Listens and Downloads - Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

A data fiesta-val

I'm a bit under the weather this week, and taking a couple of days off to recuperate. So, my pain is a shared pain--a bonus early newsletter for you. What we pass on is not always a gift.

We released a brand new thing yesterday - a list of the 50 most listened-to podcasts in the U.S. in 2020. It is a thing I am immeasurably proud of, because it is based on listens, not downloads, and there is an extraordinary degree of difficulty involved. My friend James Cridland would point out that these aren't actual listens--we didn't directly observe the listening, and it is self reported data from a large sample (8,000+ weekly podcast listeners, continuously sampled daily throughout the entire year) who were instructed to look at their podcast player(s) of choice and write down what they listened to in the last week. So it's self-reported, yes, but it's a consistent list, quarter after quarter, and the pains we take to turn all of the raw text data we get in this project into rankers like this would horrify even the most persnickety of you.

In some aspects it looks like a download ranker, and in some it doesn't. That's OK. We are measuring humans, not bits, and humans don't always act the way we think. Our humble contribution to the art is not meant to replace the download, because that's how podcast business is transacted--and how our clients get paid, which in turn leads to my new Bugatti Veyron and the other trappings with which I surely must surround myself as a regionally successful Substack writer. And our data is not perfect, because there is no perfect data. The digital natives amongst you might sneer at the "estimates" of survey data compared to the census-level data of the download. But, let's examine a few scenarios together:

  • I start listening to Hardcore History on my phone, on my morning walk. Because my stamina is deficient to Dan Carlin's, I continue listening on my wi-fi network when I get home, and maybe again on a work computer, if there were "offices." Three unique downloads, one listen.

  • My wife and I both start our day together listening to NPR's Up First on our smart speaker. One download, two listens.

  • I downloaded 7 episodes of the Raised By Wolves podcast, thinking I would listen to it on walks after I finished the show. The show ended up being terrible at the end. Seven downloads, one listen (the Trailer.) Sorry, Ridley.

  • Last I looked at the leading download ranker, the #1 podcast (Joe Rogan) and the most listened-to network [[]] were not included. Gazillions of listens, no downloads.

  • The industry has coalesced around the IAB specification as a standardized way to count downloads. Part of the IAB spec is an agreement, made between humans, that for a valid download to be counted, the ID3 tag plus enough of the podcast content to play for 1 minute should have been downloaded. As a download spec, I support this. You have to draw a line. But if I bail on the Bill Simmons podcast halfway through his pre-roll ads, that's one download, no listens (though ZipRecruiter probably doesn't mind in this instance.) And once you start thinking along those lines, you could fill a book with more bullet points like these. But I'll stop now.

On Saturdays, I like to catch Rob Greenlee of Libsyn and Todd Cochrane of Blubrry record their New Media Show live on Facebook (OK, one more: that's one listen, no downloads, fellas). They would breathlessly react to this thusly: "You're trying to kill the download!" I'm trying to do no such thing. That implies premeditated malice. I'm not trying to kill the download, I just don't care about it all that much. It's a proxy metric for what I really want to know. What I really want to know is who listened--both the "who" part and the "listened" part.

Ultimately, though, if you back up and look at both our list and a leading download ranker, they don't disagree. They are both estimates, produced with care, and I would submit they both largely agree with reality. I don't want to replace the download, I want to make the download more useful. The IAB spec notes that "the medium is asynchronous and in most cases severed from data collection once delivered, which presents advertisers with measurement challenges." We are merely taking the pains to measure what is difficult. This is our verse in the play.

Back in a few days with something a little less “self-celebratory.” We all need to take some joy in our little victories now and then. By the way, if YOU have something to celebrate, pop by Clubhouse at 3:30 PM Eastern on a Friday and look for a room called “Flaunt-It Friday” with Jennifer Iannolo and Kate O’Neill. I promise you, it’s the least brag-gy and most inclusive place to celebrate whatever victories you want to celebrate this week. No “humble bragging” and no “10X YOUR BUSINESS” there—just delight and a “good on ya.” We all could use a “good on ya” from time to time.



Photo Credit: Axion23, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons. No, it’s not mine. Mine is in the garage. I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t allow photos of my personal Bugatti Veyron to preserve my privacy from the considerable Substack paparazzi.