The COVID Effect | Top Podcast Trends of 2020 & What’s Next for 2021

This article is part of a series based on material used in the Ossa Lounge LIVE show at Podcast Movement Virtual on October 20, 2020, “Rogan, Rona, and ROI: 2020 Podcast Trends & What’s Next for 2021?”

The podcast industry is growing exponentially as the number of podcasts and listeners continue on an upward trajectory. By following the daily headlines in podcast news this year, our team at Ossa has identified 10 key podcast trends that will shape the future of the industry. Let’s discuss one major shift in the podcast industry in 2020 that we never could have foreseen: the COVID effect.

As the spread of COVID led to nationwide quarantines and shutdowns, podcast downloads and streaming data were impacted by the dramatic shift in the schedules, daily habits and priorities of U.S. residents. In late March — at the beginning of major COVID shutdowns in the U.S. — there was a temporary dip in podcast listenership due to the change in lifestyle. According to a March 23 estimate from PodNews, most podcast creators were seeing a 20% decrease in listeners..

podcast trends

Peak Listening Times

Streaming platforms witnessed a substantial shift in peak listening times. Pre-COVID, the morning commute hours had been a reliable high point for podcast listenership, but that time segment took a hit as many morning commutes were eliminated. 

During the mid-COVID-lockdown week of April 13-19, Podtrac reported on one of the most significant podcast trends during COVID — the dip in streams and downloads during the morning commute period. Streams and downloads during peak weekday morning commute times were down an average of 29% versus the pre-COVID-lockdown week of March 2-8.

An Edison Research study conducted during the period of COVID-19 disruptions showed that people in the U.S. age 13 and older began listening to audio a full 75 minutes later on average, as compared to before the disruptions. Pre-COVID-19, the point in the day when 50% of those in the U.S. age 13+ recorded the beginning of their audio day was around 7:15am. But during the second quarter of the study, half of respondents did not record their first audio usage at 8:30 am.

Podcast network and publisher Midroll reported that their morning-commute-time listenership had decreased 18% by the end of March. Midday listening (10am-5pm) however had increased 101%, likely due to more people working from home.

Podcast streams and downloads once reserved for the morning commute also shifted to the weekend, as Podtrac reported in the major-U.S.-quarantine month of April. Podtrac reported that on Saturday, April 18, their peak listening hour was up 9%, and on Sunday, April 19, the peak hour was up 20%.

The shift in traditional weekday structure was also apparent to podcast streaming platform Spotify. While looking at their podcast streaming and download data at the end of April 2020, Spotify reported:“Every day now looks like the weekend”. 

A Rapid Comeback

COVID may have brought about some undesirable podcast trends — but they didn’t last long, Despite the initial dip in podcast listenership and shift in listener behavior, download and streaming numbers quickly bounced back and returned to a growth phase in May. In an article published on May 28, Lucinda Southern from Digiday observed that “The keen interest in current affairs and light-hearted comedy shows, coupled with people yearning for the social interaction of human dialog, is having a positive effect on podcast listening.”

podcast trends

Podcast Category Shift

The COVID effect was also evident in another podcast industry trend: the shift in category-specific listenership. Although most categories weathered a temporary dip in listenership in March, nearly every category returned to a growth phase within a couple of months — one of the most promising podcast trends we’ve seen.

One example of new growth was in the Education category, which reportedly saw listenership grow 20% in a single month at the onset of the U.S. COVID crisis. This could perhaps be related to the number of parents turning to podcasts as a way to teach and entertain their kids at home following widespread school shutdowns.

The News category skyrocketed as COVID led to an elevated interest in daily news updates to track the spread of the virus. But the COVID impact on podcast category preferences didn’t end there. The human desire for distraction and escapism during a difficult time fueled the growth of entertainment-based podcast categories, like Comedy.

There were other podcast categories that did not fare as well, such as the Sports category. Many top Sports podcasts had once relied on the nonstop professional sports machine to provide the talking points for each new episode. When many professional athletes and sports teams were forced to cancel games and matches due to COVID-related safety concerns, it left some sports podcasters high and dry for content. Without an upcoming calendar of professional sports to follow, their listeners checked out. This left some sports podcasters leading one of the new podcast trends from COVID — figuring out ways to get creative with new content.

The COVID effect on sports podcasters extended outside the U.S. as well. Take Chris Miller, cohost of “The Extra Inch”, a podcast about English professional football club Tottenham Hotspur (AKA the “Spurs”). Before the lockdown, the podcast relied on analyzing Spurs matches. But when European football was cancelled, the podcast has lost half its monthly downloads. Miller and his co-hosts decided that in order to continue publishing new episodes, they would get creative and discuss everything from the players’ season performances to the drama surrounding the football club’s reaction to the pandemic.

According to Alban Brooke, Head of Marketing at Buzzsprout, Buzzsprout’s hosting platform saw an immediate decrease in listenership at the start of quarantine activity in March and April, but that was one of the podcast industry trends that had turned completely around by August 2020. During the pandemic, podcasting proved its resiliency and staying power in a big way.

podcast trends
Voxnest April 2020

2021 Projections

As the COVID pandemic continues to have a major impact on lifestyle in the U.S., we predict that News and Education podcast listenership will be one of the strongest podcast trends in 2021. We predict that there will be a rise in the popularity of podcasts for kids, with many parents eagerly looking for sources of education and entertainment for their children, who are learning from home and unable to socialize normally or attend outside activities.

We expect that mental health podcasts will remain popular as people continue to seek out support as they face personal and professional challenges due to COVID. Comedy and storytelling podcasts will likely continue to provide a welcome escape for people with a limited ability to socialize and engage in activities outside of the home.

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