The sorry state of podcast charts

Where are the Billboard Charts for podcasts?

When it comes to measuring top performers, podcasts lag behind other media types.

Podcast charts — where they do exist — are fragmented across different apps and often measure different things. It’s hard to answer questions about which new podcasts were popular last week, let alone last year. This lack of transparent data isn’t just a loss to listeners, but also to creators, since advertisers have a hard time pinpointing what’s really popular.

So what makes it so hard to talk about the most popular podcasts?

Listening happens across different apps
Listening is spread out across multiple platforms, mobile and desktop (see more in this 2015 study from our friends at Clammr). Of these, iTunes or Stitcher are among the few to offer prominent, user-facing charts. But iTunes and Stitcher don’t account for a significant piece of the listening pie. Further, since most platforms — including Apple and Stitcher — don’t disclose their exact listening or download numbers, a podcast’s popularity in the greater audio landscape comes down to guesswork.

Different platforms measure different things
iTunes and Stitcher provide little information about how their rankings are calculated. Some have observed that Apple’s podcast charts appear to factor in comments and ratings, in addition to (presumably) raw subscription, download, and listen data.


Stitcher’s charts include “Most Shared” and “Top Movers” (shows that have made the biggest jumps in popularity), and it’s not clear how “Top Shows” accounts for listens, downloads, or favorites.

When it comes to reconciling these two charts, you can’t assume that popularity is measured the same way from platform to platform.

You can’t track podcast listening over time
When movies break box office records, we consider not just how many tickets sold, but how many tickets sold over time. In publishing, The New York Times Best Sellers list includes the number of weeks books have been on the list. With podcasts, there’s no easy way to ascertain something like, “Serial is a podcast mega-hit because it stayed on top of the podcast charts for six months, breaking This American Life’s record for the longest time at number one.”

We lack data on which episodes are popular
Since podcasting has traditionally based on show-level subscription, most charts focus on the show. iTunes does offer “Top Episodes,” but as with shows, there’s no sense for popularity over time. So when it came time for Best Of 2015 podcast episode lists, there was no Billboard equivalent to turn to for top hits.

With Pop Up Archive’s latest work on Audiosear.ch, we’re taking steps toward podcast charts that synthesize data points from multiple apps. We started out by by plotting iTunes show rankings over time. Even this small step gives us new answers to questions like: Which new shows are gaining popularity in 2016?(Masterpiece Studio made its first appearance in the top 10 on January 2.) Or: Have Serial or This American Life dropped from the top spots? (Not yet!)

Visit Audiosear.ch to explore the iTunes charts over time. What else would you like to see? Send us an email! As always, we’re all ears.