coming for podcasting consumption – unless you count the hockey stick moment back in June 2005 – when Apple first supported Podcasts in iTunes.

  • Rob, you and I just disagree on this. Without growing INTEREST there will be no growth of consequence in CONSUMPTION. And to suggest that there will be no hockey stick is to settle for the status quo. To suggest that radio can get 90% of all ears but podcasting never will is unnecessarily narrow in my view and does an injustice to the audio space.
    While you deliver 25% of all downloads that leaves 75% beyond your measurement. Who knows what’s going on there?
    This is not about Serial. It’s about hits. And consumers. And interest. And the motivation to tune-in.

  • Rob @ podcast411

    I agree with you that better content is always desired and having more “hits” is a good thing. But I disagree with your whole notion there is a problem with podcasting. What you see as a problem – the slow growth – I see as a strength. Podcasting is not a fad – it had not had any “Down” periods. It has steadily grown – and steadily picked up listeners very committed to podcasts. There is no bubble and definitely no hockey stick coming. It will continue to be steady growth – with periods of intense media coverage which will get confused as a major growth in podcasting. Dismissing the “Hockey Stick” is not about settling for status quo – it is about understanding the space and the medium and knowing that it is a long form medium. Those that want the Hockey stick in growth for the most part are new to the space and want to cash out quickly. They are the ones that get frustrated when that does not happen. Podcasting is all about the long game.

  • Yes, you and I disagree Rob. I see level of podcast usage as low relative to other media consumption. When I read that 79% of Americans have not listened even to ONE podcast in the 30 days, I consider that a lost opportunity. I see media brands blow up all the time in music, video, radio, games, etc. And I know that the difference between the long tail and the short head is the “hit.” And the “hit” is what makes growth happen. Podcasting is audio and there’s no reason audio can’t strike a chord with the masses as it does in music and radio. Your final points are directed towards podcasters in particular, not the category overall. I’m talking about the category. 21% is low. That’s my point. And we should view it as an opportunity not a slow and steady success.
    I’m not sure why you’re taking issue with this. Growth in the category is good for the category, good for the folks in it, and good for you and your company.
    The “problem” I refer to is an opportunity. Maybe you’re hung up on the word “problem.” If so, my apologies.

  • Agreed! It’s time to jump in the adult pool together 🙂

  • rarely are the comments as interesting as the article, but in this case I really enjoyed these viewpoints.

    Personally I view Rob as the undisputed king of stats as he has direct access to 25% of all downloads…that is significant.

    Mark, great article and you valiantly defended your points…well done!

    Agreeing to disagree is healthy, and much to the point of the article…we don’t all need to agree or ‘co mingle’ our opinions/shows, there is a whole world out there.

  • John, thanks for the comments. I believe you’re in San Diego, too, right? Let’s have lunch!

  • MNeeley7

    An aspect of your argument that I believe is being missed, Mark, is that television has been around for coming on 100 years. Podcasts are still a relatively new medium, and given time, I imagine they, too, will reach those higher numbers. However, as Rob stated, it is the long game.

    WTF with Marc Maron brought on President Obama at 2 million downloads for that episode alone. Did that count as a “hit” and contribute to the world of podcasting? Perhaps. Yet, I believe that the biggest thing missing in podcasting is awareness.

    As a podcast host myself, I still find that when I tell people what I do, they often respond with “What’s a podcast?” And it is that awareness that is growing – slowly, but surely.

  • “Podcast” has always been a crappy name. And the insistence of the podcasting community to isolate themselves inside a silo called “Podcasts” doesn’t help either. Actually, there’s nothing new about the podcasting medium because that medium is audio entertainment and information and that is even older than TV 🙂
    Maron’s ep with Obama was a “hit” for sure. But interviews with Obama are not unique (except in the podcast world), so this wasn’t the hit it could have been even with all those downloads.
    Awareness is only a problem because podcasters are trying to make people aware of “podcasts” and all the rigmarole one has to go through to consume them. Ask people if they’re aware of audio entertainment or audio information. They will be. They often call that radio. But it’s bigger than that today. Just ask Spotify or Sirius XM… 🙂

  • Rob @ podcast411

    There is NO issue with the name “Podcast” – that “issue” was put to bed back in 2007 – http://podcast411.libsyn.com/a-podcast-by-any-other-name-is-still-a- Apple, Microsoft and Google ALL call them Podcasts – game over – it is the name.

  • Rob you are confusing industry acceptance with consumer acceptance. I’m talking about communication not industry standards.
    Mark Ramsey

  • Rob @ podcast411

    Any debate about the name is crazy. The biggest companies in the world support the name. Read the article I wrote in 2007 – it is as true today as then. The Name is Podcast – and the NAME DOES NOT hurt the medium. More consumers know the name today then not. Throwing stones at the name is silly.

  • I’m not debating the name I’m simply describing it as bad. And that’s why people en masse still ask “what is a podcast?” I’m not suggesting it be “changed” I’m simply saying that it’s clunky and is a roadblock to mass acceptance. And it always has been.
    Mark Ramsey

  • Rob @ podcast411

    The name is not bad – actually it was perfect at the time of podcasts launch. But even if it was bad – bad names do not hamper a product – look at the iPad. The name Podcast is not hampering Podcasting at all. That is just people wanting a hockey stick growth from a medium of long form content speaking. This is a slow and steady growth medium by nature.

  • Or maybe we just settle for low expectations and strategize accordingly
    Mark Ramsey

  • Rob @ podcast411

    Or we stop trying to fight windmills and blame the name “Podcast” for issues. If you think the name is holding back the space – then you really are looking in the wrong place to make increases.

  • I didn’t say that. But I sure don’t understand why you are so defensive about it. Or why you choose to have the discussion in a blog thread.
    Mark Ramsey

  • Rob @ podcast411

    Yes you did say that – you said quote I’m simply saying that it’s clunky and is a roadblock to mass acceptance. And it always has been. unquote. You also said quote Podcast” has always been a crappy name. And the insistence of the podcasting community to isolate themselves inside a silo called “Podcasts” doesn’t help either. unquote. If you can’t see why I would take objections to your comments you really do not get this community at all.

  • Very strange. I write a piece about how there’s a ton of upside in the category and you argue that there isn’t. I argue that there should be broader usage by now and you respond that there shouldn’t. I suggest that when so many folks ask “what’s a podcast” that means the label doesn’t communicate and you say that’s wrong. You talk about a community of podcasters and I’m more interested in a community of audio listeners. I think we are on different planets and if you want to bring those planets closer you should put down the keyboard and pick up the phone. 8584856372.
    Mark Ramsey

Dive Into The Blog