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The coronavirus pandemic is changing which podcasts people are listening to

A man with headphones walking
Reuters/Carlo Allegri
A virus makes you want to listen to different podcasts.
By Dan Kopf
Published Last updated

Even with fewer people commuting to work, Covid-19 couldn’t stop the rise of podcasting. Overall downloads of podcasts in the US have soared in 2020, according to data from podcast measurement company Chartable.

Chartable’s data tracks 12,000 podcasts. It found that overall downloads by US listeners in the week ending Sept. 21 were up over 150% from the first week of 2020. (Global data are not tracked.)

It’s possible that this growth would have been even greater without the coronavirus pandemic. Podcast listening was growing swiftly at the start of the year, with commutes a popular time to listen. Stay-at-home orders decelerated that rise in late March, but only briefly.

Dave Zohrob, Chartable’s CEO, believes the virus slowed growth initially but that listeners adjusted their habits quickly, and data show that podcast listening started to expand at close to pre-coronavirus levels in late April. Spotify’s chief content officer Dawn Ostrom told CNN that Spotify users have started listening to podcasts later in the day.

Zohrob also thinks podcasts gained an advantage over this period because podcasters were able to make new material while movie and TV production was shut down. “We’ve seen folks gravitate towards podcasting during a time when production of other media—like anything with video—has become much more difficult and expensive [to make].” Zohrob told Quartz.

Coronavirus may not have changed the overall trajectory of podcasting, but it does seem to have affected what people are actually listening to. Podtrac, another podcast data firm, tracks podcast downloads by genre. For the shows Podtrac measures, which is a subset of the ones measured by Chartable, overall downloads by US listeners grew by 42% from October 2019 to October 2020. Yet there was a huge disparity across genres.

The popularity of news shows exploded. Shows like the New York Times “The Daily” and Vox’s “Today, Explained,” have seen huge jumps in downloads from people looking to understand the virus and its impacts.

The hardest hit genre has been “true crime.” The category grew 25% in from October 2019 to February 2020, but has seen no growth since March, around when the lockdowns happened.

True crime podcasts have been central to the podcasting boom since the success of the show “Serial” in 2014. It was one of the first podcasts to break out into the mainstream, and it has spawned many popular followers, like “My Favorite Murder” and “S-Town.” Though the chart above shows that “arts,” “education,” and “history” are growing even more slowly than true crime, unlike true crime, those genres were not growing quickly before Covid-19 emerged. It appears people are less interested in the dynamics of a grisly murder during a pandemic.