Podcast Networks See Shift In Listening Habits, Provide Much-Needed Comfort During Pandemic

As the world continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, audiences are bingeing many forms of entertainment, primarily TV and films. But there is another binge-worthy medium that is providing a more personal form of entertainment: podcasts.

There are thousands upon thousands of podcasts out there, ranging from comedy to news to scripted dramas to docuseries to talk shows — many of which have been the source of inspiration for TV series such as Lore, Homecoming, Comedy Bang! Bang!, 2 Dope Queens and others.

You would think that since lockdown, there would be a surge in podcast bingeing, similar to those streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu. Not so said Marty Michael, co-founder of podcast network HeadGum.

Michael said that Headgum measures listenership on a monthly basis and in March it saw about a 10% decrease. He points out, however, that comedy and news podcasts seem to be holding strong. But that 10% dip isn’t necessarily an indication of what’s to come.

“Millions and millions of people’s routines were broken,” said Michael. “A lot of people are finding new routines in their daily life. I know just personally I feel like I’m finally getting into a groove so I’m finding where my podcast digestion fits back into my new routine. I’m expecting that we’ll see a rebound this month, if not growth.”

HeadGum, Earwolf and Crooked Meda are three big networks that deliver some of the top podcasts on streaming platforms and internet radio services like iTunes, Stitcher or Spotify. Earwolf is known for its vast library of comedy-driven podcasts including Comedy Bang! Bang!, Spanish Aqui, I Weigh with Jameela Jamil, Office Ladies, Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness among others. Crooked Media, started by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor leans more political with shows like Lovett or Leave It. HeadGum, founded by Marty Michael, Amir Blumenfeld and Jake Hurwitz has made a name for itself in the comedy space as well.

Colin Anderson, Stitcher’s VP of Comedy and executive producer of Earwolf, has also noticed different listening habits. He said there has been a slight decrease in numbers, mainly because not many people are listening to podcasts on morning commutes, which was a prime time for consumption pre-COVID-19.

TV shows and films are go-to forms of entertainment for the masses. But when it comes to podcasts, they deliver storytelling, news and digital content in a slightly different way. There is something personal about podcasts, say executives. Like radio, much of a podcast is created in your mind. And this sort of connection may become more and more valuable as the COVID crisis drags on.

“The whole thing of podcasts is it’s like hanging out with friends that you’ve maybe never met in real life,” said Anderson. “There’s a ton of people that are either isolating — whether with a partner or with a small group of people or on their own — that this is a chance of having the friendship chemicals in your brain say, ‘I’ve got some company, I’m hearing stories and I’m not on my own.’ I think podcasting is providing a huge service right now.”

Sarah Geismer, Head of Creative Development & Production at Crooked Media, shares Anderson’s sentiments. “We’re all on Zoom and still having conversations with friends but everything’s separate and I think that something that I find to be so special about a podcast is intimacy, the experience of getting to listen to something…and feel like you’re in on a conversation that you may not have normally gotten to overhear…We want connection with people.”

Geismer also points out that while film and TV have shut down, podcasting can continue production, which makes it a really exciting time for the medium.

Podcasting is becoming a means for many — particularly actors, celebrities and other A-listers — to create content while they are waiting for studios to re-open their doors. We’ve seen Zach Braff and Donald Faison launch their Scrubs re-watch podcast Fake Doctors, Real Friends while Community‘s Joel McHale and Ken Jeong  have The Darkest Timeline. Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid launched the Dennaissance Podcast and Bob Saget has created his own titled Bob Saget’s Here For You. But that doesn’t mean this is a plug-and-play medium for every out-of-work-actor.

“We’re getting pitches from people…I think people that have said in the past that they’re not interested are now interested,” said Anderson. “There’s a lot of ideas coming in and the challenge there is, one, this is not a great time to be launching a new podcast. Two, if we do want a new podcast, we usually give ourselves like three months to sell ads on it and do a good job of marketing and all that kind of thing. Three, it’s also you want them to be committed to doing the podcast once they’re not in quarantine. We’re not super interested in doing 10 episodes of something right now that then ends as soon as work starts back up again.”

Michael said a similar thing is happening at HeadGum, but he feels the surge of interested A-listers was happening prior to the virus — quarantine just lit a fire underneath them.

“We’ve definitely been approached by a few people that we had been in conversations with,” he said. “They are less hesitant now than they were before because there’s just not as much other stuff going on. That’s one of the things that we’ve been hyper-focused on: There are certain aspects of our business that are slower than normal, but what can we double down on and work on in this period that will help us on the other end?”

Anderson points out that, while launching a podcast right at this time isn’t ideal, it is a good time to develop one and record episodes. Considering everyone is under quarantine, guests who wouldn’t normally be available now have the time time to sit down and talk. He points out that he was pitched a podcast from a comedian — but wouldn’t divulge exactly who — and they are currently recording episodes and will launch in the fall or winter.

Geismer said that now, more than ever, their listeners want to be informed about what is going on in the world — specifically with the coronavirus. As a result, Crooked Media launched America Dissected and Six Feet Apart once lockdown was put into place.

“The two shows that we decided to do felt like they were from people who had unique points of view about this time,” said Geismer.  “Abdul El Sayed, who hosts America Dissected , is an epidemiologist and works in public health. We had already been working with him and felt like he would have a really amazing point of view into this time.” Meanwhile, Six Feet Apart, hosted by Alex Wagner, is an appropriately titled podcast about human interaction during the time of coronavirus.

Crooked Media is not only providing reliable information during a crucial time, but they have also raised over a million dollars for the Crooked’s Coronavirus Relief Fund which helps organizations like Meals on Wheels, Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, The National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, among others.

Meanwhile, Earwolf participated in Comedy Gives Gives Back, an event earlier this month that raised money for the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

HeadGum is working on dedicating one million impressions of free ads to brands that are raising money or donating goods and services to support COVID relief. Co-founders Amir Blumenfeld and Jake Hurwitz were joined by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard and Space Force‘s Ben Schwartz for a live stream where they played Jackbox Games to raise money for Food Bank For NYC.

As talent begins to look to podcasts as a means to produce content, there is a growing interest in the space — but will that interest sustain post-pandemic? Or is this just a way to keep people temporarily satisfied until TV and film studios open up for production?

“Is this good for podcasting? I think yes,” said Michael. “But is this the difference-maker for podcasting? I think that it’s been evolving over time — but it’s been a long time coming. The viability of it being able to continue on in a period like this is exposing a lot more people to it, which is great.”

He added, “I’m obviously very highly invested in this change. This is something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time. I think there are certain milestones within the industry that have opened up a lot of awareness into the intimacy of podcasting and why it resonates with so many different people in so many different ways. This time period is just another milestone in awareness.”

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