One of the main lessons many businesses have learned from living through a pandemic is the importance of the pivot. In the case of Austrian media company, Russmedia, the pivot to a new platform happened literally overnight — and it’s been a huge success.
Based in the Vorarlberg state on the Swiss border in western Austria, Russmedia’s media reach extends into eight European countries. The company got its start 100 years ago as a publishing house, and today produces newspapers, radio, online portals, and more from its headquarters in Schwarzach. And now, Russmedia produces the most successful news show in the region.
Early days of the video platform
During a management retreat in September of 2020, one of the stated company goals was to become Vorarlberg’s largest video platform, Georg Burtscher, managing director of Russmedia Digital, told INMA members at a Webinar on Wednesday. The company wanted to invest more in the medium to become, as Burtscher puts it, “a bit like Netflix for the region.”
Later the same month, there were local elections taking place. Before the pandemic, Russmedia would have been covering the elections from the field, broadcasting from throughout the region. Since that wasn’t an option due to COVID lockdowns, they quickly transformed their building’s largest meeting room into a makeshift studio from which they could stream election news and analysis. In an all-hands-on-deck situation. Every news brand under the Russmedia umbrella contributed to putting the election coverage together.
The numbers were immediately positive. Burtscher said they had about 150,000-160,000 people watching the stream (in a region of less than 400,000 people), which was double the numbers from election coverage two years prior. Even though, at the time, everyone assumed this would be a temporary situation, they began to explore other ways to use this new platform.
Taking the concept up a few notches
Russmedia started making small improvements to the studio. When they realised their local AV supplier, who had handled all of the events Russmedia used to cover in person, had lost most of their clients due to pandemic cancellations, they leased LED walls for the studio’s backdrop.
Building on the success of the initial election coverage, Russmedia went on to cover other events from the studio that they used to cover in person. They also asked editorial staff to make use of the studio for news and other updates that they had previously been recording from their homes or offices.
With everything streaming through this news portal and pandemic lockdowns keeping people at home, they got to a point at which roughly 70% of the region was on the platform.
“We are bigger than Facebook,” Burtscher quipped.
Moving to a daily livestream
By November of 2020, Russmedia streamed its first breaking news programme (about the country’s third pandemic lockdown). It went so well that, Burtscher said: “We thought, ‘Why don’t we do this on a daily basis?’ And 24 hours later, we had a logo, a background for the studio, and guests lined up.”
The first broadcast of “Vorarlberg Live” was that evening.
Since the framework was already in place from the election coverage experiment of two months before, it was relatively easy to decide to produce a daily news show one day and begin broadcasting the next day. They utilised the expertise of existing editorial staff on the programme rather than hiring hosts or moderators and their in-house events team to handle things like coordinating guests and organising the broadcasts.
“Vorarlberg Live” is on Monday through Friday (except for holidays). And because it’s not a traditional news show, they’re not limited by the usual network time constraints. When there’s an important story to cover, they can stream for as long as they need to.
“Vorarlberg Live” doesn’t exist in isolation, Burtscher emphasised. They take clips from the show to use on other platforms. The stories also get covered in the newspapers, and the audio file becomes the podcast. Clips from “Vorarlberg Live” have even been featured on the biggest news shows in both Austria and Germany.
“From one story,” Burtscher said, “we have a multi-function content strategy at the end.”
A year later, they work from a fancier studio with more high-tech AV equipment. There is only one new staff person — everyone else who works in the studio has another Russmedia role as well.
New revenue benefits
From a financial standpoint, the studio has been extremely helpful for Russmedia. During the pandemic, when the event coverage revenue they had previously relied upon was not coming in, they were able to secure more than 90% of their pre-pandemic sponsorship revenue through the studio. So, despite lockdowns and other challenging pandemic policies, their overall loss was only about 10% from the year before.
And, as important as the platform has been for Russmedia, it’s become equally important for clients who rent the space. They’ve had financial institutions, universities, and other companies come in to stream events that they couldn’t otherwise hold during the pandemic. Russmedia charges only €900 per day, including not just the studio space but the people necessary to produce a show, making it an affordable option for many organisations.
“Vorarlberg Live” has been joined in the platform’s line-up by shows about health news, education, sports, and even live music. The barrier to entry is low, with an enthusiastic editorial staff encouraged to experiment with things like a Saturday night entertainment show. And while the studio is in their building, because the equipment is leased it will be easy to pivot again any time they need to.
In the year after “Vorarlberg Live” first streamed across the region, Russmedia produced 249 broadcasts with 637 guests and generated 11 million views.
“And no,” says Burtscher, pre-empting the question, “It’s not behind a paywall. It’s free for all.”