The Podcast Revolution

Audio takes precedence in newsrooms

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Audio is a platform unlike any other, in that it closes the distance—physically and cognitively—between the listener and host and guests. In conversations with people who podcast, you’ll hear the word “intimate” used a lot to describe the relationship between listener and the voices emanating from their earbuds. It’s as if there’s no one else in the equation, as if you’re being told a story just for you. For news organizations increasingly reliant on audience more than advertising, audio is proving to be a platform that makes those connections, builds trust and familiarity, and solidifies those relationships.

Creating a Niche

J.K. Nickell is the features director at Texas Monthly magazine, where he oversees features and longform pieces, and more recently, he became more involved with producing podcasts there. The magazine dipped its toes into podcasting with some early interview programs and then expanded into narrative serialized shows, including its wildly popular “Boomtown,” which tells the story of an oil boom in West Texas’ Permian Basin.

“Our sense was that we could naturally leverage what we are already known for in the magazine and capture some of that magic in audio form,” Nickell said. The “Boomtown” team took shape with a producer who had deep experience in audio, and the magazine’s bullpen of reporters and editors. “All of us came together, with a good bit of audio expertise, reporting and storytelling backgrounds, and some tech and web savviness.”

At the magazine, they talk about how stories best fit into one of two kinds of podcasts: narrative shows versus interview programs. “The interview shows are built largely around the personality of the host,” Nickell said. “And our narratives are built around questions like, ‘Is this a story that can carry six to eight episodes?’ Or ‘Does it have enough tension to grab folks from the beginning and keep them there?’”

Not all of Texas Monthly’s podcasts are of the serious, hard news type though. The magazine expertly covers culture and food, as much as politics and criminal justice. And not all of the podcasts are intended for a wide, general audience. Some attract niche, passionate listeners, and that’s by design. Take “One By Willie,” for example. In each episode, host John Spong speaks to a Willie Nelson superfan. It has attraced a “hardcore devoted audience,” proven more likely to subscribe to the print magazine, Nickell noted.

“Frankly, for commercial purposes, if you can find a targeted audience, then you can find advertisers who are willing to pay a premium to get their product in front of that audience,” he said. “It works to our advantage in a lot of ways, in addition to be a meaningful editorial project.”

Insight Nickell gleaned from his audio work is that it’s important to reveal to listeners immediately—in the first seconds of a podcast—that they’re about to hear something that’s unique and can’t get anywhere else. He recalled creating and trashing a few attempts at “Boomtown’s” pilot before they heard Uncle Skeet’s voice. Skeet Wallace happens to be host Christian Wallace’s uncle, and their spirited conversation introduces the series.

“Uncle Skeet is a generational character, who leaps out of the speaker and creates sort of a holy-hell effect—'Who is this guy? I want to know more’—but also, there’s a real sense of intimacy. It was clear that Christian had a connection with him, and I think intimacy is super important with podcasts,” Nickell said.

In the wake of “Boomtown,” listeners sounded off.

“They said, ‘Thanks for doing this show. This is why I subscribe to Texas Monthly.’ Or ‘I just renewed my subscription to Texas Monthly once I heard the podcast.’ There was a sense here that some of that work made Texas Monthly feel as relevant as it’s been anytime in the past couple of decades,” Nickell said.

Two of the magazine’s serial podcasts—“Boomtown” and “Tom Brown’s Body”—inspired millions of downloads. The reach of those stories far exceeded any content the magazine ever produced online, Nickell reported.

At Texas Monthly, they’ve taken a multipronged approach to promotion, too. They produce promo spots for other podcasts. They run radio ads. They leverage prominent space on the magazine’s website and in e-newsletters.

“We advertise our audio project heavily in the print magazine, which I don’t think many people have had success doing,” Nickell said. “It’s hard to move print readers to another medium, whether its web or video. We’ve had some success doing that, in part because Texas Monthly is a magazine that has a really intimate relationship with our readers.”

“We try to get as much earned media as possible,” he added. “Our hosts are interviewed by other folks in media, and that’s a great way to get the word out.”

Storytelling Approach

Amy Walters has spent her entire career in audio news. Fresh out of college, she went overseas and landed an internship for NPR in Jerusalem. From there, Walters spent the majority of her career at NPR, where she was tasked to “Morning Edition” and spent about three years working on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Her first podcast project was NPR’s “Planet Money,” a narrative, explainer show that had a story arc and lots of great sound clips.

Today, Walters is a journalist and senior podcast producer at Al Jazeera Media Network, where she leads a small audio team that produces three shows a week but has its hopes set on daily frequency.

“What we have is an amazing resource of journalists,” Walters said.

Those journalists, editors and their sources provide a wellspring of information and podcast guests. The team also draws from Al Jazeera’s deep video library, which translate into audio and “enliven” the stories, Walters explained.

Asked what makes great fodder for a podcast, Walters said “intimate interviews” resonate with Al Jazeera’s listeners, but she also doesn’t feel everything should be a podcast.

“I worked in TV for a time, with Al Jazeera America, and one thing I discovered from going from audio to video is the distance between the listener or viewer,” she said. “There is a literal distance between the viewer and the device or TV, and there’s distance between the camera and the person on camera. With audio, that person is actually in your ear. Even if you were in the same room together, they wouldn’t be that close. There is an intimacy that you get in podcasts, particularly when people are sharing emotional stories, personal stories, often tragic stories. The listener feels different.”

Walters offered a technical tip for new podcasters: SEO (search engine optimization) proves challenging, by virtue of there not being searchable keywords in an audio piece. Introductory copy is critically important, and the SEO hurdle can be scaled by producing transcripts, but this often comes at considerable expense and the risk of inaccuracy, she said.

One Editorial Mission

Liz Nelson is the vice president of audio at Vox.com, where she’s responsible for the entire slate of podcasts. Her career in audio began soon after college, when she took her first job at AOL News. She went on to spend a decade at The Washington Post, then to Gannett, and the USA TODAY Network, where she launched “The City,” an investigative podcast about environmental racism in Chicago. It introduced her to the intimacy of audio.

“The mission at Vox, not just in audio but across the Vox news brand, is to explain the news and explain the world. We are not a breaking news site,” Nelson said. “We are much more about giving context, and with audio, we have the opportunity to do that with first-person voices.”

At Vox, podcasts fall into three categories: news explainers, talk explainers and evergreen explainers. Evergreen explainers—like Vox’s popular science-mystery show “Unexplainable”—are what Nelson called “a growing category.”

“We think the evergreen explainer becomes a way to give people a shelf or library of topics, and they can go back to it and listen a year from now, and it will still be just as useful,” she said.

Asked whether a news organization can simply start up a podcast with just an articulate host and a microphone, Nelson said it’s a bit more complicated.

“As the podcast market and audience continues to grow, they are increasingly looking for sophistication in the type of content they’re hearing,” she explained.

There are some key players who are integral to making a good show, Nelson shared, including hosts, audio engineers, producers, editors, and fact-checkers. Fortunately, there are some great resources for news organizations considering podcasting. Nelson recommends the Google- and PRX-produced video series and airmedia.org, a global community of audio producers.

At Vox, they keep tabs of data, like number of downloads per episode. They study those numbers over time and compare them to competitors.

“Podcast metrics are a little bit different and a little more general,” Nelson said. “It’s hard to get some of that deep data…With a podcast, it’s much more of an art than a science in figuring out audience attraction, retention, and ultimately, satisfaction…The other way we’re tracking how our audience is doing is being very mindful about asking them what they like and what they don’t like.”

They also survey the audience and get face-to-face feedback.

“(With) the launch of ‘Unexplainable,’ we hosted a focus group, which gave us some good indicators of what was working with the show and what we wanted to tweak before we took the series to a full greenlight,” Nelson said.

As a companion to “The Weeds,” a twice-weekly podcast about politics and public policy, Vox started a Facebook Group, a fan page where listeners could carry on conversations beyond the episode. “It continues to be fertile and growing,” Nelson said, citing an estimated 40,000 membership and an engagement editor tasked with steering the public-policy conversations there.

“For other shows, we’ve used different models,” she said. “When we launched ‘Unexplainable’ back in March, we concurrently launched a newsletter.”

Building Relationships

In February 2021, the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal debuted its first podcast, “It’s Your Business,” hosted by the newspaper’s business reporter India Yarborough.

Yarborough is bullish about podcasting’s future, especially among younger-skewing news audiences because there’s evidence of that right in their own newsroom.

 “We all consume this type of reporting on our own time, so we were thinking about how we might be able to connect with our audience in a new way,” she said.

Yarborough is nearly a “one-woman show.” She does the research, books the guests, conducts the interviews, and edits the audio. She credits one of the paper’s photographers with helping her on the technical side and for his insightful content collaboration.

“There is definitely a learning curve, and I think anyone who is looking to set up a podcast should keep that in mind,” she said.

The Capital-Journal has now produced a half-dozen episodes, ranging 20 to 45 minutes long. The format is consistent and familiar to listeners: a Q&A with a guest who may be a local business owner or official involved in economic development. They leverage Omny Studio to publish the podcasts through Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

“It allows us to embed links to our podcast in our stories. With each episode, I will usually write a short article to publish on the website and also on social media—namely Twitter and Facebook,” Yarborough said. “We’re also encouraged to include embeds of our podcasts in other articles.”

“It’s Your Business” is still amassing a loyal following. It has dozens of regular listeners, not yet hundreds or thousands, Yarborough acknowledges. She also hears the distant call to figure out how to monetize podcasting after listenership is larger and tested.

“But there are some less obvious benefits to podcasting,” Yarborough said. “One is source building. When I’m sitting down with someone to record a podcast, there’s a little banter or conversation that takes place—before or after—that spurs other story ideas. There have been opportunities to ask a source off-the-record questions…There’s also an opportunity for your readers and your audience to become more familiar with the people behind the reporting.”

There’s also the chance for the newspaper to build partnerships. One of Yarborough’s first guest—a representative from the Chamber of Commerce—actually circled back after the podcast and offered to sit in as a guest co-host from time to time.

A Well-Round Platform Diet

In February 2021, Edison Research published its list of “Most Listened to Podcasts in 2020.” Among the top 50 were about a dozen podcasts produced by news organizations (“The Daily” produced by The New York Times, “This American Life” and NPR’s “Planet Money” ranked in the top 10). The balance of the most popular podcasts on the list are mostly what you’d expect—conservative talk, comedy shows, pop culture and gossip gabs, and terrestrial radio shows that found renewed life and listeners in satellite radio and now in podcasting.

In their December 2019 Deloitte.com article, “The Ears Have It: The Rise of Audiobooks and Podcasting,” authors Duncan Stewart, Craig Wiggington and Mark Casey reported 2020 as a year when podcast revenue spiked above $1 billion and said if the trends continue, podcasting could be a $3.3 billion business by 2025.

In April 2021, Apple Podcasts Subscriptions debuted—a premium podcast platform. For podcast creators, the company also introduced a new website to help guide them through the process of developing, creating and producing podcasts.

Later that month, Spotify dangled its audience of 345 million monthly listeners before podcasters and launched its new paid subscription platform, allowing creators to monetize their shows and keep 100 percent of subscriber revenues for the next two years, after which Spotify intends to collect a fee for the tool.

With these new investments in audio, podcasting will further flourish.

Texas Monthly is betting on it. Just prior to speaking with E&P, Nickell said the magazine hired a second podcast producer and had several new shows planned in the coming months.

“One is called ‘State of Mind,’ and it’s a weekly storytelling show that reflects the mix of stories you’ll find in the magazine any given month,” Nickell said. “We’re going to launch another serialized, narrative podcast about the “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” hosted by Sarah Hepola, a brilliant memoirist who lives in Dallas.” They also plan to debut a couple of new interview shows each year moving forward.

But with so many choices to choose from, will news audiences continue to crave podcasts?

“I think the ongoing appetite is assured,” Vox’s Nelson said. “Podcasts are a part of people’s media consumption now, part of our entertainment consumption…We are (already) competing with Netflix, with every device and time filler that is out there, so audio has assured its place.”

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and journalism for more than two decades. She began her reporting career covering municipal government at a suburban Philadelphia daily and also served as an editor-in-chief/editorial director for a magazine publisher. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at gretchenapeck@gmail.com.

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