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May 30, 2023

Podcast Show 2023: How creation of ‘narrative culture’ is changing journalism in the UK

Tips from The Podcast Show included: do video clips, make grabby titles and don't keep the listener waiting.

By Bron Maher

The creation of a “narrative culture” via podcasts in the UK is changing journalism, according to editors who spoke at The Podcast Show 2023 in London.

Themes at The Podcast Show on Wednesday last week included the ways that journalism is changing as podcasting achieves wider newsroom adoption – and whether the market is about to drop.

Editors and podcasters from the likes of Tortoise, Sky News, The Telegraph, The News Agents, Vox and more spoke about the end to the “dumb money” era but why we’re still in “early innings” for news podcasting, the shift to putting podcasts at the centre of newsrooms, and the importance of video.

[Read more: Podcasts among biggest UK media growth opportunities for 2023 – Yougov]

How podcasting is changing journalism: Sources pushing for payment, more showing your working, fewer boring bits

Discussions turned repeatedly at the show to how widespread adoption of podcasting was changing, or could change, journalism.

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Three journalists from Tortoise, speaking on separate panels, alluded to challenging new dynamics with sources when creating podcasts.

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Tortoise co-founder James Harding said: “Reporting for a newspaper or for a TV bulletin, more or less, people know the rules. In the world of podcasting, things are changing. And so people are asserting rights or expectations that are completely new.”

He said that while making one series, a source had understood themselves to be participating in an entertainment format rather than a journalistic one.

Alexi Mostrous, who has hosted Tortoise podcasts including the award-winning Sweet Bobby and Hoaxed, said it was “potentially a really dangerous” issue.

“We come from a world where we, as James said, deal with sources, and there’s kind of a clear relationship between a journalist and a source.

“So, you know – no copy approval, no money changes hands, nothing like that. But in certain entertainment formats those boundaries are blurred.”

Later that day another Tortoise co-founder, Ceri Thomas, said that sources “are getting more and more aware that there is potential to take a cut out of something.

“And some things we’ve had to walk away from, because we’ve been talking to people who’ve said, ‘I’m prepared to work on this podcast with you, this investigation, but I’d like it cut at the end of it.’”

Thomas also said of his peers in journalistic podcasting: “One of the great things it feels like we’re all working on together is how to make a narrative culture in this country.

“Because it really does help – if you can think about scenes and beginnings and middles and ends and all that kind of obvious stuff… You can see from the data you get… you do hold people through those moments much better if you’ve really paid attention to that style.”

Thomas estimated that a single Tortoise investigation might cost between £50,000 to £150,000.

[Read more: How Tortoise podcasts became the most profitable part of the ‘slow news’ start-up]

At the same panel The News Agents executive producer Dino Sofos said a “great thing” about podcasting was “being able to show our workings and having the time and the space to explain a story in more detail… It’s not just a headline, it’s not just four minutes that [BBC News political editor] Chris Mason has, if he’s lucky, on the Today programme.”

He also said podcasting allows more flexiblity with how long to spend on certain parts of a story.

“The format is dictated by the best way to tell the story, which is fantastic… Sometimes we do interviews and we go: ‘that was really boring’… On live radio, you’re stuck! If you’ve got to fill 20 minutes on a radio show and that’s your main interview and they’re boring – that’s it!”

The Telegraph’s deputy investigations editor Katherine Rushton said podcasts get journalism to new audiences: “You get lots of people who are not in the habit of reading newspapers who come to podcasts. That’s the feedback we’ve been getting.”

And Sky News’ Sophy Ridge said podcasts gave her “the freedom to be much more conversational, much more intimate” with interviewees because there was less of a sense that people were listening or watching.

Have we hit peak podcast?

A popular question across the panels was whether the industry had hit “peak podcast” – i.e. whether there is further room for expansion for the sector.

Vox Media’s SVP and general manager of audio and digital video, Ray Chao, said he thought “the era of dumb money is over”.

“What I would say is over is the era of companies who saw podcasts as a quick way to make a buck, or they were kind of curious about the space and spent a tonne of money really quickly,” Chao said.

But he said for companies “who care about building a sustainable business… to me it feels very much, at least from where we sit, as early innings for podcasting. There’s continued movement of consumers – I always think about how it’s only like a third of Americans [that are] listening to podcasts regularly. The opportunity for us is so much bigger than that.

“We hear everyday from advertisers that they are more interested in podcasting. People who’ve never spent money in podcasting, ever, but they buy display ads from us and video advertising from us. They want to experiment in podcasting. So we just feel a lot of that potential in the long term.”

Priya Sahathevan, director of commercial and business development at Sky News, said at another panel that the current available data contradicts the notion that podcasting has hit its commercial peak.

“Our [podcast] audiences last year were 50% higher than the year before and our [podcast] revenues were 50% higher than the year before as well,” Sahathevan said.

“We just have to look around the industry [to see] that people are generating revenue from live events, from subscriptions, and from content that you can then licence the IP on afterwards. And so it opens up a whole new spectrum of opportunity for us.”

She added: “What’s brilliant about podcasts is there really aren’t geographic boundaries either – it’s much easier to reach a global audience with podcasts than with TV, which requires more painful deal-making territory by territory.”

Sky News head of radio Dave Terris, appearing on the same panel, said there had been a “stark” cultural shift at Sky so that “now podcasts are at the centre of the newsgathering”.

Indeed Ridge hinted that she may be doing more podcasting, saying: “…from September, as we gear up to more political coverage ahead of an election, I’m looking forward to doing more things on weeknights and weekdays.”

Hot tips from The Podcast Show: Make video clips, don’t dawdle, don’t over-record

Vox Media’s Chao and his colleague Nishat Kurwa, SVP and executive producer for audio at the company, ran through a list of things the company looks for in a podcast.

Kurwa said Vox Media asks what is going to make “a distinctive audio show”.

Things that make a distinctive audio show, she said, could include “talent”, “a distinctive approach to the category” (for example humour or an explainer format) and “synergy across our other shows”.

A podcast needs to be thought of as audio-first, rather than a translation of a text or video product: “The thing that is a truism about audio is it’s really intimate. So you do have to think about respecting the audience’s time.”

Asked about what Vox Media looks for in a potential acquisition, Chao said: “Quality of content is paramount at the end of the day.”

He added: “We do really look for opportunities where there’s an ambitious creator at the helm… they’re entrepreneurial and they are looking to continue to lead that podcast going forward.” But as well as strong businesses, “we care about engaging large and loyal audiences”.

Sofos said that for “conversational, always-on shows” like The News Agents, “having a video strategy, if you can, is really, really important”.

He advised that “we’ve all moved on so far in podcasting” beyond “that 15 minute rambly chat at the top”.

“Get to it as quickly as possible: what are you telling me? Why am I listening? Even your episode titles are so important.”

And he advised against “over-recording”: “What takes loads of time… is editing. And if you need to take out ten minutes from a podcast that can take you hours of editing,” which he said was particularly problematic for reactive news podcasts.

On narrative, rather than always-on podcasts, Tortoise’s Mostrous said: “The best true crime podcasts really succeed when they don’t just focus on a particular crime or event in question… they use a singular narrative event as a kind of tent pole to draw attention to wider public interest issues.”

And David Waters, head of production at Novel, said that sometimes a podcast seeking to answer a big question simply won’t find that answer.

“Sometimes you’ll have a whodunnit and all your ducks will fall into line, you will actually find out who done it. But that doesn’t always happen.”

The Telegraph’s Belton said: “I do think there are ways of writing out of it,” but that it was much harder for a shorter series.

And Matthew Shaer, who co-founded Campside Media, said: “I think the bar is higher now because there are so many podcasts… I worry about the [inconclusive] ending ones, because people do have their choice of so many podcasts now.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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