Listen up: Podcasts adapt to thrive in self-isolation

Listening figures are up, says Acast, as audiences seek both coronavirus updates and escape

We all need to be vigilant to the dangers, tweeted Derry Girls actor Nicola Coughlan: "I know this time of self-isolation is hard and scary for people, but however bad you are feeling, please, please don't consider starting your own podcast."

It was a good joke: as we entered 2020, podcast stockpiles were overflowing, and a new explosion of pods centred on toilet roll supplies, home exercise regimes and waving from afar might be regarded as a mixed blessing.

But jokes aside, there's little doubt: podcasts have been absolutely brilliant over the past 2½ weeks. They have played a blinder. One podcast platform, Acast, has reported a 7 per cent surge in listening globally for the weekend March 21st-22nd, or the equivalent of 750,000 more listens. It was, it says, its biggest-ever weekend.

Stay-at-home orders have created a captive audience for any media that can be consumed in the home. The next set of listenership figures for the Irish radio market will likely show a corona-pattern too. While time slots that derive their audience from car radio listening may notice the lack of commuters, others will thrive amid the all-day public need for both news and escape.


The motivation for pressing play on podcasts, still a small fraction of total audio listening, is similarly twofold: people want urgent information about the Covid-19 pandemic, but they are also desperately searching for distractions from it for the sake of their mental health.

A plethora of new corona-themed podcasts has arrived to cater for the first need. The Irish Times has a daily one called Confronting Coronavirus, while a browse of the main platforms – Apple, Acast and Spotify – reveals the others. CNN was one of the first out of the traps with Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction, while Australia's ABC News nabbed the Coronacast title and the BBC reshaped its just-launched Newscast podcast (a successor to Brexitcast) into a Coronavirus Newscast.

So what if the things you normally turn to for respite from the harsh world are having corona-problems of their own?

More than 1,400 podcast episodes covering coronavirus were hosted on the Acast platform in the two months to March 24th, while episodes that referred to “corona” or “Covid” in the title were downloaded more than 27.5 million times in that period, it says, with listenership to the science and medicine, health and education pod genres all swelling.

Entertainment need

But so, too, did the popularity of entertainment podcasts. This shouldn't be a surprise. The news cycle has of late been both bewilderingly fast and painfully extended. Daily life has changed with dramatic speed, and yet the ultimate outcome of the pandemic, as plotted on frightening graphs, is unfolding in slow horror. It wasn't an accident that Leo Varadkar, in the same speech in which he classed Irish media as an important trusted source, also encouraged people to take regular breaks from consuming news, as "obsessively following the latest developments" would not be good for anyone.

But forgetting about coronavirus is easier said than done. Long lists of the best books, films and TV shows to consume in days of self-isolation and social distancing are well-intentioned, of course, but if your powers of concentration have been well and truly snapped, it will be hard to get properly stuck in. Audio may prove a gentler, stealthier diversion.

So what if the things you normally turn to for respite from the harsh world are having corona-problems of their own?

Podcasts based specifically on people getting together in a room have been busy figuring out remote recording substitutes, often on a steep technology learning curve. "This is the closest I've been to people all day, and you're all in little boxes," says podcaster Lennie Ware on the latest edition of round-to-ours cooking podcast Table Manners with Jessie Ware, now serving "virtual dinner" over Zoom.

If a podcast was any good in the first place, the connection it has with its listeners should be strong enough to survive the absence of new sporting results

The great pleasure of podcasts is the way they hone in on niches, with no formal interruptions from news headlines, even if there’s no money in it (which there usually isn’t). A glaring complication arises when the things they pore over – the things that usually happen day in, day out – aren’t happening at all anymore. What does, say, a football podcast do without football?

Listenership to sports podcasts waned in mid-March, according to Acast’s data. But the platform also expects that they will recover soon as podcasters adapt their content and formats to sport-less times. Covering how athletes are responding to the crisis, dipping into archives of past glories and dredging up old speculative debates are some of the ways they have been doing that.

Listener connection

And if a podcast was any good in the first place, the connection it has with its listeners should be strong enough to survive the absence of new sporting results.

The stream of old favourites populating my podcasts library is more valuable to me than ever, though the spectre of coronavirus can sometimes intrude in unexpected fashion. On a recent episode of Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, recorded last autumn yet always destined for publication this March, Herring and fellow comedian Rachel Parris wonder where the world will be by the time their conversation goes out. Can they even assume that Boris Johnson is still the UK prime minister?

“The people who are listening know. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? They’re laughing at us,” says Herring. “They’re really having a laugh at us. ‘You idiots, there’s been a nuclear war since you recorded this.’”

Close, but also, ouch.