podcasting mass medium

Has Podcasting Become a Mass Medium?

A decade ago, one year before the launch of Serial, you could be forgiven for thinking podcasting was destined to be another casualty along what we used to call the “information superhighway.”  Monthly podcast listening had stalled at 12% among Americans aged 12+ in the Edison Research Infinite Dial – down 2 points from 2012.

Fast forward to 2023. The latest Infinite Dial pegs monthly podcast listening at 42%. That’s a 350% increase in just 10 years.

Does that make podcasts a “mass medium”? The numbers are certainly pointing in that direction.

Podcasts are emerging as a must-have complement to radio and TV.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the just-released The Medium Moves the Message: A Comparative Assessment of Advertising from Broadcast to Podcast from Sounds Profitable. As a partner in this study, we at Signal Hill Insights were privileged to have a front row seat in this first-ever comparison of the effect of AM/FM radio, linear television, and podcasts.

One of the headline findings from this online survey of 2,000+ Americans is that podcasting’s weekly reach among 18-34-year-olds is now getting very close to that of AM/FM radio and network/cable TV. One-half (50%) of 18-34 Americans reported listening to podcasts in the past week, just behind the weekly reach of linear TV at 54% and within 10 points of AM/FM at 59%. At least when it comes to the numbers, it’s safe to say that any medium that reaches a full half of an advertisers’ valued demographic qualifies as a mass medium.

As users of AM/FM and especially TV get older, podcasts offer brands the ability to maintain reach in key demographics. Adding weekly podcast listeners to a TV buy opens the opportunity to reach an additional 15% of all 25-54-year-olds who would never see the campaign because they just don’t watch television. With a radio buy, podcasts add 12% of 25-54 Americans who aren’t listening to AM/FM.    

Podcasts bring on-demand audiences feasting on ad-free media within reach of advertisers.

Where are the TV and radio audiences who are now listening to podcasts but not TV or radio? Many are now consuming ad-free TV and music streaming. The emerging ‘mass media’ is made up of much narrower, niche content that is nevertheless delivered at scale, and, importantly, on-demand.

Podcasting, as an on-demand medium, fits squarely within this trend, except that its audience is available to advertisers. By attracting Americans who hand pick their favorite spoken word shows and listen to them on their own schedule, podcasting naturally pulls in other on-demand media audiences who are otherwise consuming paid ad-free content.

Past week listeners to podcasts – particularly heavy listeners to podcasts – are far more likely than the average American to currently consume ad-free media content. More than eight-in-ten (83%) heavy podcast listeners said they watched ad-free TV streaming in the past week and more than seven of every ten (73%) reported listening to a paid ad-free music streaming service.

While collectively joining the ranks of other mass media, podcasts individually remain a niche medium.

Taken as a whole, podcasts are building a mass audience. Yet it’s one that is largely built on the niche appeal of individual podcasts.

We saw confirmation of this in the Podcast Engagement Study we conducted in the Fall of 2022 in partnership with Pacific Content. The Canadian listeners we surveyed expressed a clear preference for podcasts that speak directly to their personal interests over podcasts that ‘are popular with a lot of other people.’

This personalized nature of podcasts offers brands a targetability advantage over traditional mass media, while still offering ever-growing scale.  It also creates an opportunity to leverage the deep connections listeners form with their favourite podcasts.

The Medium Moves the Message study shows how this listener loyalty can work to the benefit of advertisers. Six-in-ten (60%) past week podcast listeners said they go out of their way to support brands that support their favorite podcast(s), well above the comparable measures for favorite TV or radio shows.

With the niche appeal of individual podcasts packaged inside a fast-growing mass audience, podcasting doesn’t fit with the way we’ve historically talked about the term ‘mass media.’ But the reality of ‘mass media’ has changed dramatically in the decade since Serial, and podcasting has converged with it.

Other media, like linear TV and especially AM/FM Radio, still deliver bigger overall reach, even though as The Medium Moves the Message demonstrates, podcasting is an increasingly important addition to any TV or radio buy, especially in key advertiser demographics.

It’s not a stretch to see that podcasting will change how advertisers define ‘mass media’ another decade down the line, if not sooner.

Signal Hill Insights specializes in custom research solutions for publishers, broadcasters and advertisers. To know more about how our Brand Lift Studies or  our other research can help you, connect with us.

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