While news publishers battle share for their share of total screen time, the rapidly-growing time spent on audio presents an important opportunity.
Schibsted News Media product director for premium subscription news Karl Oskar Teien says the share of users listening to podcasts per month has nearly doubled in Norway from 24 per cent in 2017 to 43 per cent in 2020, with Norwegian-language podcasts leading the charge.
“Users aged 16 to 24 years show the highest adoption rates, with listeners in this group averaging nearly two hours per day on podcasts or audiobooks,” he says in an INMA Media Leaders blog. “Among Swedish users in general, average time spent on podcasts and radio daily already matches that of digital news consumption.”
Fuelled by wireless headset adoption and an ever-growing selection of content made for listening, the audio trend represents a major opportunity for any company that aims to be relevant during all those moments when users are away from their screens.
“Although we cannot accurately predict how much total screen time – and news publishers’ share of it – will grow in the coming years, we clearly see that time spent on audio is growing rapidly,” he says. “Around the world, more people are listening regularly, and each person listens for a longer period of time.
“While audio as a product is nothing new per se, there are many ways in which the current move to audio is different from traditional broadcast radio.”
Teien points to hardware adoption – led by AirPods’ exponential growth and with several other wearable devices seeing double-digit sales growth over recent years. A 2022 report estimates three in four US teens now own AirPods, the convenience of which means people now wear headphones more often and in situations they previously wouldn’t – even while talking to their friends.
Additionally, the mobile devices are always connected, enabling users to listen to any topic, any time, while doing other things. The ability to multi-task is, as one would expect, one of the main reasons users turn to audio in their busy lives.
“Lastly, the sheer volume of content is growing rapidly, with an entire publishing industry transitioning to audiobooks. There are also all-time high investments from tech and media companies going into the podcast industry.”
Several audio-first start-ups have also emerged over the past few years. “In addition, industry experts talk about wearable audio as the first mass market adoption of AR devices,” he says. “For many young users, audio is the primary channel for news. Clearly, publishers who want to stay relevant must find their place in the audio domain.”
For news organisations, understanding the opportunity that comes with audio starts with acknowledging how the newspaper landscape has changed. “We’ve gone from a world of physically distributed newspapers – where there was little competition and a general scarcity of information – to a world of unlimited digital distribution and global competition for attention.
“In this world, news organisations are not just competing against each other but rather against any company distributing their product on a screen. Those other companies include technology giants with massive budgets and a world-class ability to get users addicted to their products.”
Teien says while tech and streaming giants dominate users’ visual attention, in the audio world, news as a category gets an outsized share of users’ attention, accounting for 30 per cent of top podcast episodes despite comprising only seven per cent of podcasts.
Increasing audio content production for news organisations has challenges, including costs cost for voice actors and studio time; time taken for recording and editing; and the risk of spending significant resources on content of low interest.
However, technology can enable production of more audio in smarter ways – Aftenposten has found readers will happily listen to synthetic voices fopr example – and the need for studios may soon disappear. Companies such as Nomono, in which Schibsted recently invested, are also challenging the workflow and costs of high-quality podcast production.
Teien says the need for both studios and narrators for narrated articles may soon be in the past. Synthetic voices offer some unique advantages, including unlimited production of narrated articles with near zero marginal cost. “Since it is connected to the publisher’s content management system, it also enables flexibility to update and edit published stories, without ever needing to step into a studio.
“The fact it can be scaled across the entire daily article output of a newspaper also means users can rely on the feature to listen to any article they prefer and do so while commuting or cooking at home.”
Early results from text-to-speech experiments at Aftenposten show the gap between human and synthetic voices is closing in terms of listener retention. Additionally, users opting for audio consumption complete more of each story compared to text.
Plans for enabling users to save stories for later listening, as well as the ability to queue synthetically narrated articles after premium flagship podcasts, may all lead to more widespread adoption of audio as a mode of news consumption.
“Looking back at the battle for users’ screen time, could it be that by focusing on users’ eyeballs, we miss an emerging behaviour change that may one day account for most of our time,” for narrated articles asks. “The next frontier in winning user attention might in fact be about sonic attention, and those who make the right investments now may be on a course to become the giants of the audio world.”
• Based on an article from Schibsted Future Report 2023.