Twice a year we step back and look at the overall digital trends in public media. In last year's PubMetrics presentations, the news about live streaming was mostly positive: While cume wasn't growing, our existing audience was listening more often, so listening time overall was still on the rise.
As we look at spring data, that story has now changed, and not in a good direction. When we look at data on 239 public radio streams, we see that total listening hours is down 6% from Q1 last year to Q1 this year. Total listening hours is a helpful summary metric because it encapsulates the number of streaming sessions and how long each session is. After slow, steady growth for quite a while, streaming has turned a corner.
We have a few other clues about what's going on. Streaming cume is down 11% March to March, so the biggest driver of the decline is simply that fewer people are streaming. Those loyal listeners who continue to stream are doing so more often - session starts are actually up 15%. But these sessions are also getting shorter as people tune in an average of 46 minutes per session.
In the past, music streams were showing more decline and news streams were fairly steady, but now both formats are showing a drop in total listening hours and cume. We know that Pandora and its cousins continue to chip away are public radio music listening, but it's worrisome to see our news streams also falling.
Is this decline in streaming the new reality or just a temporary valley? It's too early to say. If it's the new reality, we need to ask ourselves some key questions.
Are people simply listening less in general using digital channels? The answer to this seems to be no. Data from Edison Research shows the number of US digital radio listeners continues to grow strongly. Much of that, of course, is Pandora and Spotify. Commercial radio streaming isn't really growing.
Are public radio streamers shifting to other modes of listening? Probably. On-demand audio listening, whether it's podcasts or individual story segments, is on the rise across the board. For example, NPR podcasts have almost doubled in total downloaded hours since a year ago. Stations such as WBUR are also seeing large growth. And this growth isn't just the same old listeners. Unique users who download NPR podcasts are up 29% in a year.
A lot of digital listening to public radio is now on-demand, not live streaming. When we look at the stations that are participating in our on-demand audio measurement, we see that on-demand audio is already a third of all digital listening. That's just listening to station content, not including NPR podcasts. We believe that number will only get higher.
Here's the big question: Are we all investing enough in the creation and distribution of on-demand audio? Are your listeners aware of your podcasts? Could you create a new podcast based on material you're already producing? Are your audio story segments available on Stitcher and many other aggregators?
If the future of audio is increasingly about people curating their own on-demand listening, we need to meet audiences where they are.
(You can watch the PubMetrics webinar or download the slides on nprstations.org.)