Combine the words iPod and broadcast, and the result is none other than the podcast, a piece of digital audio content designed for the modern listener. Podcast listening has increased steadily in the United States since 2013 – our own Social Science Bites podcast is the most popular content published here at Social Science Bites — and 49 percent of U.S. adults say they have listened to a podcast in the last year. But what information are listeners consuming, and are podcasts the news medium of the digital age?
A new study by Pew Research Center explored U.S. adults’ experiences with podcasts and the role podcasts play in the news and media people consume. The survey gathered responses from 5,132 U.S. adults from December 5 to 11, 2022. Individuals surveyed were all members of the organization’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative and randomly sampled online survey group.
According to the survey, one-in-five podcast users listen to them nearly every day, and listeners have various motivators for tuning in. For instance, 60 percent of podcast fans say entertainment is a major reason why they listen to podcasts, 55 percent say they listen to learn, 52 percent say they put on a podcast to have something to listen to while doing something else and only 29 percent say they listen to stay up to date on current events.
“Podcasts have become a big part of Americans’ routine, especially younger adults, offering unique news and information that many listeners say they wouldn’t have heard about elsewhere and often do not connect to a news organization,” said Katerina Matsa, Pew Research Center director of news and information research. “What’s interesting about the reasons behind Americans’ strong appetite for podcasts – less so for news, but more so for general entertainment or education.”
Two-thirds of podcast listeners, a third of all U.S. adults, note that they have heard news discussed on the podcasts they listen to, and 87 percent of people who hear news via podcasts believe it is credible and accurate. In fact, 55 percent of those who get their news from podcasts say they trust podcast news about the same as the news they get from other sources and 31 percent say they trust it more than the news they get from other sources. On the other hand, only 15 percent say they trust podcast news less than news from elsewhere.
Survey results indicate Republican podcast listeners are more likely than Democrats to trust podcast news more than news from other sources. Nonetheless, there is no significant difference between each party in the shares who listen to podcasts and hear news discussed on the podcasts they listen to. Around two-thirds of podcast listeners from each party say they have heard news while listening to a podcast.
Some creators, of course, are more credible sources than others. Podcasts by certified journalists such as The New York Times’ The Daily or the ‘true crime’ oriented NBC Dateline are consistently popular, but most podcast listeners say they don’t tune in to podcasts connected to news organizations. Only one-in-five listeners say they listen to a podcast connected to a news organization, and 59 percent say they don’t knowingly listen to any podcasts connected to a news organization. The rise in hearing news from untraditional sources could be a cause for both potential and alarm as people from any background can create a podcast, regardless of their authority on a topic.
Younger Americans are more likely to listen to podcasts than their older counterparts, according to the survey. Some 67 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have listened to a podcast in the past year, as opposed to 58 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 49, 42 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 65 and only 28 percent of adults ages 65 and older. Adults of different ages also differ in the reasons why they consume podcasts. For instance, 75 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 listen to podcasts for entertainment, and 70 percent tune-in to have something to listen to while doing something else. Alternatively, 61 percent of adults ages 65 and older who listen to podcasts consume podcasts to learn.
Podcast listeners also engage with the series they enjoy, and 60 percent say they watched a movie, read a book, or listened to music because of a podcast, and 52 percent say they followed a host on social media. Similarly, 36 percent of listeners say they’ve made a lifestyle change because of a podcast, and 28 percent have purchased a product advertised on a podcast.
Listeners also report consuming podcasts on various topics, and some of the most popular podcast categories include comedy, which 47 percent of podcast users listen to, and entertainment, pop culture and the arts, which 46 percent of podcast users listen to.
Listeners also seem to have an interest in science, with 40 percent indicating they regularly listen to podcasts about science and technology. Podcasts discussing content from a variety of social science disciplines, such as Hidden Brain, also interest podcast users. For instance, among podcast listeners, 41 percent listen to politics and government podcasts, 40 percent listen to history podcasts, 34 percent listen to true crime podcasts, 32 percent listen to self-help and relationship podcasts and 31 percent listen to money and finance podcasts.
For those with an interest in social science specifically, The Social Science Podcast Guide by Social Science Space compiles podcasts about the social and behavioral sciences. The podcasts on the guide are divided into categories separating podcasts about social science topics like sociology, psychology and research and academia from those influenced by social science subjects.
The guide features podcasts like The We Society by the Academy of Social Sciences, which includes interviews with top social scientists and discusses social science research and issues. The guide also includes The Sociology Show, hosted by Matthew Wilkin, which includes interviews with prominent sociologists, The LSE IQ Podcast by the London School of Economics and Political Science, which prompts social scientists and experts with questions about economics, politics or society and The Conversation Weekly by The Conversation, which includes interviews with scholars describing their research.
Social Science Space’s own podcast, Social Science Bites, hosted by former BBC journalist David Edmonds, features leading social scientists and describes how the social world is created and how social science helps create an understanding of human behavior. The podcast examines concepts like psychology, economics, political science, anthropology, geography and criminology.