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I've been thinking about the slides from Edison Research’s report, The Infinite Dial 2021, that showed strong growth in the number of podcast listeners who are 55 and older. According to the report, an estimated 24 million Americans in that age range listen to podcasts, up significantly from just 4 million in 2011.
A lot can happen in a decade. Related to that: A few days ago, we lost Ed Asner at 91. Ed was most known for his role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970 to 1976. You likely remember (perhaps your parents or grandparents forced you to watch reruns) Ed’s character Lou Grant as the grumpy old man on the show.
Old man? Ed Asner was in his 40s the entire time the show aired. I’m older, right now, than Ed Asner was during the taping of The Mary Tyler Moore Show! I’m not old!
Well, I’m a fair bit beyond 37 as well. But let's get back to podcasting.
We tend to think of podcasters as young and hip. And yes, that’s true. In fact, there was a report out today by Westwood One that shows the median age of podcast listeners is just 34.
But remember the slides I mentioned from the Edison Research report above. According to those very reliable and vetted data, there are a lot of no-longer-34-year-olds listening to podcasts. And their number is increasing every single year.
I don’t have access to the complete data set, but when has that ever stopped me? I’m going to make more than a few inferences on those two slides and present to you four bits of insight on the… let’s call them more mature podcast listening audience.
55+ Podcast Listeners Have More Discretionary Time
To illustrate, I point to the fact that in the same The Infinite Dial 2021 report, Edison showed a decline in the percentage of 35-54 year-olds who listen to podcasts compared to the prior year. The logical explanation—and yes, I realize correlation is not causation—is the impact of the pandemic-related lockdowns. It stands to reason that many of the people in this “medium” age bracket are working adults who, at least pre-pandemic, listened to a lot of podcasts during their commute to and from work and also at the gym or other “third place” location. Activities that, for many in this age group, were curtailed drastically.
But the 55+ group? The percentage of podcast listeners in this group actually increased by four basis points year over year. Yes, they too were subject to the same restrictions on activities outside of their homes. And yes, many people 55+ are gainfully employed, go to the gym, and enjoy other “third place” locations and activities. However, many people over 55 are further along in their careers, which affords them extra perks, like a more flexible schedule, which can change how and where they listen to podcasts.
Also, 55+ is a very, very wide swath, covering a lot of retired and semi-retired people who don't follow the patterns of those who work a 9-to-5. Unfettered by employment, they’re free to adopt a completely different set of podcast listening behaviors.
If the 55+ crowd is bucking location-based listening trends, what other best practices or assumed behaviors of podcast listeners are they not adhering to?
55+ Podcast Listeners Is Not A Monolith
Between the numbers 55 and, because we need an end-point, 100 are 45 different ages. 55-year-olds may have similar behaviors to 60-year-olds. But those differences start to exaggerate the higher up the scale you go. Other than AARP memberships, people at 70 may not share much in common with those who are a spry 55. That’s only a 15-year gap, but the realities and relentlessness of time widen that gulf. Generally speaking, of course, and no offense to the septuagenarians who could kick my ass.
My hunch is that if you plotted out the percentage of listeners for each age starting at 55, then 56, and so on…you’d likely see a standard Power Law develop. The “younger ages” on the left would have the biggest percentages, which gradually (or not) taper down lower and lower as the age itself gets higher and higher. The older you are, the less likely you listen to podcasts.
But that’s going to change, as you’ll see in my third insight.
24 Million Today. 240 Million Tomorrow?
Maybe not tomorrow, but it’s a safe bet to assume that the percentage of people 55+ who listen to podcasts will increase next year. And the year after. And the year after that. I’m confident of that prediction because that’s how age brackets work.
When The Infinite Dial 2022 report comes out, people who were 54 in the prior report will now be counted in the 55+ bracket. There’s nothing magical about turning 55 that makes you stop listening to podcasts! As more podcast listeners continue to age in, expect the percentage of listenership to continue to go up for the top bracket.
I've long said that podcasting fails the “grandma test”, and I’ve split the blame between the distributed nature of podcasting and the podcast listening app developers. I'm not sure either of those things is going to change anytime soon, because they haven't in 17 years. But I am sure that many grandmothers today—like my wife—picked up the podcast listening habit before they became grandmothers. And they aren’t going to stop!
In effect, the “old people in technology” problem is solving itself. Not because podcast listening tech is getting easier (though I suppose you could say it is) to navigate. No, it’s solving itself simply because podcast-savvy people are aging-in to the higher bracket.
55+ Podcast Listeners Like Age-Specific And Ageless Content
Check out the “Listeners Also Subscribed To” section of Alan Alda’s podcast, Clear+Vivid to see… well, just that; the other podcasts listened to by people who listen to Alan’s podcast. You can see the predominance of shows hosted by people who are also over 55. Katie Couric’s show is there. She’s 64. Rob Lowe's podcast shows up. He's 57. You'll also see WTF by Marc Marin in that list. He’s the same age as Rob; 57.
What else do you notice? It's not all “old people stuff”! Yes, much of it is hosted by older people, but it's not a bunch of branded content podcasts for denture cream and reverse mortgages. It’s content that appeals to older audiences, sure. But it’s content that is, in a sense, and at least appears to be on the surface, somewhat “ageless”.
So yes, old people do listen to podcasts. And they’re going to keep listening to podcasts as we become they of whom we speak.
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Indeed you will, Pat. Thanks for your support and I’ll take you up on that when I see you at She Podcasts LIVE, happening in Scottsdale, Arizona in October. Reminder: If you use the code AZPOD at checkout you’ll save $100 on your ticket. So do it!
I also want to thank Kevin Patton of Academic Podcasting for the lovely review he left for Podcast Pontifications on Podchaser:
I love the brief, but provocative, audio essays that get me thinking outside that box the other podcasting pundits often seem to put us in. Even when I disagree with Evo's suggestions, I learn from them. Any podcaster who considers themselves "creative" need to listen regularly.
Thank you very much, Kevin!
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I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.