Haven’t heard of ‘Serial’? Half of all Americans don’t know what a podcast is

By Teresa Welsh

Most people listen to podcasts on mobile devices.
Most people listen to podcasts on mobile devices. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Only half of all Americans know what a podcast is, according to a new survey on the state of the media released Wednesday by Pew Research Center.

The survey found that 49 percent of people were familiar with the term “podcasting,” a rate that has stayed relatively steady in recent years. Podcasts, the most famous of which is arguably award-winning ‘Serial,’ have grown in popularity since 2008 and exist on numerous topics from politics to food to popular culture. As of 2016, 21 percent of Americans age 12 and over reported listening to a podcast in the last month.

News organizations are increasing their investment in the medium as digital media consumption increases and more people access news through their mobile device. Of those who had ever listened to a podcast, 64 percent said they listened most often on a mobile device, up from 55 percent the previous year.

In addition to traditional radio outlets like NPR, legacy print media are adapting the technology as a way to increase revenue, with newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal creating their own branded offerings in news and opinion.

But despite the steady growth in awareness of and downloads of podcasts, ad spending on the medium was tiny compared to other sectors of the media, at only $34 million in 2015. Pew said that one of the reasons that revenue growth isn’t higher is in part due to the inability to accurately track how many listens an episode gets. Generally they are tracked by the number of downloads, but it is impossible to tell whether an episode is actually listened to and by how many different people.

In addition to podcasts, the Pew survey examines 12 other sectors of the media that provide news to the American public. It analyzes trends in audience consumption, industry financing and newsroom ownership.