Reuters Institute shares audio strategies for media in 2020

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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Publishers are increasingly investing in audio formats as a way of increasing loyalty, driving revenue, and attracting new audiences.

In an exclusive Webinar for INMA members on Wednesday, Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute, discussed a new report on the opportunities around news podcasting. Attendees learned about the strategies of some top publishers in this area, as well as the opportunities for growth from the audio platform.

Newman opened the Webinar by saying that it would be drawing from a couple of key things: The 2020 Media Audio Strategies report (which will be released today), as well as the recently published news podcasting report.

Audience interest and trends

More people are listening to podcasts than ever before. The United States has seen a doubling in consumption over the last four years, Newman shared. The United Kingdom showed an increase of about 40% during the same time period.

Podcast audiences are growing at a rapid pace, especially amongst younger listeners.
Podcast audiences are growing at a rapid pace, especially amongst younger listeners.

“There’s something like 90 million people listening to a podcast monthly,” he said. “But what’s interesting is not just growth, it’s also the demographics that are exciting.”

Podcasts are resonating strongly with younger listeners: They are four times more interested in the platform than older audiences.

“You need to bear in mind what some of the tech trends are. Obviously a lot of this is driven by smartphones and further developments in headphones,” Newman said.

Newer headphones are not only smaller, less intrusive, and higher quality, but today’s noise-cancelling technology is having an impact on consumption. Other tech — such as voice-activated devices and audio-on-demand in automobiles – are also trends resulting in improved quality, wider availability, and reduced friction for audio consumption.

The smart speakers and car audio integrations are still not as seamless as publishers would like, Newman said, but they are making audio increasingly easy to access, picking up where a listener left off between home, car, and office: “I think all of that is going to open up more demand and more opportunity for different kinds of audio.”

All of this leads to the big question: What can publishers do about all this? The increase in audio demand doesn’t always lead to monetisation.

“More than half of the publishers we talked to said that different kinds of podcasts were going to be important initiatives for them this year,” Newman said. “That means they’re investing more money and more resources into audio.”

The top initiatives for publishers were daily news podcasts, chat interview format, and serials.

Talk/chat/interview podcasts are the type that publishers are putting the most focus on for 2020.
Talk/chat/interview podcasts are the type that publishers are putting the most focus on for 2020.

Podcast strategies

The report looked primarily at five major countries where podcasting is really taking off: the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, France, and Sweden.

The number of podcasts is growing at an exponential rate. There are currently 771,000 different podcasts in the Apple catalogue, for example, but that is growing at a rate of around 200,000 per year. News podcasts are also “punching above their weight,” making up only 6% of production, but representing more than one-fifth of the top episodes in the top 250 of Apple Podcast charts. News podcasts grew by 32% last year, Newman shared.

News podcasts may occupy a small percentage of the market, but they represent more than one-fifth of top episodes.
News podcasts may occupy a small percentage of the market, but they represent more than one-fifth of top episodes.

Next, he discussed the different types of news categories for podcasts, and the strategies for those:

  • Daily news/current affairs: Either a native and daily podcast focusing on news and current affairs, or a daily radio or TV show repackaged as a podcast. Examples include Post Reports (The Washington Post) and La Story (Les Echos).
  • Talk/interview unscripted: A talk/debate/conversation show that can be native or catch-up; most are weekly and non-scripted. Examples include Political Gabfest (Slate) and The Nigel Farage Show (LBC).
  • Narrative series (single topic): Native podcasts with a seasonal or irregular frequency. These podcast series are focused on one story, investigation, or true crime narrative. Examples include Serial (NPR), The Assassination (BBC), and The Teacher’s Pet (The Australian).
  • Other documentary/many topics: These are documentary strands released at a regular frequency, reporting on a wide range of topics. Examples include P3 Dystopia (SR), Code Switch (NPR), and Slow Burn (Slate).
  • Audio long read: A native podcast that is a read of a newspaper or magazine feature; can be regular or seasonal/irregular. Examples include Guardian Long Read (The Guardian) and Les editos de la redaction (Les Echos).
Talk shows and episodic series are the top podcast formats amongst news.
Talk shows and episodic series are the top podcast formats amongst news.

“When we look at the numbers on that spread out by country, you can see that the biggest category is these sort of ‘talk/chat/interview’ shows,” Newman said. “A huge number of those is partly because they’re so cheap to produce.”

This slide shows the most popular podcasts in each of the five countries studied.
This slide shows the most popular podcasts in each of the five countries studied.

The second-most popular category is the episodic series, particularly true crime. Daily news is relatively small in terms of numbers, but they represent a lot of revenue. 

Reuters also looked at who is producing these podcasts and found there is a different production focus for print and broadcasters.

“On the one hand you have print- or digital-born organisations, and they tend to be focused on talk and interview shows,” Newman said. “That’s partly because it’s really easy to reuse the storytelling talent that you have in your newsroom.”

When it comes to podcasts, print/digital publishers and broadcasters have different focuses.
When it comes to podcasts, print/digital publishers and broadcasters have different focuses.

On the other hand, there are broadcasters reusing audio production and documentary skills. These rely on audio documentary skills that they already have in-house.

Finally, the independent sector is emerging and on the rise. These are very strong in Australia particularly. Some podcasts in this category are focused on their domestic market but are increasingly looking for international audiences.

One specific example Newman shared from the independent sector is Dr. Death in the United States, produced by Wondery. It was the first podcast to be simultaneously released worldwide in seven languages, enjoying immense success and now being turned into a television series.

Newman shared a graphic demonstrating what percentages of podcasts in each countries are domestic versus foreign:

The US tops the markets for domestic-produced podcasts at a whopping 93%.
The US tops the markets for domestic-produced podcasts at a whopping 93%.

Daily news podcast

The daily news podcast has evolved strongly, with more being released every month. These can be sorted into three main categories: deep dive, news round-up, and micro-bulletin, with the last two being shorter in length.

When it comes to which are working the best, it depends on country. In the United States and United Kingdom, the deep dive podcast is most popular. About two million people listen to The Daily from The New York Times every day, for example. At the Guardian in the U.K., Today in Focus now has a bigger daily audience than people who purchase the print newspaper.

“These are really substantial audiences,” Newman said.

Strategic planning

Newman then moved into talking about practicalities when it comes to producing audio for a newsroom. “How do you do it? How expensive is it?”

Typically, a media publisher starts with a team of about four or five people to produce a podcast, filling four main roles: host(s), executive producer, producer(s), and sound engineer or designer.

“But the whole point is, it’s not just these dedicated people,” Newman said. “What you’re trying to do is to leverage the entire talent of the newsroom, and bring that to life.”

The typical podcast team at a news publisher consists of 4-8 people.
The typical podcast team at a news publisher consists of 4-8 people.

New skills may be required, and pulling in talent from radio and other audio platforms might be needed. It can be a relatively substantial investment — but is it paying off?

Tom Standage of The Economist says there has been so much demand for sponsorship and advertising for The Intelligence podcast that it more than paid for itself and is making money within a year, even with a dedicated staff of eight people.

Sponsorship revenue for The Daily of The New York Times runs in the eight figures, and NPR says its sponsorship for podcasts is overtaking radio.

However, this is not the case everywhere. Monetisation of podcasts is much more difficult in smaller markets outside the United States and United Kingdom. Reuters didn’t find that any of them were making money yet. Politiken out of Denmark, for example, has not seen interest from its traditional advertisers.

“There may be a lag in smaller countries, or it may be that smaller countries will follow a different path,” Newman said.

A major point to consider, however, is that revenue is not the only, or even the main, motivation for daily news podcasts. Of equal or higher consideration is the goal of building audience engagement, loyalty and habit through the platform.

“The next motivation is really using podcasts to attract the next generation of subscribers or listeners,” Newman said. “Podcasts really are attracting an audience that is something like 20 years younger.”

Another important aspect to note is that while Apple has by far been the dominant market for podcasts in their 20-year history, that is starting to change. Spotify is the second-largest gateway and has doubled its market share over the past year. Other platforms are also entering the market, including Overcast, Castbox, and Google Podcasts.

“This is sort of taking podcasts out of the elite, latte-drinking demographics and into a much more mainstream world,” Newman said.

Podcast-specific networks are also starting to emerge, such as Luminary and Sybel.

“I think where it’s heading is that podcasts will no longer be free with just advertising,” Newman said. “You’re going to have much more of a mix of models, so there will be premium layers, there will be windowing — all the things we know of from other types of media.”

At the same time, broadcasters are looking to control the experience because the direct relationship with the audience is the most important aspect for them.

Other audio opportunities

Some of the other developments happening in the audio field include “atomised news,” which is moving away from bulletins to stories that can be searched, played, and aggregated.

Atomised news is moving away from bulletins to stories that are more engaging.
Atomised news is moving away from bulletins to stories that are more engaging.

“I think this is something to watch,” Newman said. “It’s not going to be a big hit this year, but I think this is both a flashpoint for platforms and also really interesting.”

There is also a move toward turning text articles into audio. Zetland out of Denmark is doing this, placing an audio player at the top of each article, giving its audience the choice of reading or listing to the article. Around 75% of all consumption of Zetland articles are now listened to.

“I do think we are going to see more of people listening to articles rather than just reading them,” Newman said.

He added that when it comes to what people get out of audio, they want to get smarter, quicker.

Takeaways

Newman ended the Webinar with five key takeaways:

  • Podcasting is moving out of the cottage industry phase and into a more “professionalised” state. New money is coming in, competition is increasing, and audience demand is growing.
  • Podcasts are an increasingly important revenue line, profitable in their own right but with added benefits of generating loyalty and habit, as well as attracting younger audiences.
  • Some publishers are making significant extra investments in audio for 2020 — and not just in podcasts. (This will also threaten broadcasters).
  • New possibilities are emerging around voice and text-to-speech.
  • Platforms are moving in. This will grow audience beyond the “latte drinking” demographics but poses dangers for publishers in terms of discovery and direct links with audiences.

About Shelley Seale