Why So Few People Listen to Podcasts on Smart Speakers - and How to Fix That

Owners of smart speakers report a rise in audio listening, but podcast listening has not benefited much at all.  In fact, several sources report that podcast listening represents less than 1% of the audio they serve.

What is the disconnect between smart speakers and podcasts? And what can be done to move the needle on podcast listening on these popular devices?


At last week’s Podcast Movement, I had the great pleasure of moderating the first session of the "Broadcasters Meet Podcasters" track assembled by Jacobs Media; “Alexa, Play Me A Podcast." In a category that is nascent and rapidly changing, it is clear that we are all learning on the job in real time.  We stopped the clock for a moment to compare notes. 

On the panel were top media executives including Meg Goldthwaite, CMO of NPR.  They lead the sector with early content on both Alexa and Google Home. Justin Chase, EVP Programming from Beasley Media. Beasley has built rich skills for their 65 radio stations. Rob McCracken, Director of Business Development at E.W. Scripps. They have developed skills and Flash Briefings for their TV and radio stations as well as their leading podcast company Midroll. Will Mayo is CEO of audio start-up Spoken Layer which develops smart speaker content for many of the nation’s top newspaper groups, and Bob Kernen, COO of Jacapps which has developed hundreds of mobile apps and now audio skills for smart speaker platforms.

For most, this was the first panel dedicated exclusively to smart speakers. It was clear to all that these are early innings as people learn and experiment with novelty skills such as “Jurassic Bark,” Thunderstorm Sounds and Nicholas Cage Trivia.  At the same time, audio and music top the list of things people are using smart speakers for, so the call to action for all audio sources is of critical importance.

Spoken Layer’s Will Mayo calls it “a train wreck of innovation and scaling” but likens it to all new technology that ends up in consumers hands and pockets.  “We are in the sandbox right now.”   

Rob McCracken/Scripps, Will Mayo/Spoken Layer, Bob Kernen/Jacapps, Justin Chase/Beasley, Meg Goldthwaite/NPR, Steve Goldstein/Amplifi-Moderator

Rob McCracken/Scripps, Will Mayo/Spoken Layer, Bob Kernen/Jacapps, Justin Chase/Beasley, Meg Goldthwaite/NPR, Steve Goldstein/Amplifi-Moderator

The panel debated whether the length of podcasts was problematic with many running as long as an hour and that podcasts may be too much of a "lean-in" experience on passive devices. There is a sense that “bite-size” content tends to perform best on smart speakers.  Goldthwaite noted the success of short hourly news updates via Flash Briefings on the Alexa platform and the equivalent of NPR News Now on Google Home.  People will listen while they do their dishes and move on. Listening span is likely linked to the room the device lives in.  For example listening in the bathroom versus a family room probably is different.

“The problem is promotion,” said Rob McCracken, reminding everyone that the needle doesn't move without extensive education and promotion.  McCracken says he plainly sees the relationship between effective promotion and use of briefings on smart speakers. Scripps has created custom Flash Briefings for their TV stations in markets from Detroit to Nashville and urges them to cross-promote with ad buys on their TV stations and other platforms.  

To educate the audience about smart speakers, NPR created a series of short and creative instructional videos on their website to illustrate the various ways to connect with NPR on smart speaker devices. 

Jacapps’s Bob Kernen cautioned not to make skills too complex and that  "invocations" are simple and clear.  Many podcast names can be confusing for smart speaker devices, and suggested that everyone try their show name to see what happens and make adjustments with developers.   “Alexa is not that smart” cautioned Kernen. He reminded the audience that in actuality, smart speakers are computers that need to be taught.

Navigating podcast episodes by voice can be challenging, and problematic. No simple solution was evident.  

NPR short video demonstrating how to listen to audio on a Google Home smart speaker https://youtu.be/0pINOYLxTSQ

Meg Goldthwaite and Will Mayo noted that there is a need to standardize invocation across all device types so that asking for the "San Francisco Chronicle" is the same on Alexa, Google and others.  

Beasley’s Chase sees these devices as accretive to overall listening and noted an increase in streamed audio across the board.  Chase says; “it is not an audience shift, but audience addition.” 

There was talk about keeping up with how devices are being used in homes. Goldthwaite reminded us; “you have kids,” and based on the demography of who is using these devices, kids are a crucial segment.

The opportunity for podcast listening on smart speaker devices is significant - it involves clarity, ease of navigation, the right content and consistent promotion -  it is clearly not as simple as saying "Hey Google, play a podcast."  

(Full disclosure - We have a partnership with Jacobs Media developing audio strategy and tactics for smart speakers through a venture called "Sonic Ai") 








Steven GoldsteinComment