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Why the New Statesman turns a long-read feature into a podcast every week

November 10, 2022 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

The podcasting boom shows no signs of slowing just yet. As publishers get to grips with flagship shows for their brands, some are now exploring ways they can turn other content into podcasts.

Following the success of its existing shows The New Statesman Podcast and World Review, news publisher the New Statesman launched its third podcast in April of 2022. Both The New Statesman Podcast and World Review doubled their listenership since the creation of an in-house audio team in 2021.

While the first two podcasts followed a more typical interview and discussion format involving the New Statesman’s journalists and guests, Audio Long Reads takes a different approach. Each week, one of the publication’s feature articles is read out loud then published as a podcast that is about half an hour long. 

Long reads debuted with four features covering Macron’s France, the anti-ageing industry, a refugee hotel and Cary Raditz’s side of the story. Since then the New Statesman has released an episode every Saturday, focused on the idea of one big listen every weekend.

Many publishers have experimented with audio versions of their articles in order to improve accessibility of written content and open up another way for readers to interact. However, those who have taken the next step and published these as full podcasts are fewer in number.

“The reason that we wanted to do it for the New Statesman was because long-form, deeply reported journalism is one of our greatest strengths,” said Chris Stone,  Executive Producer of Audio & Video at New Statesman Media Group. “It is one of the things that the brand has been known for over the years, and so it seemed like a natural thing to adapt from our existing stable of content.”

The importance of curation and selection

The New Statesman publishes multiple features in its website and magazine a week and produces one of them as a podcast. Features Editor Melissa Denes oversees all the written features output, including commissioning and editing the long reads. She also decides which of the New Statesman’s many features get the audio treatment.

There are a number of criteria that a feature has to match to be considered suitable for a podcast. The first is the narrative. In other words: Is it a strong story that is going to engage a listener for an extended period of time? The second factor is the shelf life of the story. Audio Long Reads “have to be evergreen, because we want this to be a catalogue of things that people can come back to,” Stone explained. “We see that people listen to one and then go back and listen to earlier episodes.”

However, being evergreen doesn’t mean they can’t be current or topical. The themes are often chosen based on what’s happening at the time. One recent example released at the end of July is “Boris Johnson: the death of the clown”, looking at how the ex PM’s “buffoon” administration came to a close. Other episodes have covered topics from exploring the surge in adult ADHD diagnoses to the history of women’s football.

Article length is not a determining factor, as Stone cautioned when giving advice to other publishers looking to turn their features into audio products. “Just because something is long, doesn’t make it a good audio long read,” he said. “What is the determining factor is the quality of the story, how much it grabs you, and the authority and eloquence.”

Because the majority of the work has already been done in terms of the content, the workflow for turning a feature into a podcast is straightforward. “We wait until we have a ready-to-publish version of the article before we record it,” said Stone. He notes that they often batch record a few weeks before release. “Compared to doing a conversational podcast, it’s an easier lift.”

Once the audio version is published as a podcast, it has a dedicated podcast article on the New Statesman website. The audio player is also embedded in the full written feature as well, which gives audiences an option to listen to or read the article.

A premium listening experience

One surprising point Stone noted was that production values are particularly important for the Audio Long Reads podcast. “I think you can get away with Zoom calls for conversational podcasts,” he explained. “But for these, the actual pleasure of the listening experience comes into it as well. The ones that have been recorded with the highest production values have seen longer listening times.”

The New Statesman has found that certain voices and certain readers perform particularly well. They have experimented with journalists reading their own stories versus having voice actors doing it. “It’s really nice if we’ve commissioned someone to do a story to give them a chance to read their own,” Stone noted. “But we can’t manage to do that all the time, either for logistical or creative reasons.”

Stone has also explored the possibility of using an AI voice. A growing number of publishers offer AI text-to-speech on their sites as an alternative way to consume a piece. However, for these stories, the richness of the listening experience is of such importance that it’s not a task AI voices are up to taking on … yet.

“The performance element is not to be underestimated,” Stone emphasised. “It only works if you’ve got people who are really good at reading  out loud.”

Text-to-speech would also only benefit existing subscribers as the New Statesman’s written content is paywalled. Having a curated selection of features available as a podcast allows the publisher to build a relationship with those who don’t otherwise interact with their journalism.

Steady growth

Although Stone wouldn’t divulge specific listening figures, he did say that it has surpassed his expectations, with listenership growing steadily week on week. “When we launched it, I set a benchmark of getting to 2,000 downloads in the first two or three months,” he said. “Actually, it has far surpassed that. We’re getting thousands of listens a week.”

As a subscription-focused publisher, the Audio Long Reads podcast has been designed to show off some of the New Statesman’s best long-form reporting outside their paywall. Although the podcast is still in the experimental stages, Stone hopes that it will increase users’ propensity to subscribe to their other products.

It’s a strategy which could work well for other publishers with hard paywalls. The content itself has already been created. Repurposing features into long-read podcasts is an inexpensive way to broaden the top of the subscriber funnel, as well as giving existing subscribers another way to interact with the work.

For the New Statesman, being selective is one of the biggest reasons Audio Long Reads has been a success. Carefully choosing which pieces would work well being read aloud, then matching those pieces with people who are good at reading creates a strong product which can build habit and loyalty.

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