How the Podcast Industry Is Surviving the Pandemic

Podcasting was poised for huge growth at the start of the year. Then the pandemic hit. Here's what happened.
Adam Rowe

2020 looked like it might be a good year back in January.

Then the coronvirus pandemic swept the world, ushering in a series of global-economy-threatening lockdowns — all to stave off a wave of even-more-economy-threatening mass deaths. Grim stuff.

The pandemic is shaping up to be a life-changing event for many around the world, and it will reshape countless industries in the process. Now, we have new data on how it has impacted one such industry, the world of podcasting.

What was the Pandemic's Impact?

Podcasting was poised for huge growth at the start of the year, on a trajectory that, according to one analysis, put the industry on track to surpass $1 billion in advertising by 2021.

But with the pandemic locking everyone into their apartments 24/7, suddenly all of the major podcast-listening times — commuting to work, going to the gym, commuting back from work — were gone. Listening time dropped dramatically at first, and for a while it looked like podcasting might not recover.

According to a new State of the Podcast Universe Report, out from audio technology company Voxnest, podcasting didn't do that poorly after all.

podcast growth in 2020

Podcast listens wavered across all countries tracked, but only the US saw an overall drop in listens, and even that varied depending on the category of podcast, and started to trend back up during April.

“Global podcast listens increased by 42 percent and European listens were up by 53 percent. […] We specifically tracked the two countries who were quarantined first, and found that listening was up by 29 percent in Italy and up by 25 percent in Spain. Meanwhile, the US is showing a decline of 20 percent. – State of the Podcast Universe Report”

Granted, this growth might be a little tepid compared to the growth that podcasting might have seen without a pandemic, but it's far from the complete cratering of podcast audiences that some might have predicted at the start of the pandemic.

The lack of daily commutes is likely still negatively impacting podcasting, given which types of devices saw the most growth in listenerships in the first five months of 2020: Podcast listens from desktop devices increased 58%, while phone and tablet listens only increased 32%.

Programmatic Ads are Up 65%

Podcast ad growth has continued even during all the pandemic uncertainty, according to this new stat. New agencies and brands are continuing to explore the space, even as many advertising budgets have taken hits.

“Since January,” the report says, “programmatic advertising within our network has increased by 65 percent.”

But there's a catch: That same ad category had hit 137 percent growth at the end of 2019, according to Voxnest's stats, which means that the rate at which ads are growing has dropped quite a bit in 2020.

The industry is still be doing great compared to many others, but it can't outrun the general economic contraction that a global pandemic brings with it.

So… who's benefiting from all that growth?

Spotify's Star is Rising

Spotify hasn't made it a secret that it's out to drink Apple's milkshake. This year alone, the audio streaming company has launched 78 original or exclusive podcasts, acquired media company The Ringer, and cut a deal reportedly north of $100 million for exclusive rights to massively popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

Now, new numbers confirm that Spotify has nabbed a large portion of the podcast audience. Between just those two services, Spotify had 23% of listens in the first months of 2019, but 41% in 2020, while Apple's 77% listener share dropped to 59% in the same time.

Sure, Apple still has the largest piece of the pie, but the balance has shifted. Or, as the report puts it:

“Over the last 15 months, it’s gone from a tug-of-war to a conqueror steadily taking claim of territory each month.”

Podcasts were never as large a money-maker as Apple tends to go for, and the company never put up much of a fight. Spotify has officially emerged as the biggest podcast contender of 2020.

Given the relatively strong performance of podcasting as a global industry so far in the year, that's good news for the future of podcasting in general and Spotify in particular.

Spotify vs. Apple, in 2020
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Adam is a writer at and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for the last decade. He's also a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry (and Digital Book World 2018 award finalist) and has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect. When not glued to TechMeme, he loves obsessing over 1970s sci-fi art.

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