I read a lot of books, spending 30 minutes to an hour with a book almost every night. When the book I'm reading ends, I go get another book. With millions of choices for me to read, there's never a time when I can't find anything to read.
I also watch a lot of television shows. I work from home, and I tend to watch an episode of a show while I'm taking my lunch break. When the series I'm watching ends, I go get another TV series. With hundreds or maybe even thousands of shows I can watch, there's never a time when I can't find anything I want to watch.
I also watch a lot of movies. Mostly in the evenings or the weekends, I explore the vast catalogs from the numerous services that I subscribed to. And now, finally, I can even watch them in the theaters! When I'm in the mood for a new movie, I'm spoiled for choice, and there's never a time when I can't find a new movie to watch.
My experience isn't uncommon to others who live in a developed nation. There's a lot of content at our fingertips. More content than any one person can hope to consume.
Yes, access can be and is an issue. A particular title that you might want to consume may not be in the libraries you can access. And sure, search and discovery within those growing libraries of content is oftentimes a big mess. Yet we keep returning to those wells— actual libraries, marketplaces, streaming services, or the 40-screen cinema down the street—when the content we just consumed runs out and we want to consume more.
I read 15 different books in the last 15 months. Netflix says I watched 22 different series and 16 different moves. And Netflix is just one of the fives TV/movie services I'm subscribed to.
If that sounds like a lot to you, it's really not all that different from the average. What may surprise you is how different that is from podcasting. Specifically, how people consume far, far fewer podcast titles in comparison.
Why is that? I have a hypothesis.
This Is The Podcast That Never Ends
Every year, Edison Research puts out its Infinite Dial report. One of the data points presented in that report is the number of podcasts listened to in the last week. That number tends to drift around five to eight, depending on how you interpret the data. But we'll leave the interpretation for another episode and just extrapolate the math to get annual listening numbers of 260 or 416 respectively.
Wait. Those numbers are much bigger than the paltry numbers I gave you four paragraphs ago. But not really. Because 260 and 416 represent the total number of podcast episodes listened to over the last year by an average podcast listener. Not the number of podcast titles.
While serialized or self-contained podcasts are growing in popularity, there's little doubt that most of the podcasts consumed by an average podcast listener are of the episodic, ongoing format. Every week, a new episode comes out. Or more frequently than that, evidenced by the nearly 600 episodes of this show I've produced in 4.5 years. There is no point at which episode, ongoing shows are "done". They. Just. Keep. Going.
It's generally accepted that you can count the number of podcasts titles the average person is actively listening to on one hand. And if most of those podcasts are episodic and ongoing, that doesn't give them much of a chance to say "Well, that's over, so I guess I gotta go find something new to listen to."
Episodic podcasts don't have the terminal nature of books, television series, or movies. They don't have a finite end-point. They don't have a natural conclusion. There's no "the end" experience which forces listeners to hunt for something else to fill their time. Not with most episodic podcasts. They. Just. Keep. Going. For months on end. For years.
Yes, many listeners will eventually drop off. More may dip in and out as they see fit. Others get what they need after a few episodes and move on. But a lot won't. A lot will hang out and keep consuming that content, inhibiting their own varied diet because they don't have room for new podcasts in their diet. They're all full at their own inn.
The concept of Churn rate is something businesses try to keep low. Podcasters too, for obvious reasons. It's natural for us to want to keep our listeners listening and to grow our listener base with more people who want to keep listening. And if we can give our listeners what they need with our episodes and then keep giving them more episodes like that so they never have to seek out what they need from something else, why shouldn't we lock them in place?
If there's a point to this notion—a notion that would not leave my brain last night so you get to deal with me sorting through it today—it's this: podcasting is different from the other sorts of media humans consume in other forms. Those other forms have all adapted to provide their consumers a "get this and then get this when you're done" content fountain.
But podcasting, at least for a very large segment of podcast consumers, has been built around the "get this and then never leave mode".
But I wonder for how long? Perhaps we'll learn more about that when the 2022 Infinite Dial by Edison Research comes out next week. Perhaps we'll see some of the shifts in consumer behavior, which perhaps will shift our assumptions and our creation behaviors.
I shall be back directly with yet another Podcast Pontifications.