Many of us grew up being told to “go outside and play” instead of spending all our time watching television, while the youngest among us might have been more apt to use computers or play video games.
For generations, we’ve all been stuck in front of a screen, watching a virtual world instead of living in our own — from birth until death.
Then came podcasts.
It seemed like the perfect solution for the unproductive masses: when you’re commuting, turn on a podcast so you can be informed about a topic. Or instead of watching a movie or browsing the internet, you can listen to a podcast and learn about something useful.
Podcasts are an onslaught of words, which is just like reading, right?
We saw it as the perfect solution to avoid being an uncultured couch potato.
However, the statistics behind who listens to podcasts reveals an unsettling truth: we listen to podcasts as passive, pop culture entertainment — and that hits our wallet and hurts our brain.
Podcasts are Mainstream
According to PodcastingHosting.org, who compiled multiple sources including Nielson to make their analysis, 75% of people in the United States have heard of podcasts and 50% of homes consider themselves fans of a podcast. This compares to just 56% who have a traditional cable or satellite subscription and 62% who are subscribed to an online streaming service.
No longer are people unaware of what podcasting is nor is it unusual to encounter someone who could name a podcast they enjoy. Though 65% have only started listening in the last three years, it now appears to be a normal part of life — just like television.
But frequent flyers in the podcast fandom aren’t an exception even if there are a lot of new fans. At least 37% of people listen to a podcast once per month and another 24% listen weekly.
The most interesting data point in the analysis is the demographics. The gender parity of listeners is almost even, with 51% men and 49% women. There is also a wide spectrum of ages represented: ages 12 to 34 listen at 48%, ages 35 to 53 listen at 32%, and an astonishing 20% of those aged over 55 also listen to podcasts.
Podcasts are not unknown entertainment. Not anymore. Everyone and your grandmother might be listening to their favorite show — and about a quarter listen weekly.
That means podcasts are an increasingly ubiquitous part of our culture, and when that happens, a greater variety of content is produced — including mass entertainment such as true crime serials like the aptly named Serial.
Don’t be fooled: podcasts may dress themselves up as educational, but podcasts are almost universally a source of passive entertainment even if they seem better than television on the surface.
Podcasts are Advertising Bait
True fans of podcasts, those who consider it more than an occasional pastime, and perhaps you as well since you’re reading this article, have some predictable and interesting behaviors when it comes to their hobby.
While 64% listen while commuting, 90% listen at home too. They subscribe to about six shows and listen to just as many each week. And most surprising of all, 93% listen to the majority or all of the episodes.
Anyone who has ever listened to a podcast will tell you that ads are common and almost unavoidable on any well-produced show. This makes you a captive audience for advertisers — which the 81% stat of listeners paying attention to ads backs up.
Even though that same captive audience at 59 to 63% say they ignore advertisements on other forms of media, 60% of podcast listeners have made a purchase based on an advertisement on one of their favorite shows.
Those who have listened to podcasts for the last decade or more will tell you that advertisements used to be rare and productions more indie. That’s not to say their modern counterparts with their multiple and sometimes intrusive ads aren’t superior shows regardless of this defect, but it’s clear that podcasts now appear to function like the cable television of old.
And we should be asking ourselves how that’s changing our relationship with podcasts. We have a prior model, television, and we’re falling to that model again — but this time, we’re telling ourselves it’s educational. Why… because we’re being entertained with just our ears and not also our eyes?
That means we don’t see anything wrong with binging on podcasts for hours at a time. We assume the passive intake of words is making us a better person.
But is it? Or are you just being entertained between advertisements?
Podcasts in Moderation
Now all this isn’t to say that you should stop listening to podcasts, but rather that you should listen in moderation. Fans are so insatiable that 19% increase the speed — and is that really necessary?
Could you not find a better resource on the topic in a book instead of listening to multiple episodes like a ravenous diner in a buffet?
In an article from GQ, the author Stuart McGurk writes about his podcast addiction and how he tries to fit his hobby into every free audio moment in his life, from commuting to cooking, and when he goes to bed at night.
But even though what he’s listening to is educational, it’s not directly applicable — and neither are the multiple political news shows he listens to either. He enjoys being informed… but it’s the enjoyment that’s the effect, not the education.
Fifty’s not that many, I want to say, but then I imagine how horrified I’d be if someone admitted to simultaneously following 50 TV shows. — Stuart McGurk
McGurk isn’t alone in his podcast addiction. We all tell ourselves that listening to a variety of infotainment rounds out our knowledge. But podcasts are no replacement for an effective liberal arts education.
College students who attend classes based on lectures, similar to podcasts in format, fail 1.5 times more than those who attend classes with more active learning environments. And it didn’t matter if you attended a lecture in person or online. Without an interactive component, your ability to comprehend the material is limited.
And most podcasts aren’t designed to even mimic interaction.
Accepting Your Limit
Eventually, you reach a point of diminishing returns with podcasts and the only thing you’re being served is entertainment and a dopamine rush when you see that a new episode has been released.
We like podcasts because they seem personal and intimate — and according to science, they light up all of our brains. But that’s not always a good thing. Your brain needs rest too, and if you’re filling every free moment with informative content… are you giving yourself space to process what you “learned”?
Which goes back to what Stuart McGurk wrote: we don’t think it’s strange if a person listens to fifty podcasts… but if you were watching fifty television shows at the same time, you’d probably be committed.
And yet podcasts, even if they’re more active than television, don’t serve you if you aren’t listening in moderation. You’ll just forget everything you learned… except the advertisements which is the only repetitive content that’s actively reinforced in a show.
So if you want to listen to podcasts, do it — but be aware that you’re listening to a passive entertainment with advertisements. The more you listen, the less you retain.
Don’t live in an endless audio loop of podcasts. Live. Don’t make your life about listening.
Thank you for reading.
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