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What Has Public Radio Gained From The Podcast Boom? Not As Much As You Hope or Think
In looking at public Podtrac data releases over the past four years, public radio’s major institutions seem to have ended up where they started.
Welcome to Dispatch #43 of The Audio Insurgent.
Sometimes I write about podcasting and audiobooks. Sometimes I write about new audio technology. Sometimes I write about radio, often public radio. Today is a mash up of two: podcasting and public radio.
Today’s topic (and there is only one topic today) came from a Magnificent Noise lunchtime conversation after hearing about the latest layoffs at Spotify. We were wondering out loud if the podcast industry is still growing on the most important measure: unique listeners.
Short answer: yes, it is still growing and monthly downloads continue to grow as well. These two are the markers of foundational good health. The staff were happy to know that this wasn’t the industry’s problem right now and went on with their day. But I then asked myself, “Are public radio’s podcasting efforts growing too?”
And the answer was different than the rest of the industry–and it stuck in my head for days. I’m not sure I have answers, but I have plenty of questions.
[TODAY’S THING: PUBLIC RADIO’S PODCAST AUDIENCE] Podcasting should be a place where public radio thrives.
From the jump, podcasting has proven to be a fertile place for substantive and meaningful conversations…fun conversations…deep conversations…just interesting people talking about interesting things. Both on the local and national level, public radio had spent decades building that muscle. At the same time, since the march towards consolidation began in the late 90s, commercial radio had largely let those skills atrophy. Outside of religious broadcasters and conservative outrage voices, there wasn’t a whole lot of compelling conversation happening in commercial radio anymore.
And after getting its footing–podcasting showed its potential as a place for great storytelling, too. Here again, public radio was ready for that moment.
And for a while, public radio dominated the form, both in consumption and perception.
Despite thousands of new entrants large and small, public radio supplied most of the shows you’d see at the top of the charts and were the first to come to mind for many listeners when discussing the medium. When I left NPR in 2015 to go start Audible Originals, 6 of the top 10 shows in the podcast charts came from public radio organizations (and 4 of those from NPR).
Today, the highest show on the charts from a public radio organization is NPR’s Up First at #10. The next public radio show in the ranking is Fresh Air at #35 and Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me at #37 and nothing else from public radio in the top 50.
But charts are bullshit, right? Actually, that is true.
But, as I mentioned above, you know what isn’t bullshit? Listeners and downloads. Especially when measured by a 3rd party and especially when the data is available publicly.
Every month, a lot of us get a monthly email from Joshua Martin at Podtrac, offering a monthly snapshot of the “Top Podcasts, Publishers and Sales Networks” (you can sign up to receive them at that link). I’ve been receiving them, and collecting the information, since 2018. Recently I decided to dump a bunch of it into a spreadsheet and look at it over time.
What I share below looks at a four year period, starting in April 2019 and running through April 2023 (another update has come up since I started writing this, but the numbers aren’t all that different).
So why use April 2019 as a starting point? Didn’t the “podcast boom” start much earlier? Well, there are a few reasons. The primary being that April 2019 is when Podtrac adjusted their measurements to match IAB standards, so any data they offered up to March 2019 would be using a different measurement standard. And 2019 is just a really good reference point for podcasting. It was before the pandemic. It was the same year that mega acquisitions, partnerships, and investments really took off and seemed to happen every few weeks. It was our “let’s pour gasoline on this fire” moment–and it is good to see what we got out of all that infusion of money, resources, and talent.
As a whole, big podcasting did really well during those four years (with a MAJOR caveat to come later). Among the Top 10 publishers (and though it may present more modestly on this chart), audience grew by 50% from 87 million monthly listeners to 132 million listeners (again, these numbers are just for the Top 10 publishers). During that same period, monthly downloads from the Top 10 publishers doubled, from 552 millions monthly downloads to 1.1 billion monthly downloads.
So what happens when you look at public radio’s top publishers? I pulled out the numbers from the Podtrac data for NPR, APM Studios, WNYC Studios, and PRX… and saw a very different story. Despite the growth seen in that time period by commercial publishers, public radio’s major organizations ended up almost exactly where they started, and by some measures, smaller. It isn’t just that the rest of the industry is growing by leaps and bounds, it’s that public radio really isn’t.
You can take issue with this list and I’d understand that. There are a number of significant public radio institutions that aren’t included (biggies like LAist and leading-the-way smaller shops like New Hampshire Public Radio), but these are the only four that have enough downloads to cause them to appear in the Podtrac Top Publishers charts (and APM floats on and off the bottom of the chart every few months—that makes their chart look odd below, btw). Also, PRX both is and isn’t a public radio organization, but I felt it was worth including because they are so heavily associated with public radio. Despite those small issues, all have these 3rd party numbers and consistently measured over time, so I’m going with it.
The Big Daddy among these organizations is, of course, NPR. NPR is a big publisher by any standard. Despite losing the top publisher position to Wondery and iHeart, it still generates close to twice the monthly downloads of the three other major public radio publishers combined. Yet look at its trajectory over the last four years.
The trend lines are basically flat. There was a bump up during the early part of the pandemic, but both monthly audience and monthly downloads have settled back to where they were in 2019, noting a comparably modest 17% gain in monthly downloads.
And, unfortunately, among the major public radio publishers, this is the good news.
The other three are all down from where they were in 2019.
Here is APM, up 8% on monthly listeners, but down 8% on monthly downloads, despite adding a net increase of 11 new shows during the period.
PRX is down 20% on monthly listeners and basically flat on monthly downloads, despite adding a net increase of 58 new shows during the period.
And WNYC Studios, down 33% on monthly listeners and down 17% on monthly downloads, while also decreasing the number of shows they distribute from 53 shows in 2019 to 34 shows in 2023.
The bottom line from these is that every one of them is trending flat or down at a time when the rest of the top performers in the industry are growing by significant margins.
This leaves me with two simple questions:
First, why aren’t they growing?
If you are the type of person who believes that if you aren’t early… you are late, then you probably equally believe that if you aren’t growing, you are in trouble.
Something I often remind broadcasters and podcasters is that audiences are not monolithic or static. If you have 10,000 listeners in January, and 10,000 listeners again in July, those aren’t the same 10,000 people. Listeners come and go. There are always people who stop listening, people who come back after an absence, or discover you for the first time. If your numbers are flat, you are basically gaining as many people as you lose. That’s a lot of work, running to stay in place. No one should be happy with that.
So if shows aren’t growing, why? And what is the plan to grow them?
Second question, while each of them is flat or down, each organization has also, anecdotally, reported increases in revenue over that time period. Specifics are vague, but each has made statements about revenue growth.
So the question is… where is that money going?
In the case of PRX, because of its business model, most revenue likely goes back to creators.
But what about the other orgs? Is it going back into the organization’s podcast efforts?
It doesn’t seem to be going into very much new programming. We’ll get more into this in the next dispatch, but a major driver for the growth among commercial publishers isn’t new listeners, but new shows (this is the caveat I mentioned earlier). Commercial publishers place a lot of bets and place a lot of new shows out into the world. It has driven a lot of their download growth. In this period, iHeart increased their portfolio of shows by almost 500%, while Wondery more than tripled their number of shows.
The four public radio organizations among the Top Publishers have not offered new programs at anywhere near a similar clip. NPR has netted out largely the same, down from 55 shows to 49 (though this was before the recent show cancellations). APM has added net shows, though their downloads went down. WNYC reduced the number of shows by a net one-third. The exception is PRX, which added several dozen shows, but still came out smaller on audience and downloads.
It’s worth pointing out here that all these are net numbers, meaning some shows ceased production or left the network, while others joined networks or started production. I think it is generally true that a departing show will have more audience than a new show (because, as we all know, every new show starts from zero). So changes in the portfolio can put downward pressure on total audience and downloads. But that doesn’t fully explain this degree of stasis or over this extended period of time.
Could revenue growth be going into other elements of their podcast efforts, such as support staff, operations, better tech, etc? If that is the case, where is the return on that investment?
There is a great likelihood that revenue is being returned to pay into the organizations’ base budgets. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that at all, but if podcasting revenue is that critical to the organization’s operation that you couldn’t make the books work without it, shouldn’t there be deeper investment in it? And if so, shouldn’t there be some evidence that the investment is returning additional value?
Recently I read an interview in Podcast Business Journal with Tom De Napoli of APM Studios talking about their 18 months of growth. That puzzled me given what I was seeing in this data, but if you read carefully, Tom is talking about revenue growth. He mentions doubling their “brand solutions business” year over year. The interview also mentions their new programming over that same period. As I mentioned above, APM Studios added 11 new shows and is rightfully proud of the diversity of hosts and offerings over the past few years. But, frankly put, where are the results? 11 new shows, lots of new voices, but flat audience and fewer downloads over a four year period. Sure, new initiatives take some time to develop, but what’s the roadmap for success here? Is it just a revenue number?
In truth, in public radio, a lot of programming is created at a loss. More financially successful projects make up for losses on other programs that can’t break even.
But should shows live in that perpetual state of having no path to pay for themselves? Even in the nonprofit world, the point isn’t to make profit, but, equally, the point shouldn’t be to continually lose money either. If a project is losing money, is that intentional or just benign neglect or lack of attention and planning?
And since so many in public radio see podcasting as an essential if not existentially-important component of public radio’s future roadmap, is the industry on track? Is this the cadence and approach that will allow public radio a beachhead in this still-emerging medium?
So, I have so many questions on this–and they are questions that probably will never be answered. However, there is a lesson in all this, for everyone, about not only having a podcast strategy for an organization, but having a strategic understanding of the organization itself, clearly articulating how podcasting fits into its public service mission. And that if it is mission-critical, both from a public service and financial perspective, then it should be resourced and protected accordingly, including realistic pathways to grow.
Oh, before we move on, I mentioned that there is a major caveat to that impressive growth over just four years–and said above that it ties to the number of shows produced. It’s a bit complicated to summarize here, but it isn’t what you think. And it actually is more than a little concerning. We’ll cover that in depth next time, probably coming next week.
Okay, that’s it for today. Next time we’ll look at some takeaways from the rest of the entire top network data over the past four years.
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