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A bright — and young — year for audio

“Already mobile-tethered and expecting content on demand, young people are a prime audience for this evolution of audio-based news.”

As any Nieman Lab reader knows all too well, audiences have progressively sagged for most segments of the news media over the last many years. But radio bucks that trend. Over the last nine years, terrestrial radio (which of course includes formats beyond news) has held steady, and public radio’s audience actually grew over the last couple of years. That’s encouraging.

Moving from terrestrial to digital, the audience landscape is even more auspicious for audio news. Podcast adoption continues to rise (and what an embarrassment of riches we have in terms of content). On-demand services like NPR One are growing. And smart speakers are sleeping giants for news.

Currently, smart-speaker users lean hard on music, but news consumption is growing. Privacy concerns aside, consumers continue to gobble up these talking speakers, and news organizations are experimenting on them. Will this lead to bigger audio news audiences? It sure looks that way. A year ago, 4 percent of NPR’s livestreaming listeners tuned in through smart speakers; this year, it’s 19 percent. Add to that Google’s recently announced plan to launch a voice-driven version of Google News, which will make it easier to discover audio content. The upshot is smart-speaker users will likely find, share, and consume more audio news content next year.

That’s not much of a prediction, though. It’s more of an observation of emerging trends.

I think where it gets interesting is with young adult listeners. Already mobile-tethered and expecting content on demand, they’re a prime audience for this evolution of audio-based news.

It’s not just tech. Politics also fuels my prediction. Young people turned out in high numbers for the 2018 midterms. Much of that civic engagement energy evaporated after election day, but some of it will persist and manifest in new news consumption habits — namely smart, accessible audio news that’s easily discoverable and always ready on demand.

For innovative newsrooms able to invest time and resources into figuring out how to adapt audio content to these new platforms, there’s a young and perhaps sizable audience to be found.

Rodney Gibbs is chief product officer of The Texas Tribune.

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