podcasting vs radio

Podcast vs Radio: What is the difference?

Radio and podcasting are both alive and well in 2020. So what’s the difference between these platforms?

Both radio and podcasts produce audio content that exists to inform, educate, or entertain an audience.

In this article, we’ll break down their differences, but first, let’s define each medium:

Radio - a live show produced by a station or an individual that broadcasts over an airwave 
Podcasts - pre-recorded, edited audio files pushed out to various directories via an RSS feed and listened to on-demand

Three differences between podcasts and radio

1. On-demand vs. live shows (pre-recorded vs. live spontaneity) 

Podcasters record and edit their episodes in post-production. Radio shows, however, are live broadcasts, and although they can have pre-recorded segments, the show does not go through an editing process.  

In contrast, podcasts are on-demand, allowing listeners to download episodes at their convenience. A podcast episode can be downloaded or streamed from directories, like Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes), and listened to on an iPhone or smart device.

2. Appeal to different generations

Speaking of convenience, the ability to download podcasts and listen to them whenever you want is a big part of their appeal. Especially among Millennials, who happen to be the largest demographic listening to podcasts in 2020.

So what generation is listening to podcasts, and who's listening to radio?

Generation X (born between 1965-1979) listens to radio more than any other demographic. People born between these years grew up without the internet or social media and, without a smartphone, live radio is the most convenient way to consume audio content. 

Even though podcasts have been around since the first iPod, old habits die hard, and Gen X-ers are still more likely to tune in to a radio broadcasting (or internet radio) than a podcast. 

Millennials (1980-1994), on the other hand, grew up in the tech-y, on-demand age of Netflix, smartphones, and TiVo. They want to consume media on their terms when it’s convenient. Millennials also want the option to re-listen to old episodes, and have access to the archives of previous episodes at their fingertips (not something you can easily do with scheduled, one-off radio broadcasts.)

3. Newsworthy vs. niche content 

Broadcast radio usually covers topics that appeal to the masses like music, news, and pop culture. Show topics are typically decided by what’s currently trending in the news and media and, as a result, hosts often follow an “editorial line” that dictates allowed themes and topics. 

By producing shows based on what’s newsworthy at the moment, content is only relevant for a short period. Newsworthy content can also shift the metric by which you measure show success. Radio is geared toward current events, so success is usually a matter of how many people are listening. Because podcasting is primarily a niche-based medium, hosts can measure success by how their show is received rather than by audience size.

As a podcast host, you have the freedom to pick the format, length, and topic of your show. You can speak your mind unhindered by station format and attract listeners who are passionate about the same thing you are. 

While there are podcasts that have mass appeal and cover what’s newsworthy, podcasters aren’t bound to creating shows based on what’s trending. Podcast episodes stay relevant for a long time and can still get downloads years after an episode airs.

4. Podcasts have more relaxed regulations

Podcasts are not currently governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) like radio broadcasts are.

While still protected by freedom of speech, the FCC prohibits obscene, offensive material from being aired. Podcasters are not under the same regulations, however, and can publish explicit content as long as the episode is tagged so listeners are aware.

Both mediums are free to discuss copyrighted material on a podcast or radio broadcast, but neither can play even a portion of the content on either medium. Copyright laws aren’t a problem for most podcasters, but it’s still important to understand the basics of how the law applies to podcasting so you can avoid a  “cease and desist” letter.

Podcasts are also not regulated by time constrains like traditional radio programs are. While a radio show might have to fit its content within a paid 30-minute slot, podcasts can be five minutes long or the length of an audiobook. In podcasting, the most important thing is to make the length of your show only as long as it needs to be. 

5. Radio still has more listeners

Every day, radio has roughly twice the listenership of podcasts

90% of the U.S. population listens to the radio every week, and only 51% of Americans have ever even listened to a podcast, according to Podcast Insights

But more listeners don’t necessarily mean a more engaged audience. Listening to live radio programs tends to be a more passive experience than listening to a podcast. 

Tuning in to a podcast requires the listener to “opt-in” by downloading or subscribing to a show. Finding the right podcast for a niche topic requires a deliberate search on the part of the listener, which heightens engagement.

Merging radio and podcasts 

In an attempt to widen their demographic and embrace digital media, some public radio stations, like NPR and BBC, create podcasts in addition to radio shows. In some cases, these stations have shows that easily double as podcasts.

NPR’s Fresh Air, Invisibilia, or Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, are all traditional radio shows and podcasts as well. Shows like NPR’s Morning Edition airs during the morning and is available in podcast form on NPR.org after the broadcast. 

BBC Radio follows a similar format, and even has its own app featuring live radio, downloadable podcasts, and streaming options for their listeners. 

Radio stations are becoming more aware of the need for digital distribution of their content, and the importance of reaching different generations and listener habits. No one knows for sure how the two mediums will evolve, but podcasts are seen as big part of the future of public radio.

For more insight into the tensions between radio and podcasting, take a look at these resources: