(FiveThirtyEight) – If you spent the beginning of February listening to the latest episode of each of the top 100 shows on the iTunes “top podcasts” chart, you’d have heard “Stone Cold” Steve Austin talk about the best way to deliver flowers. You’d have heard the Freakonomics crew spend 10 seconds telling you it was brought to you by Goldman Sachs. And you’d have heard 18 different voices give 30 different spiels for a website that helps people build websites.
We know because we did it. FiveThirtyEight data-reporter intern Hayley Munguia spent two days doing a fast-forward version of this aural marathon, recording each ad in a spreadsheet. The data is imperfect, but then again so is all data about podcasts. While TV and radio have Nielsen ratings, podcasts have only numbers that the shows themselves gather and volunteer — usually the number of downloads but not the number of listens — and demographic information acquired using voluntary online polls. The “top 100” spreadsheet is a small flash of light in a fairly dark corner of media. It offers a glimpse at the strategies, categories and wild variations of a stubbornly niche market — and the handful of signals that suggest it may be on the brink of change.
Superficially, the February snapshot confirms what any avid listener will suspect: