Audio-first media company Tortoise focuses on commercialising slow news

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


As an expert in this space, I wanted to know what things Alice Sandelson, commercial strategy director for audio at Tortoise Media, thinks media companies need to bear in mind when setting up a podcast venture. I think you’ll find the following enlightening:

Mark Challinor (MC): Alice, thank you on behalf of INMA for talking to me today. Can I start by saying that it seems you have pivoted to an audio-first approach to your operation. Why is that? 

Alice Sandelson (AS): Tortoise is a deliberately different type of newsroom. As our name suggests, we take news slowly. We analyse and investigate what’s driving the news rather than report on breaking news. At first we published long reads, via our own app and Web site, but soon found that asking people to read two or three thousand words on a mobile wasn’t landing. People were getting two or three paragraphs in and we would start to lose them. 

Towards the end of 2019, we started experimenting with audio, and what we found was that people kept listening. We were seeing a nearly 90% listen-through rate on our podcasts, and our listeners were far younger than our readers.

Armed with the knowledge that audio was a better vehicle for the kind of journalism that Tortoise wanted to be doing, we shifted more and more towards audio and, just over 18 months ago, made the decision that Tortoise would become audio-first. 

We still publish our newsletters, taking a “slow news” approach to daily news, and we continue to run events and forums for our members and business partners. However audio is now the primary output of our journalism and it’s published on our audio app, our Web site, and, crucially, on the open RSS feed, which pulls into all audio platforms: Apple, Spotify, etc. 

Fast forward and thanks to a couple of hit shows, we have grown a mass audience of listeners and that has been a significant change for us that has propelled our growth. 

Alice Sandelson is commercial strategy director for audio at Tortoise Media.
Alice Sandelson is commercial strategy director for audio at Tortoise Media.

MC: What portfolio of products do you now produce? 

AS: In audio, we produce award-winning, dare I say, explosive narrative investigative series that tell untold stories. Our newly launched Tortoise Investigates feed is the home of the best of our investigative podcast series. 

The feed includes Pig Iron, which won gold for Best Documentary in the British Podcast Awards this month, and Dr Anti-vax, the new series from Alexi Mostrous, who reported No. 1 podcasts Sweet Bobby and Hoaxed.  

Plus, we have a number of daily and weekly shows that focus on the stories that really matter in the U.K. and around the world. Our slate includes the daily Sensemaker, weekly investigative show The Slow Newscast, The News Meeting (which takes listeners into the newsroom to discuss what should lead the news and why), and our most recent addition, Trendy, where Britain’s top pollster Sir John Curtice and former Downing Street advisor Rachel Wolf explore the key political, social, and economic trends that shape what voters think and what politicians do. 

MC: Do you commercialise them? 

AS: Certainly! Our business model in podcasting spans ads and sponsorships which we sell ourselves and via our distribution partner Acast. Also, we have branded content, co-productions, commissions, subscription, and membership revenue and licensing our IP, either for translations or film and TV exploitation.  

Excitingly, we signed a first look deal with Sky Studios last year and work closely with them on TV adaptations of Tortoise stories, and we’ve also sold podcast IP to a number of other production companies. 

MC: Which platform do you use for distribution? There is a confusing myriad of platforms. How do you choose yours? Which are best for distributing your podcast episodes to the likes of Apple, Spotify, etc.? 

AS: Tortoise podcasts are available everywhere: Apple, Spotify, Amazon, and all the other major listening platforms. For these platforms, we distribute via Acast. We also offer early access, bonus content, and ad-free listening for subscribers via our Tortoise+ channel on Apple Podcasts (which we distribute directly on Apple). We also publish on the Tortoise audio app, which is the curated home of Tortoise audio, with features including personalised feeds and podcast playlists curated by Tortoise journalists. 

MC: How do you market the future/coming podcast episodes? Social media? Own channels, newsletters, etc.? 

AS: We run 360 campaigns for most of our show launches: across our owned channels — social, Web, app, and newsletters, paid marketing campaigns and partnerships, including trailer swaps with publishers and podcasters with relevant audiences. But we tend to find that the most effective way to build an audience is to move them from existing shows to new shows via feed drops and host reads. 

AS: Our audio team of executive producers, producers, reporters, sound designers is over a dozen, supported by other reporters, commercial and marketing heads. We’re getting a lot of content out every week.

MC. What’s your view on advertising embedded into your podcasts? Or sponsorships?  

AS: The boom in podcasting advertising and sponsorship is great news for podcasters. Since the IAB started measuring podcast advertising in 2020, advertising spend has doubled in just three years. There’s increasing appreciation that podcasts engage listeners more intimately than other digital advertising mediums.  

Listeners are less likely to skip a sponsorship read by their favourite podcast host or an ad that they’re hearing whilst on a commute with their phone in their bag. And thanks to the ever-growing number of positive and newsworthy campaigns, there’s also increasing awareness of the potential for popular podcasts to deliver significant reach and smaller shows to deliver targeted brand communications to specific audiences. 

At Tortoise, we make sure we are working with brands that we believe will be of interest to our listeners and those who want to listen ad-free can become a subscriber. Subscription serves another purpose for publishers: As with all advertising, podcasters are at the mercy of the market, so subscription is one way to diversify revenue streams so you’re not wholly reliant on ad revenue. 

MC: Let’s talk about content. In your experience, is a publisher better to produce podcasts around specific content verticals or a generic overall offering? 

AS: Tortoise are focused on “slow news,” so all of our podcasts try to take a slower approach to provide more considered reporting — whether that’s revealing untold stories in our investigative series or more of a focus on context and underlying forces that are shaping the headlines in our news shows.  

One point to note is building an audience is the holy grail but can be tricky if you have a number of podcast feeds that require new audiences to be built from scratch each time — especially if you have limited marketing budgets.  

So it can be useful to think of content in terms of feeds: How can you develop content for a particular feed and existing audience. Our Tortoise Investigates feed is a good example of this. We’ve consolidated our investigative series into one feed so that we are meeting our audience where they already are and fostering habitual listening by releasing regular content. 

MC: What equipment would you need to get started? Could, for example, a starting position be to record on a platform like Zoom and upload audio from that? Then move to studio recording/better quality audio and other features (such as special guest interviews, etc.) when established? Or not? 

AS: It depends on the nature of the podcast. For our investigative series, brilliant sound design is often the key to elevating a podcast into a hit. For our more conversational podcasts, we always try to have people record live in the studio as it makes for better conversation and sound quality. But we recognise that isn’t always possible on podcasts involving hosts and guests with busy schedules. 

MC: In terms of uploading, say, to Spotify for Podcasters or similar, do they charge? What for?  

AS: The business model for distribution platforms is to take a cut of any ads and sponsorship revenue they sell against your content. 

MC: So, which platforms are best for distributing your podcasts to the likes of Apple, Spotify, etc.?  

AS: It’s less about distribution (all of them can distribute to most platforms) and more about monetisation. 

MC: Do you use your existing archive content and repackage it into new podcast episodes?  

AS: No, as an audio-first newsroom, we tend to focus on investigating and reporting new stories. An important part of Tortoise’s mission is to take the time to see the fuller picture, to see stories through, and to care what happens next. That means we do come back to stories if there are interesting developments, but we don’t “rehash.”  

To give an example, in winter 2021, we reported on a mountaineering tragedy on K2 Disaster at Camp 3, where the competing pressures of corporate competition, national glory, sponsorship deals, and “adventure influencers” collided. Last month we went back to K2 to tell another story of the commercialisation of K2 and the effect of record-breaking Killer Mountain: Abandoned on K2

AS: Meet your audience where they are. The RSS feed enables you to publish your content across most podcast platforms. Be open to experimenting with your content — podcasting is still a new medium, so there’s huge potential for creativity and innovation. And be open with your audience. Some of my favourite podcasts (not just Tortoise!) have the host taking listeners on the podcasting journey with them. 

MC: Finally, any other tips can you offer to other media companies who are thinking of getting into podcasting?  

AS: For many businesses, podcasting used to be treated as a side project, but that approach is self-limiting. Like you would with any other business line, make sure you have a podcast strategy in place: Define your goals and ideal outcomes (from reach to revenue), your target audience, and what you want listeners to do/think/feel.  

Ambitions must depend on these overall objectives, and that doesn’t always mean scale. There’s more value in reaching 1,000 ears made up of the right audience than 10,000 uninterested ears!  

Once agreed, this ambition should drive everything from broad content strategy, right through to editorial decisions: tone, structure, guests, branding, marketing, and release schedule. 

MC: Alice, thank you for you time and expertise. 

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About Mark Challinor

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