Apple update disrupts podcast downloads, but blow is softened for some stations

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An update to Apple’s iOS last fall that caused concern in the podcasting world has caused significant drops in downloads for some public broadcasters, including NPR. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Released in September, iOS 17 included what Apple called “improvements to the way Automatic Downloads are handled.” If a user hasn’t listened to one of the last five episodes of a show they follow within 15 days, automatic downloads of that podcast will pause.

Additionally, when a user resumes automatic downloads, only new episodes are downloaded. Previously, if a user chose to resume automatic downloads, the app would download all episodes that weren’t previously downloaded. 

The change led This American Life creator Ira Glass to say at the Hot Pod Summit earlier this year, “It’s emotional. The numbers are emotional. A year ago, if I called somebody, I could have said, ‘Here’s the deal, here’s who we are: 4.5 million people hear us each week.’ And now I have to say 3.5 million, which still sounds like a lot. But it is a pain in my heart every time I say it.” 

Glass said that This American Life saw a 20% dip in downloads after the iOS update. 

Across the industry, 78% of 1,000 of the largest podcasts saw year-over-year decreases in downloads in February 2024, according to a Podtrac analysis. The average decline was more than 15%. 

The update also caused a large decline in downloads of NPR podcasts, according to Bryan Moffett, COO of National Public Media. He estimates the change caused NPR podcasts to see close to a 25% decline in downloads — which Moffett calls the “currency” of the podcast business — across NPR’s podcast portfolio. NPM sells sponsorship for NPR.

“You lost 25% of your downloads … so you’ve lost 25% of what you were able to sell in the market,” Moffett said. “So your ceiling gets lower, which is why you’re seeing a lot of turmoil right now in the industry.”

NPR averaged nearly 36 million weekly downloads in the first quarter of 2023, according to Triton Digital’s podcast ranker. In the first quarter of this year, NPR saw weekly downloads of about 26 million, a decrease of more than 27%. At the same time, NPR saw its average weekly podcast users grow by more than 6%. 

Meanwhile, the effects on public radio station podcasts have been mixed. Downloads on Apple Podcasts of Think With Krys Boyd, produced by KERA in Dallas, had dropped 37% six months after the iOS update compared to six months prior, according to a station spokesperson. 

At LAist in Pasadena, Calif., VP of Podcasting Shana Naomi Krochmal said the organization “dodged a little bit of a bullet” from the iOS change. It “didn’t see anywhere near as much of a drop as other people did,” she said.

“We don’t have as long and as deep a catalog as some folks do,” Krochmal said.

One factor softening the blow could have been the relaunch of a flagship show, Imperfect Paradise, as a weekly show instead of a limited series in September, she said. That built “momentum” as the show moved to “actively making new episodes every week now to bring in new listeners,” Krochmal said.

A bigger blow came with NPR’s decision to end local versions of Consider This, which came around the same time as the iOS change. LAist lost about 3 million downloads when the podcast ended. “We had limited ability to monetize that, but it was a good way for us to track our impact and reach,” she said.

A lift from NPR

Rebecca Lavoie, director of on-demand audio at New Hampshire Public Radio, was bracing for a big hit in the first half of this year due to the iOS update. But so far, the opposite has happened.

While the podcast she hosts independently of NHPR, Crime Writers On, has seen a “significant impact” and a drop in downloads of 25-30%, NHPR has “seen no impact at all,” Lavoie said.

“Our audiences have continued to grow significantly through the iOS transition,” she said. The 12-month download average is up 55% for both of its regularly published podcasts, Outside/In and Civics 101

Over the last year, the station has become less reliant on Apple, with more of its audience coming through NPR promotions and technology: the NPR app, link-outs from in-app promos and NPR newsletters, and NPR’s technology that drives the Alexa smart speaker interface.

For Civics 101, 42% of the audience came through Apple and 19% through NPR technologies from January to April 2023. For that same time period this year, the audience from Apple had fallen to 25%, while listening from NPR technologies jumped to 47%. 

NPR merging its apps “seems to have played a significant role” in the growth, Lavoie said. She had concerns about the merger’s impact, especially because it roughly coincided with the iOS update, but the station has seen “nothing but growth” in the past eight months, she said.  

On NPR’s merged app, the “discoverability opportunity is greater having one audience funnel through a single place,” Lavoie said. And when NHPR alerts NPR about a forthcoming podcast episode, the merged app offers “more opportunities for placement.”  

“It’s just been a benefit that we didn’t realize would be so significant, and we’re honestly very excited about it,” she said.

Growth seen in downloads

NPR also took steps to mitigate the impact of the iOS change. Though downloads have dropped, podcast sponsorship has seen less of a decline, Moffett said.

NPR added more sponsorship breaks to some shows. Its podcasts have a standard ratio of sponsorship messaging versus content. Some podcasts that had room took on more breaks, so the additional sponsorship had a bigger impact. “That helped cut the losses, because even though we had less downloads, we were able to have a little more sponsorship in each one that was left,” Moffett said.

NPR also increased the “cadence” of shows such as Pop Culture Happy Hour and Short Wave, producing more episodes to offset the decrease in downloads, he said. 

Now that the dust of the iOS update has settled, download numbers have “definitely stabilized” at NPR, Moffett said. “And if anything, users are starting to grow again. Downloads are starting to grow again, a little bit.”

While the change significantly affected NPR’s downloads, Moffett said he sees it as a good long-term move. 

“It’s really helping the quality of the inventory we have left, because it’s pretty safe to assume the vast majority of those catch-up downloads never actually led to a listen,” he said.

He just wishes Apple would have given publishers more of a heads-up.

“It would have just been nice to have a little more coordination a couple months in advance,” he said. The timing meant that the change happened around what is “typically your strongest sale period going right into October, November, December.”

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