Starting a podcast is easier than ever now. But how do you create a sustainable strategy around audio content, especially in the local and regional newsrooms that are dwindling at an alarming pace? That was the question Alison Gow, Digital Editor in Chief for regional content at Reach Plc – one of Britain’s biggest regional publishers – began exploring last year.
Reach had several podcasts spread across the business, created as passion projects by staff keen to experiment with audio. These included Black Mirror Cracked and Blood Red, both of which performed very well with audiences.
However, Reach lacked a strategic framework around its shows, which would better enable growth. So, at the end of 2018, it began formalizing its podcast output, switching from Audioboom to Acast. It also created new internal positions to explore the long-term viability of audio content and other emerging platforms.
One of those staff, Michael Pearson, now a permanent podcast producer at Reach, says the results were enormously encouraging. “We found that the levels of engagement of a podcast audience were far greater than any other platform we were currently utilizing, be it website dwell time, video watch-rate on our owned and operated websites or on other social platforms,” he says. The podcast audience also gave additional value to Reach’s existing sites, because people clicked through from podcasts to the site and vice versa.
Putting formal support structures in place gave shape and focus to existing shows. It also provided strategic direction to new ones, including Everything is Black and White and a mental health show called No Really I’m Fine.
However, one question the publisher still didn’t have an answer for was whether there was an appetite among regional audiences for podcast content made specifically for them. “Audio at the moment is dominated by comedy, true crime, and sport. We wanted to know whether local news providers could find a foothold in that market, and – on the other side of that equation – how a local audience might discover that content,” Gow says.
So, Reach joined forces with another large regional publisher, JPI Media, and a new podcast provider called Entale, to bid for Google funding to explore the viability of local and regional shows. In July this year they secured a €500,000 Google News Innovation grant over two years for the Laudable Project.
Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund was created to fund creativity in digital journalism and the development of new business models. Madhav Chinnappa, Director of News Ecosystem Development at Google says, “We’re seeing more and more innovation by publishers in podcasts and voice technologies, and we’re proud to support initiatives like Laudable which can have a real and positive impact on the news ecosystem.”
Reach used the grant to help pay for studios, recording equipment and dedicated podcast producers. It also paid for training for around 50 reporters to help them turn ideas for new regional podcasts into reality in three trial cities – Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh.
The new shows will be available across all major podcast platforms. However, they’ll also be hosted by Entale, which is using some of the grant funds to design bespoke analytics that give greater granularity on key indicators. Entale will also build an Android version of its IOS app, through which users can access interactive visuals and other online content as they listen.
The first Laudable shows are starting to go live, beginning with The North Poll, a show about politics from a northern British perspective, which launched in November. Other new shows include North In Numbers, which gives a human voice to data journalism stories, The Edinburgh Briefing, and Scran, a new podcast about food from The Scotsman. More podcasts will launch in early 2020.
Building the business
Gow says the Google grant has given Reach and JPI “breathing space” to test the value of podcasts to local and regional audiences without the pressure to monetize those shows straight away. “We wouldn’t have been able to scale like this [without Google’s support],” she says. “The time commitment and investment involved in this project, the cost of building studios – it’s a huge amount of money when you’re a regional publisher.”
Now, she says, they’ve “been given a low-risk environment to find out whether what we create has value beyond being appreciated … that it has value commercially, and can attract advertising clients, and we’ll be layering commercial into it next year.”
That will include creating a new post to sell audio advertising. Mind you, that’s a skill that doesn’t come naturally to journalists and editors. Nor is it a natural fit for advertising departments at newspapers that have yet to dip a toe in the podcast ocean, and which will face stiff competition from an increasingly crowded market in 2020.
Structure and strategy
Gow acknowledges that most publishers don’t have the luxury of Google funding, but has some tips for outlets that have organic podcasts that need structure and strategy to have a chance of long-term sustainability. “First, you really need to look at your audience, and at your digital analytics to find the themes that people are engaging with.
“For us, sports like rugby and football absolutely drive our audiences and have a huge fan base, so that was a no-brainer. It’s where we can start building revenue quickly because there are advertisers keen to get on board and the opportunity to host live events.”
They also found that their audiences were quite interested in financial information particularly because “audio means they can tell those stories in their own voices.” And Gow says that “combining those voices with insights from our data unit in a show like North By Numbers, moves the format on from being a host talking to an expert about housing shortages, to an individual who becomes a first-person case study for that data, and that’s incredibly humanizing.”
Trying to monetize podcasts before experimenting with audio is difficult, and Gow cautions against it. “You do need to create content first, but as soon as you’ve done it, you’ve got something your advertising team can show to clients as a proof of concept,” she says.
“And sometimes you just need to think of a podcast as loss-leader marketing. That may be what some of our Laudable podcasts become, a way of exploring issues that are occupying minds in places like Edinburgh or Birmingham, which might attract a sponsor at some point, but might not but it’s good journalism and may be worth doing on that basis alone.”
In 2020, Gow says her focus will shift to trying to monetize the new shows. This includes those that are purely journalistic, as well as branded content programs.
“My approach next year is going to be working with our commercial team on themes we have in mind for 2020, what clients might want to be associated with different ideas, and what kinds of stories would overlap with what they’re interested in.” That doesn’t mean that advertisers will dictate the content, she says. Rather, they’ll work in partnership through things like sponsorship.
Gow believes that there’s an audience for the ‘how to live a good life’ podcast market beyond mindfulness. This could include practical questions like how to have a good divorce, how to buy your first house, how to prepare for a funeral, or how to pick the right school. “And there are potential commercial partnerships around all those ideas, because I can see someone tuning in while they’re in the kitchen asking Alexa to find something to listen to.”
The team at Reach adheres to the strategic approach recommended by the Reuters Institute to help outlets experiment with new formats and approaches while keeping business as usual running smoothly. “SMART principles have been drummed into me since I went on my first management course about 20 years ago, and we also had Google milestones to hit,” she says.
“We’ve been specific about what we need to deliver for Google, what we tell editors to achieve, and what our podcast producers need to deliver, and all of that can be measured.” However, podcast statistics are still somewhat lacking. So, Entale is building bespoke analytics as part of their partnership.
Beyond that Gow says that they are tracking what’s been produced, how many people have generated ideas, and how engaged they are in the process to gain a better sense of staff buy-in and participation. “I work with incredibly smart people who love journalism and care about their audiences.” And giving them the tools to achieve good journalism on the podcast platform – the physical hardware, the training, the encouragement and feedback to build confidence and deliver the best possible outputs – has made it achievable.
Ultimately, Gow would encourage any size newsroom to experiment with podcasts. “With all this in place, it’s 100% realistic for any newsroom to create great podcasts.