Honestly, I really do love podcasting! There are well above 48 million podcast episodes1 each giving the gift of different stories, narratives, and personalities. And, strangely, I’ve also recently rekindled an admiration for radio! Memories of being in the back seat of my parent’s car enjoying (read: being subjected to!) early 2000s R&B hits on kitschy radio stations are held quite fondly. And today it has become a habit to tune into local news during every morning drive (adulting, anyone?).
So now I’m curious. How do they compare?
Over a century ago, Reginald Fessenden made history by making the first radio broadcast in 1906. Almost twenty years ago, the first podcast popped on the scene in 2004. Since their inception, both mediums have been enjoyed by countless consumers of content. Today, both the live radio broadcasts and the pre-recorded podcasts that we have come to love have evolved in the most awesome ways. They remain similar, but distinct.
For a history of all things podcasting, check out: Podcasting Historical Timeline and Milestones
In today’s blog entry, I want to explore the differences between these two flavors of spoken word communication. Let’s call it a fact-based opinion piece. And please feel free to leave your opinion on how the two mediums measure up in the comment section below!
We start off by contrasting and comparing the very thing that lies at the heart of these shows…
When we’re talking about your fave cold brewed coffee, and your go-to pour over, we’re in essence talking about the same thing: coffee. What makes these beverages distinct from one another is the way they’re made. The chosen method of creation – whether coffee or content – will produce a particular dynamic. In the same way, both live radio and pre-recorded podcasts have their own distinct offerings.
Radio broadcasting is the senior and more experienced in this face-off. Long established and long trusted, radio has an expected cadence that has come to be expected. News shows read by stoic announcers rule the airwaves at the top and bottom of each hour. Morning talk radio shows go together with your morning commute like the bacon that accompanied the eggs you finished eating 20 minutes earlier. Music stations are separated according to genre. Country rock, Top-40, classical, jazz-K-pop fusion…there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.
“It’s incredibly important in this day and age to waste as little of peoples’ time as possible. If you are gonna waste peoples’ time, you better be entertaining them or giving them useful information in the process.”
Radio producer David Cockram said this back in 2016 – this truth is even more true today! One thing that adds an element of pressure to radio is the propensity for segments, if not entire stations, to be broadcast live. There’s a lot of potential for small screw ups and gaffs. And every mistake is going to be heard in real time, by a large audience!
A sharp wit and quick-thinking mind is needed by hosts to fill time between segments and to lubricate transitions. A solid rapport is also very effective between hosts who provide banter and cheap laughs to listeners. (Find out what else Cockram has to share in his archived article right here!)
In my opinion, there’s a cool sense of reality with radio broadcasts that comes from things happening live. The knowledge that someone in a studio is saying what I’m hearing right this very moment is a cool dynamic that adds to the distinct essence of radio broadcasts.
Podcasters may not have the same high stakes that come with a live radio show, the intensity in the podcast world comes from the sheer number of options listeners have available to them! In the same way that stations exist for music genres on the radio, entire shows and seasons committed to even the most obscure topics can be found in the far flung corners of podcast streaming platforms.
Podcasts are essentially “on demand” online audio broadcasts; unlike a radio broadcast where time slots dictate content, listeners can access whatever they want whenever they want.
Related Read: How Do I Make My Podcast Stand Out In My Category?
There is also something to be said for the differences between the people who regularly tune in to the radio, and those who intuitively opt for podcasts. Radio has a reputation for being able to essentially capitalize on a “captive” audience: people are almost always driving when listening to the radio, in stores or gyms or places of work where radio broadcasts are being listened to in a more public space.
Podcasts are almost invariably sought out. Like radio, listener’s typically engage with podcasts whilst doing something else. But there isn’t the same element of passive listening; specific shows, episodes, genres or even podcasters are sought out with greater intentionality.
Radio listeners are by no means an extinct or dying breed. According to News Generation’s Radio Facts And Figures, radio is still the leading reach platform! 92% of the US listens to AM/FM radio over the airwaves, which is higher than TV viewership (87%), PC use (54%), smartphone use (81%), and tablet use (46%)3. The Pew Research Center further demonstrates this. Despite trends moving in a digital direction, the fact remains that terrestrial radio reaches almost the entire U.S. population and remains steady in its revenue.
Do you like numbers and infographics? Check out the full fact sheet here: Audio and Podcasting Fact Sheet
So, what does mean?
Radio casts a large net. There is a consistent swathe of the population who tune in. The bulk of listeners fall into an older age bracket, but the audience ranges in scope from individuals to businesses. Although the stats used and research cited speak to the American context, it can be said for most countries that live radio consumption is a part of the social fabric and daily experience of most individuals.
Even Gen Z and Millennials make up a portion of the audience. But this is based on reach, which is a metric of measurement that doesn’t take the type of engagement into consideration. Does the young person in the back of their parents’ car really count as an engaged radio listener? Has the shopper in a local supermarket really technically tuned in to the radio station playing over the store’s loudspeakers? I can’t say for sure, but in my humble opinion, if the type of engagement were measured I feel we’d find that the size of live radio’s committed audience is belied by its impressive reach.
Podcast listeners are a slightly different demographic than traditional radio users. This is according to Ad Results Media partner and CMO Kurt Kaufer. In his May, 2021 contribution to Forbes’ online magazine, Kafuer suggests podcast listeners tend to be younger, early adopters of technology who can be difficult to reach using traditional advertising channels. According to the same report, half of all podcast listeners are aged twelve to thirty-four, with listeners thirty-five and over making up the other half2.
Stats presented by Edison Research, Triton Digital and National Public Radio show (NPR), also show an interesting trend. Many new podcast listeners are migrating from radio, with the traditional medium no longer serving as their exclusive source of spoken audio.
Bill Rosenblatt explains these figures in his 2020 Forbes article, stating that the rising number of podcast listeners are coming from AM/FM radio, and the changes in listening behaviour derives from the sharp rise in the use of smartphones for spoken word audio (which has doubled over the past five years)3.
Full Article: Who Listens To Podcasts (And How Can You Reach Them)?
So, what does this mean?
They’re slightly younger, but I believe this trend will change with time. In fact, I was delighted to find that Kaufer articulates this point for me in his previously cited article:
“Don’t be fooled into thinking that podcasts are just a fad for young people. As the listeners themselves age, these age brackets will shift as well. The younger profile has much more to do with their openness to new technology and not necessarily the subject matter or appeal of the content.”
As Millennials and Gen Z’ers eventually grow up (…that’s a topic for another opinion piece!) and take their consumption habits with them into older age brackets there will be an equalizing effect, and podcasts will no longer be the penchant of the young. Indeed, that isn’t strictly the case now. Podcast listeners and podcasters are from all ages, walks, and areas of interest.
This is another way in which the world of pre-recorded podcasting has an advantage over the world of live radio broadcasting – the audience can find shows on what they want, presented by who they want, on demand! Our Netflix generation is now accustomed to getting what they want, when they want (and I use the term generation broadly, as in everyone alive right now – so not just referring to young people, but mature folks too!).
As far as reaching listeners goes, I would say radio has a huge net that reaches far and wide and has stood the test of time. Podcasting is more like a fishing rod in the hand of every listener, with which they can reel in whatever listening experience they desire!
Audience engagement is key to both radio broadcasts and podcasts. It could be on the most reserved end of the spectrum, where the only engagement is a commuter tuning in casually to pass the time from work to home. It could be as intense as user generated content being incorporated into the show itself.
“Long time listener, first time caller!”
Call-in shows, anyone? If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to the radio you will have heard the above trope. Whether they are prank calls by disc-jockeys with way too much time on their hands, or serious questions being fielded by regional health professionals, the radio call-in feature is a key part of these live broadcasts.
Live radio happens in real time, and it is a beautiful time tested means of sharing ideas around newsworthy topics, especially in the local context. Giveaways are commonplace. Caller generated traffic reports help to make rush hour that much more tolerable. And live radio was originally where your aunt would go to rant publicly about private matters (…an honour now delegated to our Facebook feeds!).
For tips on engaging your podcast listeners, check out our article: How Can I Connect With My Listeners Beyond My Podcast?
Podcasting is also a great forum for engagement to occur between hosts and listeners. Like radio, hosts can use giveaways and polls to gauge the opinions of listeners. Unlike radio, listeners can leave written comments (much quicker than sending an email, or even a letter to a radio station), and engage with a more social media based form of user engagement.
“Podcast listeners not only spend time with podcasts — they also engage on social media. This creates an opportunity for brands to build close relationships with show hosts and leverage the power of their multi-platform distribution.”
Full Article: Who Listens To Podcasts (And How Can You Reach Them)?
This not only applies to business brands, but to individual brands. Instagram photos or reels, topic based TikTok video challenges, going live on Facebook with your subscribers, tweeting URL links to episodes, recording video podcasts – these are all modern ways forms of engagement. In my opinion, the distance between the podcaster and her listener is far smaller than that between the radio host and their audience.
These two behemoths in spoken word audio are similar in the sense that they’ve been enjoyed by countless millions for many years. But the content featured, the audience reached, and the way that audience engages with the content are distinctly different. I believe radio is going nowhere; this means of transmission has been around for over a century for a good reason – it works, and it reaches! But podcasting is the way of the future and will continue growing in influence and importance with time, and I believe its proliferation and enjoyment will undoubtedly one day overshadow that of traditional radio.
1. 2021 Podcast Stats & Facts (New Research From Apr 2021):
2. Radio Facts And Figures:
3. New Podcast Listeners Are Coming From Radio, Not Music: