After the unprecedented success of the “Serial” podcast, hundreds have rushed to get into the podcast-making game. Even though few newspapers have jumped on the bandwagon so far, the tide may be about to change as the usage of mobile devices increases. The Pew Research Center recently reported that out of 2.6 billion podcast downloads in 2014, 63 percent were requested from mobile devices, up from 43 percent in 2012.
If publishers want to grow audience engagement and revenue numbers through sponsorships, podcasts are the future.
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, staff writer William Rankin began his own true crime podcast in May 2015. “Breakdown” follows the case of a man who was convicted of murder in the small Georgia town of Bremen. It’s a series custom-made for “Serial” fans going through withdrawal.
As Rankin explained, his podcast wouldn’t exist without “Serial.”
“I have long been a podcast listener, but I’ve never thought of making one. I’ve been a print news guy for more than 30 years. But last Thanksgiving vacation, my managing editor, Bert Roughton, drove out of town to see relatives. His son, who’s a public defender, told him to check out “Serial.” Bert listened to it, came back and asked my editor, Richard Halicks, if I had a case we could use to make a podcast,” he said. “It turned out, I thought I had one: Justin Chapman’s. I was already planning to write a series of stories on the case to highlight the failings of the criminal justice system, but only when I could get the time to do it. So when Richard asked me if I had a case for a podcast, this seemed like the right one.”
Newspaper podcasts aren’t just focusing on true crime, of course. The Guardian’s “The Biggest Story in the World” is an ambitious, 12-part podcast focused on climate change and was spearheaded by former editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger when it launched in March 2015 as his “last hurrah” after 20 years at the helm of the paper (bit.ly/1BoP5ir).
“It’s clearly the most important story we could be thinking about, and yet you scan the daily newspapers and it’s almost absent,” he said in the first episode as to why he wanted to examine the issue in depth. In an email he sent to colleagues, Rusbridger said he wanted to do something “powerful, focused and important” in his final year at The Guardian.
Re/code’s Kara Swisher launched Re/code Decode (recode.net/podcasts) in July 2015. So far, she’s interviewed guests such as Stewart Butterfield, founder and CEO of Slack. She jokes in her announcement for the podcast that she was also inspired by “Serial,” but, as she explains, she’s just doing the same kinds of interviews as at her media and technology Code Conference.
“It is all an extension of what we do with our Code events, except with a wider range of people to tap into,” she told E&P.
Tom Burgis, investigations correspondent for the Financial Times, explained that the podcast format was perfect for highlighting a complex tale of corruption. According to him, while FT has done a number of podcasts over the years, “FT Investigations is a new thread.”
“We picked The Steinmetz Affair because we’d broken the story back in 2012 and had a wealth of material,” Burgis said. “But a lot of it was complex and we wanted a reader or listener to be able to come to it from scratch and get the whole picture in an engaging way.” Fortunately, the Steinmetz Affair (podcast.ft.com/s/63) is also a colorful story, involving a dictator’s wife and a multi-million dollar bribery scheme.
The New Republic also just launched its own podcast, “Intersection.” Senior editor Jamil Smith, who was a producer for MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” said podcasting was one of the ideas he brought to the magazine when he was hired a few months ago.
“What better way to show how the magazine is embracing the future of journalism by showing that we can excel at different forms of storytelling?” he said.
“‘Intersection’ was born out of what I report,” Smith continued. “By doing a show in which intersectionality is threaded through discussions about current events and broader issues of race, gender, sexuality, and more, I hope that I can make that idea less academic and more accessible to our readership and audience.”
Are podcasts worth the extra effort?
“Nothing is quicker than text, but the joy of working up a narrative podcast is that it lets you think through a story—even one you’ve been writing for years—in a fresh way,” said Burgis. “It forces you to go back to the basics of storytelling, like you would round a fire.”
AJC’s Rankin discovered he enjoyed the extra storytelling elements the “Breakdown” podcast brought to his story.
“It’s vastly different than writing a regular news story,” he said. “We wrote scripts for seven different episodes. This included intermingling the best audio we had with the narration and figuring out the best places to put underlying music for transitions and to highlight certain passages. And I quickly learned the importance of having good sound—from interviews, from recorded testimony in the courtroom and from what I heard around me while conducting interviews and making my way around Bremen. This included our recordings of dogs barking, the ever-present train whistles in Bremen, and the sound of the clinking of an inmate’s shackles as he walked to the witness stand.”
Smith pointed out that there’s a reason why podcasts are so popular, apart from offering compelling content. “It’s a relatively low-cost way for a magazine like ours or another publication to add a previously unavailable dimension to our reporting and storytelling. We can better control the way that story is told; we’re not waiting to be booked on another radio or television show to talk about our work or the issues that matter to us.”
He also pointed out another, less obvious benefit of podcasts: “We can use podcasts to (reach) an audience that may not be subscribers to the magazine, or reading our website regularly; they may not even have internet access. But they probably have a cellphone, and have time to listen to a podcast during their commutes or while working out. Podcasts are a smart way to bring our journalism to an audience we may have been previously neglecting.”
Adam Sachs, CEO of Midroll, the leading podcast advertising network that was acquired by Scripps, added, “One factor fueling the growth of podcasts is that they are mobile-friendly, which helps us reach listeners while they’re commuting, at work or doing chores, for example. Podcasts also allow audiences to select news sources that are hyper-relevant to their location, interests, demographic, etc.”
Increased audience interaction
While sites may not be seeing a huge uptick in traffic from podcasts, (statistics are still out for some of the newer shows), they do offer a way—much like calling into a radio station— for audiences to become part of the story.
“Some of our other shows are experimenting with ways of getting audio feedback,” Burgis said. “Alphachat (a business and economics podcast produced in the Financial Times’ New York studios), has a dedicated U.S. voicemail phone number you can call. They have featured listeners’ recorded questions and response on their show.”
Smith says that the New Republic is planning to add audio comments from listeners as well.
AJC’s “Breakdown” podcast has its own dedicated site (ajcbreakdown.com) with plenty of additional material.
Rankin said, “We wanted to use it to get people to come to our website and we wanted to give the podcast’s listeners something to latch on to once they were there. We filled it up with bonus audio and video, explanatory stories about the justice system, a timeline about the case that grew with each episode and a who’s who photo gallery of the key players.”
According to Bert Roughton, senior editorial director at AJC, “Breakdown” was downloaded more than 80,000 times.
“That’s a pretty tantalizing performance,” he said. “This kind of undertaking is complicated for a newspaper that offers both a free and paid website in that we had to develop strategies for both, which at times seem at odds. For example, to make sure that we attracted an audience to the paid site, we restricted access to some pretty amazing companion content and extras.”
Still seeking sponsors
While even sponsors of “Serial”—including the much-parodied Mail Chimp—got famous, most new podcasts haven’t found their perfect sponsor yet. “We need to build an audience first,” said Re/code Decode host Swisher.
Smith said that so far, the New Republic’s “Intersection” podcast is also unsponsored. “We are seeking a sponsor or sponsors to offer us the chance to do more with the show. That said, we won’t just work with any advertiser; I hope we can promote brands that fit well with the values of the show, and the magazine.”
AJC’s Roughton said, “We were close but no cigar on getting a sponsor (for “Breakdown.”) I believe a lot of folks wanted to see it before being willing to throw money at us.”
Midroll’s Sachs said the advertising landscape for podcasts is only going to get better: “Podcasts are very attractive to advertisers because they offer a desirable, highly engaged audience. Advertising on podcasts was historically a direct-response-driven marketplace, which allowed companies to accurately measure the effectiveness of their campaigns. Now, even larger brand advertisers are entering the space at high velocity.”
And the benefit to advertisers? “There’s a strong ROI: 63 percent of Midroll listeners told us they bought a product or service after hearing it advertised on a podcast.”
Midroll has matched up sponsors such as Stamps.com and NYT Now, the New York Times’ mobile app, with podcasts such as “The Nerdist,” “WTF with Marc Maron,” and “Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed,” which further examines the case from “Serial.”
Why not podcast?
So, why aren’t more newspapers producing podcasts?
Chris Giliberti, chief of staff at Gimlet Media, which produces the hit podcasts like “StartUp,” “Reply All,” and “Mystery Show,” told E&P, “There is still this notion that the medium is niche, but content providers are quickly cueing into the opportunity, both in terms of audience and economics.”
“I feel that it has virtually unlimited potential,” Smith said. “There is so much that can be done with audio as a storytelling device. Shows like ‘This American Life’ have shown that over the years, but I’m encouraged by the way newer shows have continued to make even the most mundane topics entertaining.”
“I’m a big fan,” Burgis said. “The best ones are highly sophisticated in thought and structure, but there is nonetheless a pleasing simplicity to the medium, especially in an era when it’s easy to be dazzled by new toys and become distracted from the importance of storytelling.”
“I’m still a newspaper guy, don’t get me wrong,” said AJC’s Rankin. “But making this podcast was not only a challenging learning experience and a ton of hard, hard, hard work, it was also a hell of a lot of fun.”
And he’s a fan of podcasts in general, including “This American Life” and “StartUp.”
“I love to be able to listen to something while I’m doing something else, such as driving or exercising,” Rankin said. “And I think excellent audio—audio that takes you to a different place where you are enlightened, surprised and amused—is awesome.”
Are podcasts here to stay?
Some may want to dismiss podcasts as simply a passing trend, the potential, as Smith said, is “unlimited.” Although the format has yet to be fully embraced by the newspaper industry, those who’ve tried it are converts.
“I’ve been listening to them for many years so they are certainly not the flavor of the month,” Rankin said.
Swisher added, “Podcasts have been around a long time and they will be around a long time. We are not trendy and it is not much different than before except they are easier to access and use on mobile devices than ever before.”
Said Gimlet Media’s Gilberti, “Podcasting means different things to different media organizations. For newspapers, the medium provides an efficient way for multiple voices to convene in rich discussion around a particular issue. Among newspapers, we haven’t seen as much exploration around the high production value format, but that probably makes sense given their use case.”
AJC’s Broughton said that they’re looking at a different case for the second season of “Breakdown” or possibly revisiting the Justin Chapman case as it moves through the judicial system.
“We learned an amazing amount in producing ‘Breakdown,’ and the learning can’t stop,” he said. “One of the most interesting things for me was the listener response. People loved it. I find that promising both for ‘Big J’ journalism and podcasts as a vehicle for us.”
“I look at podcasts as radio-on-demand,” Smith said. “That’s hardly an original perspective, but it’s the most fitting way that I can term it. Think about the name itself: It’s outlasted the device, the iPod, for which it was created. Given the endurance of radio through our technological adolescence, I’d say it has a good shot of sticking around.”
Burgis described podcasts as radio with a new image. “Radio abides, as will podcasts.”