Episode Summary

Everyone seems to have a podcast nowadays, actors, athletes, comedians, and even politicians. You clearly like them since you’re here right now, and thank you for that. But what do other people think about podcasts? Well, the Pew Research Center just came out with new report about podcasts and how people are listening and watching them.

So joining us to talk about that today is Elisa Shearer. She is a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, and she’s worked there for eight years and she’s the lead author of this new study that they’ve come out with.

In order to keep Theory of Change sustainable, the full audio, video, and transcript for this episode are available to subscribers only. The deep conversations we bring you about politics, religion, technology, and media take great time and care to produce. Your subscriptions make Theory of Change possible and we’re very grateful for your help.

Please join today to get full access with Patreon or Substack.

If you’re not able to support financially, please help us by subscribing and/or leaving a nice review on Apple Podcasts. Doing this helps other people find Theory of Change and our great guests. You can also subscribe to the show on YouTube.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Elisa.

ELISA SHEARER: Yeah, thanks for having me, Matthew.

SHEFFIELD: You guys put a lot of time into this report here. So let’s maybe just start with sort of the key overall points here. Podcasting, it’s been growing as a medium, but it’s not, it’s still not as popular as radio, but tell me, what’s your first top line, if you will?

SHEARER: Sure. We’ve been studying podcast consumption for a while through our State of the News Media report, just doing kind of top line consumption, tracking that data. And we’ve seen a big increase at least since about 2006. “Serial” came out in 2014. You kind of see the increase start to go forward since then.

What we found in our survey, and we wanted to survey Americans opinions about the podcasts that they’re hearing, why they turn to podcasts, something a little bit beyond just the industry tracking data. We found that about half of Americans, 49 percent, say that they’ve listened to a podcast in the past year.

And also Americans are turning to podcasts for a variety of different reasons including entertainment, but also learning. And the third most common reason people say is simply having something to listen to while they’re doing something else.

SHEFFIELD: And did you guys specifically ask what other things they were doing when they were doing something else?

SHEARER: We didn’t ask specifically if they were doing chores or commuting. No, we didn’t ask that specifically. (laughs)

SHEFFIELD: It is kind of an interesting thing that podcasts do have in common with radio though, because radio, when you look at the trends typically, the place where people are listening to radio is in their car. In other words, doing something else while they are listening to that.

SHEARER: Yeah. And a lot of the digital media and non-digital media that we’ve studied has a lot to do with reading, right? So print and news websites seem like a very different type of news platform, but they’re still taking all of your, or at least most of your attention, at least your visual attention.

And podcasts are pretty unique in that sense.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And one of the other things that I, as somebody who listens to news podcasts myself, it was interesting to see that that’s not at all the most popular format for podcast listeners, right?

SHEARER: No, it’s not the most popular format for podcast listeners.

Listening to podcasts to keep up with current events is not by far the most common reason people are turning to podcasts. 29 percent of listeners say that they turn to podcasts to stay up to date about current events versus twice as many who say they turn to podcasts for entertainment.

But we did find that a lot of podcast listeners are hearing the news on the podcast they listen to, even if they’re not going there intentionally for news. So two-thirds of listeners, when we ask, regardless of why you’re turning to podcasts, are you hearing about the news on the podcast you listen to?

And we let people define that for themselves. It could be, they could be current political events. It could be current entertainment news. You could be listening to a comedy podcast that’s talking about current events and two-thirds of listeners saying, yeah, I hear the news come up on the podcast that I’m listening to.

So there’s a lot of kind of, it’s almost passive consumption. That’s what it looks like.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. So let’s maybe go into some of the other more popular reasons that people gave you guys when of why they listened to podcasts.

SHEARER: Yeah. 60 percent of podcast listeners said they turned to podcasts for entertainment. They said that’s a major reason. A large majority said that that was a major or a minor reason. 55 percent said they turned a podcast to learn. Older listeners were especially likely to say that they’re turning to podcasts to learn about something. And 52 percent of podcasts, this is the third most common reason, said that they turned a podcast just to have something to listen to while doing something else.

So kind of for that diversion reason 30 percent said, going down the list, 30 percent said that they turned a podcast to hear other people’s opinions. 29 percent, like I said, say they turned a podcast to stay up to date about current events and 27 percent, about the same amount as who said current events, say they turned a podcast for encouragement or inspiration.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And I think that that’s related in terms of the formats that people are talking about. So, you guys had discussed that with respect to comedy or entertainment, like what, how does it break down a little bit further beyond that?

SHEARER: Yeah. So we also asked separately after we asked the reasons that people are turning to podcasts, we asked about the topics that people are listening to. So do you regularly listen to podcasts about x? Comedy and entertainment were at the top. So comedy was 47 percent. Entertainment was 46. Again, when we ask people these questions, we’re letting them define the topics for themselves. So someone might listen to a comedic true crime podcast, for example, and they might say, yes, I regularly listen to both podcasts about comedy and podcasts about true crime, just because that’s how they’re thinking of that.

Politics and government, science and technology, history were next. They’re all around 40 percent. And then you get to true crime, self-help and relationships–they’re about a third. A little less popular, but still named by about a third, money and finance, religion, and spirituality. And then going down the list, health and fitness was a topic named by 27 percent of listeners, sports named by 22 percent, and race and ethnicity named by 15 percent.

So what I found striking about the topic list was that no one topic really rises above everything else. Nothing’s really dominating this list. It has 12 topics and I think 9 of them are named by a third to a half of listeners. So it’s really broad, people are trained to a broad array of podcasts for a variety of different reasons.

SHEFFIELD: And then how did, how do things break down in terms of age?

SHEARER: So by age is pretty interesting. Like we see with other digital formats, young people are a lot more likely to be turning to podcasts. Adults ages 18 to 29, two-thirds of them say they’ve listened to a podcast in the past year.

When you get to 65 plus, it’s just 28 percent and 50 to 64, it’s 42 percent. So there’s a big age difference looking at podcast listeners, like you see when you ask about going to social media or getting news on social media or, well, going online has plateaued a little bit, to be honest, because online news, news websites is, there’s less of an age difference than we’ve seen in the past.

What I think is interesting is that podcast listeners of different ages are turning there for different reasons. So it’s not just that older listeners are kind of less likely to go, less likely to say, to respond to a number of different questions. They’re turning they’re saying specifically, ‘I’m turning to these podcasts for something else.’

So older listeners are a lot less likely to say they’re turning to podcasts for entertainment or diversion that to have something to listen to while doing something else answer. They’re the most common reason that older listeners are turning to podcasts is learning. And they’re also a little bit more likely than younger listeners to say that they’re going to podcasts to stay up to date about current events.

So it’s not just that it’s older Americans are less likely to go to podcasts in general, but the older Americans who are turning to podcasts are doing it for a different reason than younger Americans.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think that that is reflected in terms of how people of different age groups are using television, so like younger people tend to not really watch television.


SHEFFIELD: Much at all.

SHEARER: That’s totally true.

SHEFFIELD: And then whereas, the older you are, more likely you are to like television.


SHEFFIELD: And like you see that with the ratings for the, all the major news channels, for instance.

SHEARER: Yeah. And that’s something that we’ve seen in our media research historically. While we were tracking the increase of online news consumption, it’s among those over 50, TV is consistently a really common news source and it’s not a common news source at all for younger adults.

SHEFFIELD: I’ve wondered sometimes that while people may think that their consumption of a news or entertainment product is different than an older or younger person’s. Are they really all that different? In other words, if you’re listening to a podcast about, I don’t know, like a bunch of comedians having their podcast and making jokes to each other, like how different really is that from turning to Comedy Central and watching a roast of somebody?

SHEARER: That’s a great question. And I think that, yeah, the medium is changing, but we still see, for example, a lot of people, I think about half of podcast listeners say that they’re hearing political opinions on the podcast that they’re listening to. So there’s similar to something that you might think of, like conservative talk radio that was very focused on news about opinions, about the news.

There are still podcasts like that out there. So there’s a lot of similar content that you see across mediums.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and in fact a lot of the right of center media podcasts are directly owned and created by the radio shows. They’re literally simulcasts of their daily radio or television program.

SHEARER: Yeah. And that was some of the earliest podcasts, was NPR, the BBC taking their radio programs and moving them, kind of just pushing them onto that podcasting platform. Then you saw more original podcast specifically, but NPR, I think most of its common radio programs are podcasts also.

SHEFFIELD: And one of the earliest online radio people was the late Rush Limbaugh, I mean he didn’t call it a podcast, like there was no word podcast when he started doing it, but that’s exactly what it was.

SHEARER: Yeah. I mean, pod, podcast the prefix, right? The root of it pod comes from Apple brands and that platform doesn’t really, or iPods don’t really exist anymore.

And so it was kind of started as this RSS feed structure, and now it’s very, it’s Spotify, I don’t think that’s an RSS feed structure. And a lot of podcasts, a lot of podcasts have video components as well, just like this one. So it’s definitely really interesting to kind of see what’s, how do we define this thing?

SHEFFIELD: Well, and speaking about some of the partisanship views, you guys did look at that from a couple of different angles. Let’s maybe get into that. It seems that Democrats seem to like them just a little bit more. But I mean, that’s not too far out of the margin of error.

SHEARER: Substantively, I would say there isn’t, especially in the party. Differences in consumption of other media that we see there isn’t very large. There aren’t very large differences between the parties in terms of podcast consumption. So 46 percent of Republicans and lean-Republicans have listened to a podcast in the last 12 months. That’s versus 54 percent of Democrats. Yeah, that is an eight-point difference, but that’s not very large at all.

And among those listeners, about the same amount say that they’re hearing news discussed on the podcast that they listen to. So among Republicans, it’s 65 percent of listeners say that they’re hearing news and among Democrats, 69 percent.

So again, four-point difference, not that large at all. Not even sure if that’s statistically significant. Another point that we don’t graph in the report is we ask about trust of the news that they hear on podcasts. So if folks said that they heard about news on podcasts, we asked that–

SHEFFIELD: Oh, actually you guys do graph it. I’m looking at it.

SHEARER: Oh, we graphed the top line. I don’t know if we, I don’t know if we graphed the party split. We have a first question, which is, do you expect the news and information you hear to be largely accurate? And majorities of both parties say yes. So, and 87 percent of all podcast listeners who hear the news say yes, which is quite high.

It’s a large majority say, yeah, I trust it to be largely accurate. That’s sort of our baseline for asking about how people assess the information’s coming from. Because we want to, we want them to assess the accuracy of the information and not necessarily the trust they have in an institution.

People of both parties are hearing information on podcasts and it assessing it as being largely accurate most of the time. Where the parties start to differ in their experience on podcasts is when it comes to ‘do you trust the news you hear more, the news you get from other sources.’

And that’s where Republicans really stand out.

To view this content, you must be a member of Flux's Patreon at $3 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.