A small change at Apple reveals how small podcasting's audience really is

A small change in Apple's rules about how idle a subscriber can be has deflated the Podcasting industry's stats.

Most podcasts are too niche. They don't have large, engaged audiences, but having signed up subscribers along the way, their numbers may look inflated. Apple recently determined that subscribers who haven't listened in 5 episodes will see their downloads paused, and podcasters are taking in where it counts—the paycheck.

The shift, Apple wrote in a blog post, was technical: The dominant podcasting platform had begun switching off automatic downloads for users who haven't listened to five episodes of a show in the last two weeks.

But while few users noticed the shift, some of the biggest podcasts in the world saw their official listener numbers drop dramatically. Long-running shows that publish frequently were hit particularly hard. A user who listened to a show like The New York Times' The Daily a few times, subscribed, but stopped listening would continue to count as a download indefinitely. Even better under the old rules: For people who listened to a show, dropped off for a while, but started listening again later, Apple would automatically download every show in between. The arrangement drove big download numbers, a crucial metric for ad sales and a sign of the vast reach of podcasts as a medium…

The shift came with no immediate warning. People who work on audio at The New York Times, NPR, and other major publishers told Semafor they were surprised by the September change, which had been years in the making but came with no advanced warning from Apple. One podcast network told Semafor it had seen its downloads drop between single digits and low double digits depending on the show. Another well-known podcaster and executive said for some shows, the decline in downloads was as high as 40%.

"Nearly every podcast that regularly publishes got an enormous haircut," one podcast industry insider said.


I was shocked, moving back to Los Angeles in 2020, at what an industry podcasting had become. There were script writers, producers, voice actors, and studios. Santa Monica College was teaching courses in podcasting. I was surprised because the quality of most of the stuff I listen to still seems self-produced, and many of the larger podcasts I've come across always seem embroiled in plagiarism and other unsavory claims about sourcing their content. I guess it was all built on hot air and bad statistics.