Podcasts for the People: the Growing Variety of Podcast Content

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Every year when we dig into the findings from the latest Canadian Podcast Listener study we see some fascinating changes in how people are listening to podcasts.

This year, in our 4th annual study, we couldn’t help noticing  how different the most popular podcasts are from what we saw in our first study back in 2017.

As we’ve done in past years, The Canadian Podcast Listener 2020 asked monthly listeners to name up to 10 podcasts they have listened to—not just downloaded—in the past month. This makes it the only study to track the most popular podcasts since 2017.

The podcast landscape has always looked a little like a magazine rack—there’s something there for everyone—but, going back to our 2017 study, the most prominently displayed titles were coming from the public radio space, with a high-brow tilt. Sure, listeners with a passion for knitting, fly-fishing or other special interests might find what they were looking for if they searched (way at the back on the bottom shelf), but for the potential new listener scanning the podcast rack, it might not have looked like there was anything there for them.

This year’s top 10 podcasts are a clear indication of what kind of shifts are taking place.

Half the podcasts from Canadian Podcast Listener 2017 still make the top 10, but the other half (Serial, Freakonomics, and three CBC podcasts) have been supplanted by Call Her Daddy, My Favorite Murder, The Daily, and two comedy interview shows. The top 10 is looking less like the newsstand in the university library and a more like the lineup at a Starbucks—in other words, a little more like the typical Canadian. 

How does this shake out among podcast listeners in general?

Most notably, the gender balance is shifting. In our 2017 study, men accounted for 57% of monthly podcast listeners. With this year’s study, we see a nearly even gender split (52% men / 48% women).  

And this is reflected in the most popular podcasts in this year’s study, with The Michelle Obama Podcast, Call Her Daddy and Office Ladies joining My Favorite Murder among the growing number of top-performing podcasts hosted by women.

Interestingly, even though more women are listening to podcasts and the top 10 podcasts now lean a little more mainstream, the Canadian podcast audience looks much the same as it did in 2017. It continues to skew towards the young, affluent and well-educated.

Podcasts built on star power and conversation are also proving popular. Just as celebrities have long been a staple of checkout counter magazine racks, big media stars are now a bigger presence in the podcasting space. Oprah and Conan O’Brien are among the many who have joined the fray in the past couple of years, bringing their fans with them and inviting their famous friends to tell their stories.  Among the 63% of Canadian podcast listeners who say they have a favourite podcast host, two-thirds were familiar with that host before listening to their podcast. This also helps to bring new advertisers into podcasting; as we see in our brand lift studies, the popularity of these hosts means their host-read ads are golden.

Conversation-based podcasts are nothing new, but they seem to be growing in popularity. The Joe Rogan Experience has been around since 2009, and has ranked as our #1 podcast for three years running. Other podcasters are finding success with a similar no-filter conversational format. We particularly see this in Quebec. Mike Ward Sous Écoute, where Mike has extended conversations with popular Quebec entertainers, is the most-listened-to podcast in French Canada. In fact, most of this year’s top 10 French-Canadian podcasts are cut from the same cloth and, like Joe Rogan, they upload their episodes to YouTube as well as make them available for download on podcast apps.

Meanwhile, public radio-style podcasts continue to build audience as podcast listening keeps growing. This year’s study was in field in October, coinciding with the lead-up to the US presidential election and the start of the second wave of COVID-19, so it was no big surprise that public radio-style news pods like the New York Times’ The Daily and CBC’s Front Burner ranked among the most popular podcasts . But this doesn’t tell the full story.  As more people are listening to podcasts, the total audience reach for shows from CBC and Radio-Canada has grown in each of the past two years, even while some CBC podcasts have been crowded out of the top 10 by new arrivals.  

More variety is a good thing for podcasts. As more and more people come to view podcasts as a place where tastes and views vary as much as the magazine rack, podcasting will continue to bring in new (and diverse) listeners. The more there is a podcast for everyone, the more likely that everyone will find the podcast that’s right for them.

The Canadian Podcast Listener 2020 surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,618 monthly podcast listeners in late September and early October using the Maru Voice Canada online survey panel. The study is published in partnership with Jeff Ulster of Ulster Media, with support from The Podcast Exchange (TPX). More details and a free summary report are available at canadianpodcastlistener.ca.