Podcasts, Podcats and the Pandemic

Written by Georgie Koch


Noun (informal) 

A person who is very fond of podcasts or who listens to podcasts on a regular basis.

My name is Georgie and I am a ‘podcat’. The beyond cheesy term was coined by Michael Capson on the radio program Good Morning Dude, circa 2007 (which coincidentally is around the time I got into podcasts). Capson’s program came to my attention via my all-time favourite podcast The High Low, which no longer exists #RIP. I am a podcat and with over 15.6 million listeners in the UK and 144 million in the US alone, there are clearly many more out there.

The last thing you want to read is another article about how the year has been ‘unprecedented’ but when it comes to audio content and its consumption, 2020 really was just that, unprecedented (I promise that will be the last time I write that word here). Podcasts are not a sudden invention – they have been around since the 1980s but really began to gain traction in 2004, coinciding with the birth of the iPod and Apple Podcasts. For a long time, Apple was the driving force behind the rise in podcast popularity and it felt like it was the only major player in the space in terms of both the priority and investment given to podcasts.

For ten years, podcasts steadily grew in popularity with more publishers creating content and more people adopting the iPod then the iPhone to listen to podcasts. In late 2014, ‘Serial’ was released. This true-crime podcast is still heralded as being the best podcast of all time and ushered in the ‘golden age of podcasting’. From then on, the popularity of podcast listening enjoyed year on year growth until Covid-19 hit.

With commutes virtually off the table and peoples’ regular routines grossly altered, the first few weeks of lockdown had many questioning audiences’ new listening habits, advertising revenues and ultimately, the fate of podcasts. But as we know, 2020 was an unprecedented unusual time. Despite fears and a brief dip in consumption early on in March 2020, podcast consumption exploded.

In April 2020, A Cast (one of the world’s biggest podcast content providers) reported record breaking weekend listens in late March. In the same month, Voxnest reported that global podcast consumption had grown by 42%. Devices also saw a shift, as people adapted to working from home, podcast listenership grew on smart speakers.

It is not just listenership that is increasing but the content and medium itself – major platforms like Amazon and Spotify are throwing astronomical sums of money at podcasts and creators. In 2020,  Spotify alone reported having more than 1 million podcasts available in their end of Q1 report, and almost double that number – 1.9 million – in the same report six months later at the end of Q3.

The ease and cost with which creators can create and release a podcast is significant compared to other mediums we consume, namely visual. I use the term ‘creators’ loosely, as literally any man and their (not literally) dog can put together a podcast so long as they have a phone and an internet connection. The cost factor is not limited to creators and unlike visual content that consumers pay to watch on streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime, often podcast platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts can be used for free. And when brands start jumping into the mix to create their own content, you know it has gone way past mainstream.

But why the rapid rise over the past year in particular? I do not think it will come as a surprise to anyone that when I polled my friends and fellow podcats (*shudder*) the leading answer was all about screen time. In a work from home world, you might start your day with a YouTube workout before getting to your desk where you spend half, or more, of your working day on Zoom video calls. You might FaceTime a friend or family member during your lunch. If you are lucky, you’ll be past the whole Zoom quiz/virtual pub/escape room/cooking class phase and skip straight to Netflix after work. Screen, screen, and more screen mean podcasts are a welcome respite. Even though it is still a digital form of content, listening to a podcast feels distinctly analogue by comparison in that you have mostly no physical connection with or awareness of your device. Having grown up in the 90s, turning on a podcast while I cook or do house admin reminds me of how my mum would switch on the radio while she was doing the same. Evidently, this is common with over half of podcast audiences multitasking – namely doing housework, baking or driving – while listening.

What are they listening to during said multi-tasking? It varies and to be honest, none of it surprises me. Early in the pandemic, A Cast reported an increase on comedy podcasts for people seeking much-needed respite from the doom and gloom. Soon after, daily news podcasts saw a boost. European listeners jumped on the personal fitness and well-being bandwagon while arts, design and music podcasts saw an increase in the US. Globally, we have seen growth in educational, upskill and hobby-related content. People might be stuck at home, but they are using their time well. The sheer volume of podcasts out there means there is almost certainly a podcast for everyone, whether you are after a motivational podcast to start your day, a productivity podcast to soundtrack your 9-5 or a cooking podcast to help you whip up dinner. There are even podcasts about podcasts.

Screen and spare time aside, most of my UK-based friends agreed that podcasts have become somewhat of a stand-in for regular social interaction. Conversational shows like The High Low, Shameless and The Receipts have done a great job as a substitute for hanging out with your girlfriends or chatting to co-workers while making tea in the office kitchen. Unsurprisingly, my friends in Australia or the US, where lockdowns have not been as restrictive, didn’t quite feel the same.

With restrictions beginning to ease in the UK and certain aspects of life returning to normal, it will be interesting to see how people’s listening habits evolve or regress – or whether the increasing trend of podcasters adding video elements will increase engagement or turn people off for the analogue-esque reason they became a podcast fan in the first place. With Spotify snagging exclusives from some of the world’s most renowned names in podcasting like Joe Rogan and The Obamas, will they become the new monopoly, or will it create more innovation and competition in this space? Whatever happens, and as much as I love my podcast friends, I cannot wait to be able to swap the latest episode of Table Manners for a real-life meal with my real-life friends.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay. Image licence found here. No changes have been made to this image.

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