Audio Media In The 21st Century: Rebirth Of The Spoken Word
“In my mind and in my car
We can't rewind, we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart
Put the blame on VCR”
‘Video killed the radio star’ was a song by the Buggles from 1979. Little could they have known then that the radio star would come back in a new digitised avatar and thrive in 2021.
The death of radio and audio has clearly been exaggerated over the years. As digital video caught on, it was inevitable that digital audio of all forms would too. I started my career in the early 2000s when radio witnessed a re-emergence in India with FM being privatised. But then it receded to the background, first overwhelmed by the television boom and then the digital transition.
Yet, the early part of that decade was a time of great change for the audio world. Napster – who in my age group can ever forget something that ahead of its time and delightfully illegal – had shut down a few years before and iTunes had just launched.
There have been bigger changes since then, with new platforms like Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, SiriusXM among many others - apart from the various new iterations of iTunes.
While most of the 2000s were about music, the last few years have seen the exponential growth of ‘spoken word audio’. This comprises podcasts, audiobooks, newscasts, talk shows, everything that isn’t music. I will focus this piece on that part of the audio world.
The Pandemic Leap
I’m a child of the video world and spent most of my career in it and, perhaps quite too often, looked down upon the audio one. So I’m going to eat a lot of humble pie while writing this.
I began tuning into podcasts while traveling – and I lived pretty much on airplanes and hotels the last many years. In a lot of ways, it was intrinsically linked to the commute for me as it probably has been for many working professionals.
So, a pandemic, when most of the world is confined to their homes, seemed like a doomsday scenario for the audio world, at least to my mind. But nearly 18 months in and I spend more time listening to podcasts today than watching videos. This is despite not having seen the insides of an airplane in all that time.
The NPR-Edison report on spoken-word audio in the U.S. details that trend. It says there’s been a jump in people listening at home through connected speakers and other devices.
In comparison, I remember television data review meetings used to turn ecstatic when average viewing time went into double digits. That’s minutes not hours.
The report also said that nearly 48% of Americans listen to spoken-word audio daily.
Here’s another stat - overall, the number of monthly podcast listeners is expected to grow to more than 117 million in 2021, more than 10% growth from 2020, according to emarketer. That’s just in the U.S.
This is an incredible trend but easy to explain.
You can listen while doing other things like cooking, reading, nodding your head during annoying zoom meetings and—parents will agree here—during times when you need a release from dealing with your kids. You don’t have to be fully engaged like with video.
In India, the third-largest podcast market in the world after the U.S. and China, the growth has been enormous in all languages. India has its own platforms in JioSaavn and Gaana in addition to the global players and they have all gained large audiences.
Quantity In Quality
The last year has seen several platforms from Spotify to Amazon to Apple aggressively increase podcasting content and capabilities. Amazon acquired Wondery end of last year, Spotify bought Gimlet and podcast networks from Slate and Ringer, SiriusXM bought Switcher, among just a few deals in the space in 2020.
This focus by such platforms has significantly increased the volume of podcasts globally. Apple Podcasts, for instance, has over 2 million shows and nearly 48 million episodes according to Podcast Insights. And Spotify and Amazon are, in fact, catching up. Spotify is expected to surpass Apple this year as its podcast strategy has begun paying off. It expects 28 million people to listen to podcasts monthly on its platform and attributed a bulk of its 24% subscriber growth in the first quarter of 2021 to podcasts.
Much like in video, we are living in a golden era of audio content.
You can hear any number of quality podcasts on anything from news, economics, art to science. Morning Consult reports that iHeartMedia, one of the largest publishers of podcasts, says it saw a big spike in niche titles. iHeartMedia scaled a record 30 million unique listeners in March this year. In India, Spotify launched 30 original podcasts in several languages and Gaana and JioSaavn are also seeing massive growth.
In the news business, every publisher of note is creating quality podcasts from daily news round-ups to deep analysis. The New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Guardian, Financial Times, Bloomberg, are all producing quality podcasts in news, technology to healthy living, and food.
In fact, there is just too much quality content to consume.
Audiobooks – amongst the oldest forms of spoken-word audio – are also seeing a surge in demand. Most big publishers like HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster Penguin Random House, and Amazon’s Audible say the share of revenue from audiobooks is witnessing double-digit growth. All of them have been investing heavily in studios producing more audio versions of their books.
I recently heard Barack Obama’s book ‘The Promised Land’ on Audible narrated by him and I must say it came alive in a way reading it didn’t.
Audio articles, a bit more nascent, are potentially a new revenue source for news publishers. Trinity Research estimates that listen-through rates or LTRs for audio articles are nearly 60%, while for long-form it goes up to 70%. I see scope for a lot of experimentation in newsrooms with this in the coming years. We will likely see audio versions of Substack newsletters too at some point.
This growth is also fueling demand for creators, the audio influencers.
You are seeing spoken-word audio creator apps like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, and others emerging. In an interview with The Verge, Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek says it will have more than 50 million creators on its platform by 2025. Spotify plans to help creators make money by giving them tools to create, distribute and monetise their work. Apple launched its podcast service recently that helps creators access data and monetise their audience, and Facebook recently announced new audio products that include podcast discovery tools, live audio, and “an audio version of its TikTok-like video product Reels.”
I had written about the Content Creator Economy in my last piece, which you can read here.
All this brings us to the hardest part - monetisation.
Where’s The Money?
While spoken-word audio is growing at an incredible pace, its monetisation has only just taken off. The entire spoken-word audio world generates less than $1.5 billion in advertising sales revenue globally but it is growing rapidly from a small base. That’s still severely disproportionate to the size of the audience tuning in and to its stickiness.
Subscriptions and advertising are still the main sources of revenue, though increasingly branded audio content is growing. Spotify has 356 million users of which 158 million are paid subscribers globally but most of their users are on there for the music.
At the moment, much like for video where platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ are commissioning and paying for content, we are seeing Spotify and others acquiring IP and content to fuel their subscription growth. News publishers like New York Times monetise it through ads on their digital properties behind a paywall while also distributing it through platforms like Spotify.
None of these methods of monetisation are fully crystalised nor are they large enough. Add to this, creators who will be trying to monetise their works and that’s a lot of content chasing the same dollars. The industry is likely to go through a major consolidation eventually that might make some of this clearer.
And of course, there’s that other small detail of the world opening up eventually, though it seems far away, after this seemingly never-ending pandemic. Will so much content – audio and video – continue to be both made and consumed?
One thing we can say with certainty though is that the audio star is here to stay.
Parry Ravindranathan is a global media executive and has worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera English, Network18, and CNN.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.