Podcasts vs Radio: What's the Difference?


You're reading a post from Backyard Media's Podcasting 101, a series of guides meant to explain podcasting and podcast advertising to companies that are new to podcast sponsorship. To see our other guides, click here

If you've been on the Internet much in the past few years, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about podcasts. Since Serial debuted in 2014, the podcast industry has seen a huge amount of growth in terms of investment, the number of industry players, and the quality of content produced. Many people getting acquainted with podcasts often ask us what differentiates podcasts from other media. The confusion makes some sense: podcasts sound almost identical to what we hear on NPR, Sirius XM, and even some TV news channels. So, what makes podcasts so special? What are the differences between podcasts and radio, and what do these differences mean for companies that want to advertise on podcasts? In this guide, we'll break down the most important differences for advertisers: the technology underlying podcasts, how the industry is set up, the differences in content and audience, and the overall takeaways for sponsors.


The technology difference

Podcasts operate on a different kind of technology than most types of radio. Podcasts are usually created as sound files (MP3 or occasionally another audio format). Creators distribute these files using what’s called an RSS feed - a complex, unreadable web page that distributes updates to smartphone apps, specialized RSS readers, and other platforms. These feeds allow creators to post new podcast episodes in much the same way they might for a new blog post. Listeners automatically receive these episodes in their smartphone apps (referred to as “podcatchers”). Online platforms like Stitcher, TuneIn, and Spotify allow people to stream podcasts without needing a podcatcher app.

Compare this setup with that of commercial radio, which beams radio signals from physical stations to a pre-defined geographic area (and increasingly, via online livestreams on the station's website). Signals only go so far, listeners must find the correct FM or XM station number, and it's difficult to catch a program unless you're already in the car, or you have a radio or a special smartphone app on hand.

All of these underlying technology differences mean that listeners can consume podcasts whenever they want, independent of when they are created or distributed. This essential fact of podcasts has been true since the early 2000s and has become even more true with the rise of the smartphone.

In the last few years, innovations in smart speaker technology like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are changing the way listeners discover and consume podcasts. Many podcasts and media companies are creating smart speaker playlists and podcast directories through which audiences can start consuming podcasts using only their voice. Podcasts are becoming even easier to discover and listen to, far from the old practice of fiddling with a radio or TV dial to find the right program.


The industry difference

Organizationally, the podcast industry is still in its adolescence when compared to radio outfits like NPR or TV media conglomerates. We can break down the industry into four different types of actors:

Private Podcast Studios – These are privately funded, for-profit companies that create podcast content. Prominent examples include Gimlet Media, Panoply, Pineapple Street Media, Crooked Media, 5by5, and others.

Legacy Media Companies – These media companies have leveraged their existing reporting and production talent to offer podcast-first content to their audiences. The biggest media companies that have gotten into podcasts include The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Vox Media. Most notably, National Public Radio and its member stations like WNYC, WBUR, and WBEZ have used their public radio know-how to seamlessly transition to podcasts. WBEZ's 2014 blockbuster show Serial is one example of a media property that came from public radio.

Independent Podcast Creators – These creators don’t have affiliations with either of the above groups. They might be small teams of hosts and producers, or solo creators who wear many hats, developing, hosting, producing, editing, and managing a show on their own. These are the types of high-quality, dedicated podcast creators that Backyard Media works with: people who have great content and loyal audiences, and who need sponsorship to grow their shows. Some creators have banded together in recent years to create podcast networks like Radiotopia and Maximum Fun, which provide logistical support and funding through listener subscriptions.

Finally, there are Podcast Agencies that provide support structures for podcast creators, whether that be technical hosting, talent acquisition, funding or advertising. Backyard Media is one such company that’s innovating in this space, trying to make seamless the connections between sponsor, creator, and listener.

For potential sponsors, the main point is that podcasting does not look the same in every part of the industry. Podcast shows come in different sizes, with different kinds of production teams and different funding and support structures behind them, but they all have the same aim: to create stellar podcast content.


The content difference

The differences we've mentioned so far are logistical in nature: how podcast technology is set up differently from radio, and how players in the podcast industry have organized themselves. These differences also have a strong impact on the kinds of podcast content that creators produce. That content can sound very different when compared to commercial radio, public radio, and other types of digital media.

First, the fact that listeners can consume podcasts whenever they want (also called "time-shifted listening") means that podcasts have more evergreen content. "Evergreen" refers to topics that aren't time-sensitive. Because of this, much of the content you hear on podcasts are the opposite of your local nightly newscast. Podcasts hosts know their audiences can tune in the day after they publish their newest episode, or three years after the fact. As such, they're more intentional in the types of content they cover and the way they approach their topics.

Second, the medium of podcasting is still relatively new. Compared to radio, which has been around for nearly one hundred years, podcasting is around 15 years old. This shorter history means that creators are still defining the rules of the road for podcasts. Creators don't have to abide by style guides or rigid rules about the types of content that are appropriate. In many ways, podcasts are at the forefront of digital media. Podcast hosts and producers are playing with new types of formats, new ways of communicating information, and new ways of using sound and storytelling to engage listeners. WBEZ's Serial is again a great example. Host Sarah Koenig was reinventing the radio serials of the 1920s and 1930s for a new medium, following one story week after week. And the New York Times' The Daily podcast is one of the most popular "daily news" podcasts, a relatively new format meant to give commuters the most important news stories of the last 24 hours, all in under 20 minutes.

Finally, we mentioned that there are many different podcast industry players creating podcasts. One result of this is the incentives for podcast creators hoping to attract large audiences are incredibly different compared to those for TV or radio, where producers attempt to find content that appeals to the widest group of people. Podcasts are essentially niche content products. A speaker at the recent 2018 Podcast Movement conference in Philadelphia put it succinctly:

“The people that succeed [in podcasting] go one or two inches wide and a mile deep.”
— John Lee Dumas, Podcast Movement 2018

If we take a quick look at the Apple Podcasts Top 100 chart, this axiom rings true - the shows that attract the most devoted audiences are the ones that go deep on one or two very focused topics, like the best practices for freelance software engineers, discussions of Supreme Court law, or how to manage your personal finances better. Podcast listeners are seeking out content that speaks specifically to their interests, rather than going to shows that appeal to the average listener.


The audience difference

Because podcasts are unique in the types of content they cover, it's no surprise that podcast audiences behave differently. For one, podcast listeners are dedicated to the medium. A 2018 study by Edison Research found that weekly podcast listeners consume more than five hours of content per week and that number is growing every year. Furthermore, the number of distinct podcasts that listeners hear is up to an average of seven episodes per week, with over a third of listeners consuming more than that.

That number wouldn't mean as much if we didn't also include this next fact: podcast listeners almost always consume the entirety of a podcast once they start it.

ID 2018 Percent of pod listened to.PNG

Think of how this compares to how people consume radio programming. Most people listen to the radio in their car during their commute, and at best will catch a program a few minutes after it's started and consume more than half of it before their commute is over. TV, while more on-demand than ever, still serves as a secondary, background medium for many people. When it comes to podcasts, listeners are dedicated to podcasts they listen to, and consume an increasingly large number of them every week. There's evidence that one reason for this unique dedication to the medium comes from listeners' perceived relationship with the hosts of podcasts they listen to. Many studies on podcast listenership show that listeners feel they have a personal relationship with the podcast host, and that they trust the host's opinion when it comes to their recommendations of sponsors' products.

When it comes to the demographics of podcast audiences, all of the data we have tells us that the audiences tuning into podcasts are noticeably different from the overall US adult population.

First, podcast listeners have higher incomes. When looking at the income breakdown of monthly podcast listeners versus the US adult population, we see that:

  • 14% of podcast listeners make between $75,000 and $100,000, compared to 13% of US adults.

  • 15% of podcast listeners make between $100,000 and $150,000, compared to 12% of US adults.

  • 16% of podcast listeners make more than $150,000, compared to 10% of US adults.

Podcast listeners are also more likely to have advanced degrees:

  • 30% of podcast listeners reported having an advanced degree or some graduate education, compared to 22% of US adults.

  • 27% of podcast listeners have four-year degrees, compared to 19% of US adults.

For sponsors, this mean that podcast audiences are exactly the right type of consumers to target for their products or services. They have higher-than-average disposable income and an expressed interest in hearing about products and services while they listen to podcasts. A recent study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that 70% of respondents who identified as podcast listeners said that "the products and services they learn about on podcasts are generally relevant to their interests."


Podcasts vs Radio: The difference for sponsors

So what does this all mean for companies looking to sponsor podcasts? When we look at podcasts vs radio, or even podcasts compared to other digital media, what should marketers keep in mind?

First, the types of content that podcasters are making requires a more personalized type of ad. Ads are often read by the host, so companies must work with creators to ensure hosts have a real familiarity with the product and have tried it if possible. Sponsors should also give hosts the ability to adjust an ad's copy to provide personal anecdotes about the product, in addition to the must-mention points that are the ad's core message. (For more ideas on how to customize your campaign so that it's podcast-ready, check out our guide "5 Things Companies Need to Know Before Getting into Podcast Sponsorship")

Second, between the unique setup of podcasts as a form of distributed content, the types of independent creators making podcasts, and the cutting-edge content they're creating, sponsors should feel free to work with creators and experiment with the types of ad campaigns they do. At Backyard Media, we've seen everything from a multiple-episode ad buys to season-long sponsorships and sponsored guest interviews. Podcast creators are often open to innovative types of advertising, and so are their listeners.

Finally, sponsors shouldn't underestimate the difference in value between podcast audiences and other digital media audiences. Podcast audiences are more valuable on average than US adults as a whole, and their unique level of dedication to the medium shows up in the ROI of sponsors' ad campaigns. For more on the value of podcast audiences, see our guide on how podcasts can improve a company's brand lift.


This guide is part of Backyard Media's Podcasting 101, a series of guides meant to explain podcasting and podcast advertising to companies new to podcast sponsorship. Want to read more guides written specifically for new podcast sponsors? Click here to see our other guides.