Apple Podcasts

Changes to how Apple Podcasts approaches the automatic downloads of back episodes has seen overall industry numbers dip in recent months. But the larger state of podcasting is one of growth, says Cumulus Media, with the changes sought after by dozens of podcast companies bringing more reliable data that should make ad buyers confident download counts are getting closer to listening.

“This is a much-needed right sizing of the download metric. We're now getting closer to the relationship between downloads and listens,” said Pierre Bouvard, Chief Insights Officer at Cumulus Media and Westwood One. “Despite download erosion of the Apple methodology enhancement, the actual podcast audience is exploding,” he said.

The latest Share of Ear data from Edison Research backs up that point. Its report on third quarter of 2023 shows podcasting had a 26.3% share of listening time for ad supported audio among 25- to 54-year-olds – the demo advertisers still most care about. That is a 42% year-to-year increase and a more than 10-point advantage over the pandemic pump that podcasters enjoyed during 2020.

“Podcasting is thriving, and podcast audiences are alive and well,” Bouvard said.

John Wordock, Executive Editor/Senior VP of the Cumulus Podcast Network, said the changes have had the biggest impact on podcasts that publish frequently, such as the New York Times news show The Daily, which fell out of first place after five years at No. 1 on Podtrac’s ranking of top shows in December. He says shows with a heavy exposure to Apple Podcasts are also taking a bigger hit.

“These are legacy shows that maybe started 10, 12, 14 years ago, when Apple was really the only game in town when it came to podcasting. Over the years those legacy shows collected a lot of followers, so podcasts with an extensive back catalogue are being impacted,” he said.

A Change Podcasters Wanted

What set in motion the upheaval in download numbers was a change announced in the fall by Apple Podcasts. Prior to the release of the iOS 17 operating system in September, when a listener would un-pause automatic downloads, the system would automatically download all un-played episodes. But now with the release of iOS 17, Apple Podcasts will resume automatically downloading only the new episodes. And the previous episodes will not be downloaded at all. Apple Podcasts also says that when a podcaster publishes an older episode to their show, they will no longer present themselves as new. The changes came at the request of several podcast companies, which have said the resulting data will be more accurate.

The changes in automatic downloads are in part a response to some of the industry’s biggest players, who see it as a way to keep download numbers from being overinflated relative to how many people actually listen to the episode. In doing so, they argue that it will help keep the download metric credible in the eyes of advertisers while also addressing what many felt have been artificially inflated ad frequency data by third-party measurement services.

The change produced a 24% decline in global downloads for the top 20 publishers measured by Podtrac last month. That may at first blush seem alarming, but Bouvard said podcasting is going through what other media experienced in the past. He says the changes are like what occurred when PPM technology started measuring radio in 2008, or when cable TV moved from measuring total households to actual viewers. In each case, ratings went down but ad rates stayed the same, and in some cases CPMs went up.

“This is podcasting experiencing what many other media have experienced,” Bouvard said. “The shows are still good, and the audience is growing.”

Greater Need For Promotion

For podcasters facing the new reality, Wordock says more emphasis on promoting their show is needed. “For the shows, the days of download inflation are over,” he said. “Use this moment to activate your fan base, to turn your passive fans into active listeners. Urge them to check in on the days and drop episodes. If you drop episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, say that [on] your podcast to remind listeners.”

Wordock also suggests that podcasters do more to promote listening on Android-friendly apps, such as Spotify and Amazon Music. “The looming death of Google Podcasts and the rise of YouTube Music as a podcast destination signals a new opportunity to promote your show and find new listeners,” he said.