Four reasons podcasts connect deeply with listeners

21 June 2021 | By: Heather Eng, Senior Editorial lead

Last year was supposed to be a challenging year for digital audio.

In early 2020, the industry braced for a drop in listeners – after all, when do most people listen to podcasts or stream music? When they’re commuting. And with more people staying home, that so-called “drive time” – or “public transport time”, in many cases – disappeared.

Yet, digital audio proved resilient. The time US adults spent listening to digital audio grew 8.3% year over year in 2020.1 Customers around the world – from France, to the UK, to Germany – are streaming more podcasts, music and other audio content, year over year.2

“The number of people listening to podcasts has been increasing rapidly across the world,” says Kintan Brahmbhatt, Director, Podcasts, Amazon Music. “For instance, in the United States, an estimated 80 million Americans listen to podcasts each week.”3

Digital audio is here to stay. And for those in the podcasting business, there’s a good reason for that: Podcasts have a unique way of capturing audiences’ attention and building emotional connections.

A recent Adweek “At Home” event, presented by Amazon Advertising, brought together a panel of creative thinkers from the podcasting world, including Brahmbhatt; Van Jones, Political Commentator and Podcast Host; Jen Sargent, Chief Executive Officer, Wondery; and Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams, Hosts, “Even the Rich”. Here, we share some of their insights on why podcasts are a powerful channel that’s changing the way we listen.

Clockwise from upper left: Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams, Hosts, “Even the Rich”; Jen Sargent, Chief Executive Officer, Wondery; Van Jones, Political Commentator and Podcast Host; Kintan Brahmbhatt, Director, Podcasts, Amazon Music

Podcasts can support a dialogue on social issues

Podcasts, by virtue of their format, are an intimate medium. Rather than TV or movies, which can be most effective on a large screen with the volume turned up, podcasts are often one voice in listeners’ ears.

“Talk radio has its own tenor and tone. Cable television does, too. But podcasting still feels innocent,” says Jones. “It still feels honest. And I think there's an opportunity for it to support a different type of conversation.”

For Jones, that means using the medium to shine a light on social issues ranging from mass incarceration to voter outreach. In today’s world, many issues are polarised. Yet, Jones sees the intimacy of podcasts as a way to create dialogue, the way people might within a small community.

“Let’s talk and try to understand each other’s feelings, rather than fighting about each other’s facts,” says Jones. “I think the days of a consensus society where we’re all going to have the same facts are over. But we can still have empathy for each other’s feelings about those facts.”

The co-hosts of “Even the Rich”, Siffrinn and Skidmore-Williams, have seen their podcast evolve similarly. Their series looks into the lives of famous family dynasties, from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to the Murdochs.

“It used to be talking about the royals and how much money they have and how much they spend on their wedding and their yachts,” says Siffrinn. “Over time, we began advocating for these women. Now our show is almost always about the strong women in the story, the empathy we have for the women, and how they're treated in the tabloids so much differently than the men.”

Listeners are responding positively. They liken listening to the podcast to having an intimate conversation with friends.

It resonates because we’re bringing out the human side of celebrities. We’re sharing their stories, as if they were our friends.– Brooke Siffrinn, host, “Even the Rich”

Podcasts are designed to capture listeners’ interest for the long haul

Unlike other media, podcasts require a substantial time investment.

“We're asking for people's time, and it's not a minute or two,” says Sargent, CEO of Wondery, the podcast network that features character-driven storytelling. “Typically it can be 30 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes. Stories really need to resonate.”

To capture listeners’ attention for that period of time, Wondery develops stories with a customer-centric approach.

“One of the things we, at Wondery, were most excited about, in terms of joining Amazon and Amazon Music, is that Amazon is [one of] the most customer-centric companies in the world. And we really try to put listeners first,” says Sargent. “Every time we think about telling a story, we ask, ‘why?’ Why is the listener going to care? Why is this going to impact them? Why are they going to stop listening to one of the podcasts they're already listening to and listen to this show?”

When considering what podcasts to green-light, Sargent and the Wondery team also evaluate whether the topic has the potential to drive cultural conversation. In addition, they seek to develop stories that have multiple entry points to meet customers where they are and bring them in.

Podcasts can help listeners see their world in new ways

One of Wondery’s most well-known podcasts is “Dr. Death”. The series, reported and hosted by medical journalist Laura Beil, tells the tale of Christopher Duntsch, a Dallas-based neurosurgeon, and the patients he treated.

“What made ‘Dr. Death’ resonate was not just the story about a doctor who had gone too far,” says Sargent. “What connected for people was the fact that we're all going to be patients someday – and this is a hospital system that we all rely on. In the case of ‘Dr. Death’, this doctor fell through the cracks at every stage of the process, from medical school, to residency, to his first hospital, to a second hospital. The message from the podcast is to always get a second opinion.”

The power of “Dr. Death” was more than a bingeable story. It was connecting with people on a deeper level, by highlighting a real issue – the risk of medical malpractice – that touches listeners’ lives.

Podcasts tap into humans’ innate needs for storytelling

The Wondery team often heard that their stories had staying power and fostered a human connection with listeners. They were curious about how listeners processed audio ads in podcasts versus video ads, so they partnered with Mindshare’s NeuroLab. The resulting study, “Your brain on podcasts”, found that listeners’ connections to the ads on podcasts were higher than their connections and emotional responses to video ads on social media.4

“Listeners trusted, remembered and connected with the ads better in audio than they did in visual storytelling,” Sargent says. “There's something very special and profound about storytelling, period. It's such a powerful mechanism to get a point across, to create connection, and to get people to remember.”

One reason why: “Audio storytelling, oral narration, has been the oldest form of communication,” says Jones.

And any form of media rooted in such a deep and innate human interaction is sure to create connections with its audience.

1 “The impressive resilience of digital audio”, eMarketer, 2021.
2 Global Media Intelligence 2020: France, eMarketer, 2020; How the pandemic affected our UK digital audio listener forecast, eMarketer, 2021; Global Media Intelligence 2020: Germany, eMarketer, 2020.
3 “The Infinite Dial 2021”, Edison Research and Triton Digital, 2021.
4 “Your Brain on Podcasts.” Mindshare Neurolab and Wondery, 2019.