Economist, Bauer, Tortoise share audio, podcast success stories on London study tour

By John Horstmann

City, University of London

London, United Kingdom


By Dawn McMullan


Dallas, USA


With print media going out of fashion and the majority of media consumers preferring digital means to engage in news, audio has emerged as a key method for media organisations to release and monetise their content.

The rise of audio as a medium was one of several key themes discussed during two recent London study tours as part of the INMA World Congress of News Media.

The Economist puts its podcasts behind a paywall

The Economist launched its first podcasts in 2005, coming preloaded with the early Apple iPods. Fast forward more than a decade and the media company has several podcasts, including The Intelligence, a daily in-depth news podcast has five million monthly listeners.

In 2022, in an effort to improve its podcasts, a team of five spent nine months making The Prince, an eight-part podcast about the leader of China, Xi Jinping, John Shields, director of podcasts, told study tour attendees. The series had more than 11 million downloads and was in the top 10 podcasts in the United States and the UK, and the No. 1 podcast in Hong Kong.

John Shields, director of podcasts at The Economists, explains the timeline of podcasts at the media company.
John Shields, director of podcasts at The Economists, explains the timeline of podcasts at the media company.

“We learned a lot — finding a voice both authentic to what The Economist is all about and adapting that to print content,” Shields said. “Based on the success of that, we had the confidence to do a lot of other things.”

The media company launched its subscription offer, Economist Podcasts+, in late 2023, giving subscribers access to all its podcast content for US$4.90 a month or US$49 annually.

“We’re looking at things The Economist can do better than anybody else,” Shields said. Things like Boss Class, a series about management. “We are very confident what we’re doing in audio has tremendous value, and we should look at ways of not pumping it out into the Internet for free.”

The two big questions leading up to launching the podcast paymodel were: 

  1. Would anyone pay for them?

  2. Would the tech be clunky?

“There’s a lot of nervousness about betting on getting paid for audio because it’s not an established thing in journalism. We have a very hard paywall [for all but the daily news podcast]. We were waiting to watch the sign-ups come in. And suddenly, we had hard data of people listening to our podcast and paying for them. At some point, we passed Michigan Stadium. We’re on the right track.”

Bauer Media Group focuses on four Ls of attracting young listeners

Ben Cooper, group director/content and music, at Bauer Radio UK, calls young audience members the “HD generation” — head down generation.

To keep this age group from looking down at its phone, Cooper and his team focus on the four Ls:

  • Listen: “Taylor Swift’s album drops, and it’s a new story on your news feed, Cooper said. Ken Bruce is the biggest music broadcaster in the UK, so we signed him. And he has changed the landscape. Commercial radio now outperforms the BBC in the UK.” The interaction during COVID was “massive” because of the community radio can create, he said. Now Bauer has Rayo, a new all-in-one platform for all its radio stations.

  • Look: “You will look and scroll on your phone today the height of Big Ben,” Cooper told study tour attendees. “So how do we as a radio station grab your attention? A teen girl in our audience research told us, ‘If I can’t see it on my phone, it didn’t happen.’ That’s depressing but that’s what we’re up against.”

Bauer Media combined its 16 radio stations into one brand called Hits Radio.
Bauer Media combined its 16 radio stations into one brand called Hits Radio.

  • Live: “Live for me is a really important thing we do — like the emotionally connection of your first concert,” he said. “We do live events, bringing your favorite artists on-air to perform or broadcasting from the venue.”

  • Local: Bauer recently changed from 16 radio stations in the UK with different names to one under the umbrella of Hits Radio. “Having someone on the breakfast show taht sounds like you, Liverpool or wherever, that’s really important,” Cooper said. “Local news … and a local voice and connection is a really important element of winning new audiences in new ways against everything we’re competing against.”

Tortoise Media embraces audio-centred journalism

Tortoise is an organisation that has particularly embraced audio. Tortoise refers to itself as a “slow newsroom,” with the mission statement, “to make sense of the world.” It focuses on producing longer-form content which dive deep into certain topics, rather than staying at surface level. 

Study tour attendees learned about Tortoise's audio-first newsroom at its London office.
Study tour attendees learned about Tortoise's audio-first newsroom at its London office.

After its creation in 2018, the news company initially emphasised the written work. It has since shifted primarily to audio-centred journalism. 

“We were producing five [written] stories a day [when we started],” explained Jessica Winch, Tortoise’s news editor. “But the engagement wasn’t what we wanted it to be. People were reading the stories but not reading them through. They’d get maybe halfway and then click away. 

“Using audio, we thought we could build something brilliant.” 

Having now made podcasts their primary output of journalism, Tortoise is seeing improved engagement. According to Alice Sandelson, commercial strategy director, some of Tortoise’s podcasts have a completion rate of more than 90%. 

“There’s been a lot of experimentation [regarding our journalistic output]. Audio saw results that we were really pleased with,” she said. 

Tortoise made a big splash in the audio space with its Sweet Bobby podcast, a multi-part investigative series about one of the world’s most prominent catfishers released in 2023, which Sandelson described as a “shock success.” 

The podcast went viral, with more than 12 million listens. “[Sweet Bobby] is an example of a project where, if you get the story right and it takes off, it can really make your business take off,” Sandelson said. 

Tortoise still produces various multi-part investigative podcasts, about Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, for instance, but also regularly produces a shorter podcast — Sensemaker, a daily podcast where current news topics are explained and analysed in under 10 minutes.

Consumers may listen to Tortoise’s podcasts on their own app or through distributors such as Apple or Spotify. “We made the decision to meet our audience where they are,” Sandelson said. More than 90% of Tortoise’s listeners are off-platform.  

As for how Tortoise monetises its products, Sandelson said it is “constantly in balance between subscriptions, advertising, and sponsorship.” Much of Tortoise’s content is free but paying members get early access, the ability to binge listen, ad-free listening, extra content, and access to events. 

Tortoise executives said they recognise the need to constantly experiment and evolve in today’s diverse media landscape. “The experimentation of what we could change regarding our products is still something we think about every day,” Sandelson said.

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