Friday, November 30, 2018

Political Podcasts: A Growing Form of Political Journalism?

I have previously assumed that it is only political nerds like me that listen to political podcasts. However, last week the most downloaded podcast in the UK for two days in a row was a political podcast: Dial M for Mueller. In the US the New York Times Daily podcast is one of the top ten most downloaded podcasts each week. There also appears to be a growing number of political podcasts, see the political podcasts I listen to and recommend. So who is listening and why?

Podcasting is still a relatively new medium. It generated some initial excitement, with 2005 being called the year of the podcast and ‘‘podcast’’ was chosen that year as the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year.  Since then it has continued to grow, albeit as a niche medium. In 2013 podcast subscriptions on Apple's iTunes platform passed the one billion mark. Pew Research has identified a considerable increase in podcast listening in recent years. The number of weekly NPR podcast users passed 5m in 2017.


Earlier this Edison Research published US based research showing:

  • 48m Americans listen to podcasts weekly
  • This number grew by 6m in 2017
  • 26% (73m Americans) listen to podcasts monthly
  • 32% aged 25 to 54 listen to podcasts monthly
  • 69% of podcasts are listened to on a mobile device

The turning point for podcasts and their popularity might have been Serial, which was downloaded over 77 million times within the first seven months.

Why Political Podcasts?

I have some thoughts on why people may be turning to political podcasts.

Mainstream political news reporting is very much event driven, it is 24/7, it is politics as drama and entertainment, it is personality focused, has a sense of urgency and focused on what is happening right now. As Daniel Kahneman once said what is happening right now is not as important as you think it is. The problem with daily, even hourly, event driven reporting is not seeing the wood for the trees.

Most political podcasts are not driven by 24 hour reporting, many are weekly or less frequent. As a result they tend to be less event and drama driven. My experience of political podcasts is that they are more reflective. They try to understand the context and what is happening. Often they interview various experts in depth, up to an hour, to seek to understand the issues.

There is also something very intimate about podcasts. It is like you are sitting in on a conversation. There is less distance from say a written piece where the author has had time to construct what they are going to say. Podcasts tend to be quite informal, so you get a better sense of the person speaking and nuances in tone. The NPR Politics Podcast says it is where our political reporters talk to you like they talk to each other. People also spend a lot of time with podcasts and get to know the speakers quite well or at least feel they do. Podcasts are increasingly produced by the mainstream media such as BBC podcasts, the Financial Times and Guardian weekly politics podcasts and many more. In podcasts these publishers and broadcasters often take a different editorial stance and critique their own news. I wonder if these elements might lead people to trust podcasts more than other forms of media.

Many political podcasters are becoming celebrities in their own right, such as Ed Miliband with his Reasons to be Cheerful podcast. Podcasts are often taken on the road and recorded in front of live audiences. Presenters from podcasts such as the Spectator's Coffee House Shots and the New Statesman, such as Katy Balls, Stephen Bush and Helen Lewis are also now regulars on the BBC and shows such as Newsnight. Podcasts do appear to be a new form of political journalism and I will try to document the different podcast typologies in a future post.

Who Listens and Why?

I still suspect that listeners to political podcasts are a niche audience though increasingly there are more adverts on the podcasts, so some advertisers clearly see the audience as valuable. Part of my MSc research next year will be focused on this question. I will do a research survey around this topic next year but in the interim I would love to know what podcasts you listen to and why.