This study takes a close look at key characteristics of podcasts. It is a part of Pew Research Center’s examination of the role of podcasts in the news and information environment in the U.S.

Researchers conducted an audit of 451 “top-ranked podcasts,” which are English-language podcasts that appeared on top podcast charts regularly in the U.S. between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2022. This analysis looked at several key podcast characteristics, including podcast topic, format and availability.

This is the latest report in Pew Research Center’s ongoing investigation of the state of news, information and journalism in the digital age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Podcast selection

Researchers determined which podcasts were top ranked through an analysis of daily chart data from Apple Podcasts and Spotify for the period April 1 through Sept. 30, 2022. Apple and Spotify podcast chart data provided by Podchaser, Inc. This daily chart data showed the top 200 podcasts on each site for each day during this period.

For each podcast, researchers calculated the average chart ranking during this period (excluding days on which a podcast was not in the top 200). Podcasts that appeared on the charts for fewer than seven days during this period were removed to ensure that this dataset did not include podcasts that were only popular for a short time.

Once the average chart position for each podcast was calculated, researchers identified the top 300 English-language podcasts on Apple Podcasts and the top 300 English-language podcasts on Spotify. These two lists were then combined, with researchers taking steps to ensure podcasts that were in the top 300 podcasts on both platforms were not included twice. Researchers performed this de-duplication through both a computational approach based on the podcast name and a manual review. After this process, the final sample was 451 podcasts.

Content analysis of top-ranked podcasts

Once the sample was drawn, a team of coders was trained on a set of variables that analyzed key characteristics of each podcast. This content analysis was conducted from Feb. 9 to April 21, 2023. Coders first examined the site where the podcast appeared on the top charts. They then conducted an internet search for each podcast in order to find its website and its listing on any of the four major podcast listing sites studied here: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. Information used to code the podcasts predominantly came from the podcast’s website, when available; from each podcast’s description on these listing sites; and from listening to portions of each podcast. For the last component, researchers listened to the first 2-5 minutes and last 2-5 minutes (excluding any time used for advertisements) of at least two and as many as five of the most recent episodes for each podcast.  

Inter-rater reliability (IRR) was tested using Krippendorff’s alpha on all variables that required judgement on the part of the coder.

Below are the main measures and their alphas:

  • News focus (0.758)
  • Affiliation (0.722)
  • News media affiliation (0.910)
  • Main topic (0.768)
  • Format (0.798)
  • Host structure (0.805)
  • Video type (average: 0.733)
  • Paid subscription (average: 0.672, min: 0.469)
  • Merchandise (0.644)

Podcast episode data

Frequency and duration were determined by examining the collection of all episodes published by these top-ranked podcasts in all of 2022 (including dates outside the April-September range used for selection). Researchers used a custom python script to collect metadata on each episode from the Apple Podcasts and Spotify APIs, depending on where the podcast was available.

To calculate duration, researchers averaged the length of all podcast episodes published by these podcasts during 2022. Each podcast was then categorized as generally producing episodes in 2022 that were on average less than 20 minutes, at least 20 minutes but less than about an hour (or 20-49 minutes), about an hour (50-70 minutes), or significantly longer than an hour (70+ minutes).

To calculate frequency, researchers divided the number of episodes produced in 2022 by the number of days between the publication dates of the first and last episodes published in 2022 (e.g., if a podcast’s first 2022 episode was published on June 1, and the last one on June 30, the number of days for that season was 30). This was done to treat podcasts that produce seasons with a limited number of episodes the same as podcasts that run throughout the year – otherwise, every podcast with a season would have an artificially low frequency. Podcasts were then categorized according to this frequency.

Podcasts that did not produce any episodes during 2022 (but still were in the top 200 charts during the analysis period) or that did not have any available episodes at collection time were not included in this part of the analysis. Fourteen podcasts did not produce any episodes during this time period, so a resulting total of 437 podcasts were analyzed for frequency and duration.