The personal listening rotation

One of the great freedoms of podcasting is that you can listen anywhere, any time. To distinguish it from schedule-bound radio, I sometimes call this medium “on demand internet audio”. Yet with a regularly publishing podcast, the majority of a new episode’s total listeners tend to listen in the 48 hours after its release. Newcomers to a show will go back and binge through the back catalogue, but they’re in the minority. (Occasionally, after some publicity or a high profile recommendation, you’ll see a new spike on an episode long after its release, but that’s not the common pattern.)

Some of the best advice you’ll ever receive if you’re starting a new podcast is to be consistent, both with your content and your publishing schedule. People ask me sometimes what the best day to release a new episode is, and my answer is always ‘the same day of the week that you released the last one on’. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

The reason for this is that you’re trying to teach your audience the habit of listening to your podcast: if it always comes out on a Tuesday at midday, they’ll get into the swing of always looking for it in their app on their way home from work on that day, or whatever other regular activity they want a podcast accompaniment for. There are a lot of podcasts in the world now, and nobody is obligated to listen to your show. It doesn’t take much for people to forget about it and listen to something else instead.

If all this talk about publishing schedules and listener habits sounds a bit old media, it’s because it is. Podcasts are a new shiny form of media in lots of ways, but the people who consume them are the same ones who used to enjoy watching their favourite soap on the same nights every week.

People like routine, and consistency, and constancy. Just because they can pick a random podcast at 3am on a Sunday and press play, doesn’t mean that they will choose to do that. As anyone who has ever made a long-running podcast will tell you, listeners are loyal. If you tell them to expect a new episode on a particular day, they’ll look out for it (and send you an email, half concerned and half irritated, to check that you’re still alive if it doesn’t appear — this has happened to me several times).

Essentially, people build their own personal podcast schedule from the shows they like, and as a podcaster you are fighting to be included in it. I like to call this the “personal listening rotation”. In my own podcast consumption habits, there are some shows that belong in my schedule by default, some which I rotate in if I have extra listening time in a particular week because of travel, and others that are on trial for a permanent slot.

For instance, I am currently auditioning Forever35, Ear Hustle, The Nod and The Cinemile. I am not going to say what the shows in my core listening schedule are because I think it would be embarrassing, I do not really listen to a lot of shows that I think are considered to be “required” by some in this field. Eg other than the occasional individual episode recommended by a friend, I haven’t listened to This American Life in about five years. See, it’s embarrassing for me, I’m supposed to be a critic here.

According to the research, the average listener (in the US) is consuming seven podcasts a week. Although the survey doesn’t test for this, I would bet that for most people at least four of those are the same weekly shows. For the podcaster, that’s a tough group to break into. Publishing consistently is the way to do it, I’m afraid, boring as that is: if you want someone to tune in regularly, you have to make sure that it’s easy for them to do that.