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November 10, 2022updated 06 Mar 2023 9:24am

Tortoise’s Ceri Thomas on the future of podcasting: ‘It is the bedrock of everything we do’

By Dominic Ponsford

The editor of Tortoise Studios, Ceri Thomas, has told Press Gazette how podcasts went from an experiment for the slow news publisher to becoming the “bedrock of everything we do”.

He was speaking on the latest Press Gazette Future of Media Explained podcast alongside Auddy’s head of strategy, Oliver Thomas.

Thomas, a former editor of BBC Panorama and Today, said: “I joined Tortoise at the end of 2018 and after a career in broadcasting was quite looking forward to doing a bit of text. What we found at Tortoise was we were asking people to read two or three thousands words on a mobile phone and that wasn’t working at all. People were getting two or three paragraphs in and we would start to lose them.

“At the end of 2019 we started putting a toe in the audio water, we launched a podcast ahead of the December 2019 general election. Gradually since then we have shifted more and more to audio because it is the best vehicle for doing the kind of journalism that we want to do.”

Tortoise co-founded Katie Vanneck-Smith revealed last month that podcasting has become profitable for the publisher, despite significant investment costs.

Asked what he has learned on the road to profitability at Tortoise, Thomas said: “If you want a way to do in-depth, narrative journalism, then it turns out the retention times you get with podcasts mean it is a great way to do that.

“We’ve begun to see podcasts as the bedrock of everything that we do.  Any single-strand strategy, like ads or IP, probably won’t work. But at Tortoise it drives reputation, brand, reach, membership and awareness. It’s driven an IP-first look deal with Sky which is incredibly important to us.”

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Asked whether Tortoise Radio could be next, he said: “We’re interested in what a Tortoise channel would look like. We are looking at more always-on shows that are on at last 40 weeks a year. There could be an on-demand alternative to a live radio station.”

He said that the challenge for broadcasters is to strike a balance “between familiarity and predictability which is death to audio”.

And he noted that – with 12 staff – Tortoise is now “the only podcast maker outside the BBC which has a newsroom attached to it”.

Oliver Thomas of Auddy, which describes itself as a full-service podcast company covering everything from productions through to advertising and distribution, shared his predictions about the future of podcasting. Auddy sponsored this week’s Future of Media Explained podcast.

He said: “There are an increasing number of brands which see podcasting as part of their marketing mix. It is moving from the innovation part of their budget into a hygiene factor in their marketing mix alongside video and social and print and everything else.

“Podcasting is becoming a very big medium. At the moment consumption is about 25% of adults on a weekly basis, in the US it is more like 40%. It is growing particularly amongst younger audiences.

“Private podcasting is interesting. It plays into the importance of communities. Tailoring content at a more personalised level. People are enjoying finding more niche specific content.

“To date podcasting has grown in the public space. I think what we are doing to see is people creating subscription content behind a paywall or membership wall. I think we will see organisations using it to engage with employees.

“I was working at Viacom in 2013 to 2021 when we saw the explosion of video on demand, Netflix and Youtube. Back in 2015, just over 25% of UK adults were watching online video on a weekly basis, the same place podcasting is now. Now it is around 70% of UK adults watching online video on a daily basis. A lot of that shift has come from the technology.”

He said that as the technology around podcast discoverability improves so consumption will begin to explode.

Ceri Thomas said he also sees room for growth in podcasts but warned that the popularity of his former employer could be a curb on the market.

“BBC audio might influence the market in this country and mean it’s never quite as big as the States.

“You have to work incredibly closely with the platforms to cut through in audio at the moment. Maybe the influence of the BBC in audio will change over time and some space will open up. Is there a market there? Is there headroom? I would say 100% yes.”

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