Choosing the news

Liza Tarbuck said something quite interesting when interviewed by Fi and Jane on the Fortunately podcast last week. She presents a Saturday night show on Radio 2 and she is not a fan of the news:

I have made a request about whether we could drop the news in the middle of the show. Because on a performance level, if my listeners’ energy goes, I have to work harder at the beginning of the second hour. I don’t watch the news and I don’t listen to the news. It actually is quite blandy bland and not the sort of news I’m after. I kind of want to know about science departments in the universities. What are they coming up with? Exciting stuff, that’s actually relevant to me and mine or might even punch some sort of use, thoughts of what could be, rather than ‘this’ [meaning lockdown etc].

The news in her show, like other Radio 2 shows, follows a similar pattern and structure. It’s Radio 2’s news brand. Just like on most stations.

It did make me think though. Why?

Liza’s show is a specialist show. She chooses, as also mentioned on the podcast, all the music directly as well as the content of the programme, which is driven by text-in topics. So why should the middle two minutes be off-brand for her, to stay on-brand for R2?

I can understand that R2 listeners like being connected to the world and are used to the regular bulletins, but what if the news team were given a different request for those couple of minutes. Headlines from around the world and as Liza mentions, big stories about positive change? Yes, it’s a faff to do. But would the R2 brand lose out much? It would still be driven by the BBC News staff, under their editorial control, but there would just be a slightly different style guide.

News, travel and weather are such formulated parts of radio, are we perhaps wrong to not give them a second thought?

Over on Radio 1, its news service – Newsbeat – has always been a good listen, trying to provide content of interest to Radio 1’s listeners. What I’ve always found strange is that the bulletins are BBC Newsbeat ones, and not Radio 1 Newsbeat ones. Due to BBC-ness the news is sort of outsourced to the BBC News team. Whilst I’m sure the Radio 1 bosses can give the Newsbeat management lots of thoughts, the editorial seems to rest with BBC News. I understand this sometimes causes some tension.

If Liza Tarbuck’s annoyed, just think what Radio 1 management feel.

I think though that the more competitive radio is, and the more important the radio brands are, the more essential it is for stations to really think about all the elements that contribute to their output.

When so much time is spent on the musical output and the presenters, do news, travel, weather and for commercial stations ads, get forgotten? Depending on dayparts it could be 2% to 15% of output – surely something to pay close attention to as well.

Audio Content Fund

I was incredibly disappointed yesterday morning to hear that the Audio Content Fund has lost its government funding, and they won’t, right now, be extending the three years of its initial run.

The funding for the pilot was made available as a result of unspent funds from the previous BBC licence fee settlement, originally intended for the purpose of broadband roll-out. So, a top-slicing of the licence fee.

The ACF has delivered amply for its small budget. 128 projects from 76 suppliers on 329 radio stations. You can read all about them here. It provided public service content, to large audiences, though commercial and community radio.

However it, alongside the funding of the Young Audiences Content Fund in television, have somewhat been at the mercy of government machinations around licence fee discussions.

The somewhat crazy thing is that the ACF and YACF were Conservative government creations, that provide public value outside of the BBC in an efficient manner. Both had strong diversity and regionality elements, especially with out of London production – so were all very ‘levelling up’.

What seems to have happened is that the discussions of the mid-charter review were dragged forward by the DCMS and its new minister Nadine Dorries. She caught everyone, including the BBC, by surprise with her tweet of a Mail on Sunday article, allowing her to provide input into Operation Red Meat – a desire to give Tory MPs some Conservative-style positivity to ward off Partygate shenanigans.

Nadine was also keen to trumpet saving ‘hard-working families’ 40p a week from freezing the BBC licence fee. Whether that’s of much help to the people who have lost £20 a week from Universal Credit cuts or those who have to cope with increasing energy bills and National Insurance rises will, remains to be seen.

It seems everyone, particularly the BBC, thought that licence fee discussions were still on-going. With this not to be, any hope of a well choreographed announcement looking at the licence fee, the spending review and issues with S4C and The Funds somewhat going out the window. And with the BBC suddenly saddled with £1.5bn of cuts, I’m sure they weren’t that keen to offer much respite for schemes outside of their direct control. And who’s to blame them?

Up to this point, there seemed to have been strong support for the ACF at DCMS – particularly as it had a great impact at little cost. It’s current position is that:

“This three-year pilot scheme to test a new way of financing public service TV and radio content will finish in March as intended and we will conduct a full evaluation. We are undertaking a wider review of public service broadcasting to ensure it remains relevant and can continue to meet the needs of UK audiences.”

The DCMS has a number of broadcasting issues on its plate – the new way the BBC is to be funded, the Government’s desire to sell-off Channel 4 and now the ACF and YACF too. It’s hard not to look at this all together and think that the current government doesn’t have that much faith in public service broadcasting. Hopefully I’m wrong.

AOB

The BBC and public service broadcasting was often remarked upon in the special Predictions episode of The Media Podcast which dropped on Friday. A stellar range of guests including Hannah Russell from Mags Creative, The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, media writer Maggie Brown, Dan Taylor-Watt, who was Director of Product for iPlayer and BBC Sounds until late last year, The Times’ Jake Kanter, Faraz Osman from Gold Wala and Ann Charles from Radio TechCon (amongst other places).

Get it wherever you get your podcasts, or by clicking here.

I’m also excited/nervous to announce that the podcast is going weekly from next Friday (4th Feb). So get subscribing!

What do we put in bulletins, and what’s happening with the ACF? (6min read)

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Podcasts

There is no magic formula to creating anything successful. But there are things that you can do to increase your odds. Podcasting is no different.

Having had a listen to loads of shows, here’s some things that I’ve noticed. Warning: Of course some shows break these ‘rules’ and are still super-successful. But personally, if I’m focused on achieving success I’ll tend to look at what large numbers of successful people have done, rather than gambling I can replicate an outlier.

Chart-topping shows are long-running shows

An article in Bloomberg talked about how there had been no new podcast hits in recent years and the fact that the biggest shows were the long-running ones. Of course, the truth is that very few podcasts can become instant hits.

Most podcasts that eventually do well, get there through lots of practice and by building an audience predominantly through word of mouth.

A ten-part run of a non-serialised podcast (ie things that aren’t documentaries) are unlikely to build up much steam. It takes a long while for shows to find their groove (and respond to listeners’ feedback) and it takes a while for people to be comfortable enough to recommend a show, and then even more time for a new listener to take the plunge.

The current Apple Podcast number one is The Diary of a CEO. It’s on episode 115 and has been running since September 2017. It has been a long build for the show – both in quality and popularity – but it’s now a well-produced, good-listen and ready to benefit from the host’s new, larger, TV profile.

Back catalogues are also important for scale. Over 50% of downloaded shows are old episodes.

High concepts or great stories are essential

There are no shortage of podcasts. Or Books. Or magazines. Or TV shows.

Successful products need to cut through in their market. “Hey we’re a show that just chats about xxx each week” is not good enough.

Wikipedia tells us:

High concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that are not as easily summarised.

Listeners mostly find new shows through recommendations so they need to be able to explain your show to someone quickly. Additionally people see a small square graphic and a show title. If you’re lucky they then click play on an episode to audition you.

Can your show communicate through all these means what it’s about, and encourage people to listen?

The one type of show that breaks rule #1 above is documentary-style series. The Missing Cryptoqueen. The Coming Storm. Sweet Bobby. Successful documentaries (and fiction) usually have brilliant hooks.

If someone’s going to give you an hour of their time, unsurprisingly they want to know what they’re going to get.

Strong openings

Successful shows have a great first 90 seconds. You need to sell the concept, for new listeners, and if it’s guest-based you need to sell who’s on and why. If it’s not about guests, great shows get into their content fast.

If you include the phrase “well, co-host, hasn’t it been a busy week” and then you ramble on for 20 minutes, you’re not doing it properly.

Many big interview shows start with a montage of guests answers, which adds texture, pace and prepares you for what’s to come. In other shows, like Happy Place or Adam Buxton, you get a strong endorsement from the presenter explaining who the guest is, really giving cues to why you should keep listening.

Decent production

Great shows don’t sound crap. Strong openings are usually prepped, be that scripted or with produced elements.

You want to reduce any part of your podcast that stops new listeners from tuning in, or give existing listeners a reason to tune out.

How many times have you listened to an episode about half way through and then you have to stop for a real-life reason – maybe you get to your destination or are interrupted by a call – and then when you’re free again, you choose to abandon that episode?

It’s probably not something you do for the shows that you love and are excited to get a new episode of, but for those shows that are in the second division when scrolling through your podcast app, the ones that you don’t always get to, they’re the ones that you’re much tougher on.

So much of this comes down to production.

No one knows what is or isn’t edited out of a show, but jeez you can tell when there’s stuff that’s left in that’s boring or repetitive.

The longer the podcast, the more you’re gambling that people have enough time in their lives to listen to your episode. If you have a long podcast and you’re in that second division of choices, a listener’s even less likely to get to you.

For new listeners – do you really think seeing 1hr 34s as the duration of an episode encourages people to sample you?

Just like no editing, poor sound quality gets in the way of people enjoying and listening to shows.

A pandemic has meant that many shows are done over Zoom (or similar). Do you help your participants to sound good?

I was listening to a very popular BBC show that’s now recorded remotely and one of the two hosts was recording in a kitchen. An echoey kitchen. Listening in a car with one co-host in OK quality, one in an echoey kitchen and then two guests on Zoom was a painful experience.

That sort of experience tarnishes the show and if it’s something that happens regularly it means the show will drop down a listeners’ priority list.

Production is about getting all of the elements to work together to give you the best chance of success.

Passionate presenters mean passionate listeners

When you scroll through the top shows on your podcast app, you’ll notice how many of the hosts have become synonymous with what they present.

Fearne Cotton clearly loves doing Happy Place and talks about it on socials and in the press. Dr Rangan Chatterjee has been a successful media doctor on the TV etc, but the podcast is the purest form of him. It’s the most important element of his ‘brand’.

If listeners know you truly love something, it gives them permission to love it too.

It’s also why stapling some talent to an idea might generate some initial interest, but barely any of these shows have longevity.

Great shows have vibrant communities

When thinking about a new show, the concept and the talent, think about whether it has a chance of resonating so much that your listeners will form a community around it.

The crime podcast Redhanded has a 25,000 strong Facebook group and 10,000 Patreon supporters netting them £54k a month.

Is your show two-way? Do you respond to listeners? Do you let them become part of your world and help define it?

The Elis James & John Robins: Podcast Devotee Group has 15,000 members. These are 15k super fans who are part of a gang and get consistently energised about the lads’ podcast work. It’s also a group who will become strong advocates for the show driving word of mouth.

Popular shows deliver for listeners

I think all great media has the consumer at the centre of what they do. They understand their audience, who they are, what they like, how they feel about things.

The best shows are orientated around people’s interests, or the life stage that they’re at. They are shows that answer a problem or fill a specific gap in listeners’ lives. They are consistent with their content, delivering on the promise of the idea.

They are shows that respect listeners’ time with more killer and less filler, are easy to listen to and publish consistently so subscribers can integrate new episodes into their busy lives.

Of course there’s lots of things I haven’t covered here, but if you think there’s an obvious miss, why not leave it in the comments below:

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What to learn from successful shows (7 minute read)

Coping with Podcasting’s Bubble

I’ve been trying to sit down and write some predictions for 2022 since before Christmas, but a bit of a writer’s block has taken over. I think, for most audio operators, this year will be about trouble-shooting and consolidating. Like most of the world post-COVID, people just trying to get their shit together will be work enough.

That’s not to say there won’t be some splashy acquisitions, some talent acrobatics and some tech innovations, I just think for most people at the coal face, trying to build a credible business around the new opportunities in audio, particularly podcasting, will require a renewed focus.

I’m fortunate to have lots of conversations with audio folk and many are grappling with what they’re “supposed” to do around podcasting. There’s two broad groups. The first is pro-bubble. These people know there’s somewhat of a bubble in audio, particularly podcasting at the moment – and their strategy is to embrace that, try and build out scale at pace – and then get out whilst valuations are high, and unconnected to whether what they’re doing is sustainable. Others think there’s a bubble and whilst there will likely be a correction, the general growing use and revenue will usher in a new audio-consumer sector. The view being that the bubble will actually be the new market. If they’re still around after that, they’ll be in a good position.

Others are trying to cope with the existence of the bubble and all of its effects, whilst trying to ignore it and build more regular businesses – ie ones that make some money. These again are split into two groups. The first are existing broadcasters and publishers. The problem is, it is virtually impossible for a regular media business to look at the podcast investment case and justify the required costs to ‘do it properly’.

Let’s take the sector I’m closest to, radio. As I’ve mentioned before, commercial radio in the UK is very efficient. It’s got relatively high profit margins and has generally pretty manageable talent costs, in front of and behind the mic. Indeed, outside of the biggest on-air talent, radio companies are paying the internet people far more than the audio people. Strange, but it’s the radio parts of the business that they’re super-comfortable with and knowledgable about. They know exactly what they can spend to get what they need, and audio talent has always wanted to work for these radio companies – excellent leverage to have. On the internet-side meanwhile, developers and such, are employees who put little value on where they work, and can happily move across any sector, providing price competition for their skills.

Today, if you want to be a radio DJ on a station/network of any scale, there isn’t much flexibility, of course not helped by there only being four main radio station operators in the country. Many radio presenters have somewhat stomached the guidelines and wages of their radio jobs, and supplemented it with other work. It’s similar for production talent too. Radio companies have historically benefited from this seller’s market.

When these radio companies look at podcast production talent costs, the lack of many on-mic talent wanting to give up control and the difficulty of establishing new shows, they scratch their heads and look fondly at their radio transmitters.

I pick radio, but it’s the same conversation with other content publishers. Do they all know that on-demand audio is a massive opportunity? Yes. Do they know that the business model will eventually catch-up? Yes. Can they get buy-in internally to deliver the scope of change necessary? Er, not so much.

I think it’s telling how many media employees choose not to do podcast projects with the media companies that employ them. I think it shows that the talent relationship is often one-sided with the company unable to think about their teams as more than suppliers to deliver their own projects.

I don’t think, in most cases, this is even malicious. It’s just the mindset driven from the success of their heritage business. The danger is that this puts them way behind the new entrants, without this baggage, when these media companies really should have all the relationship advantages.

It’s perhaps no surprise that many talent-led podcasts are now incubated by the agents or management teams of celebrities. They have a history of being joint-venture partners with their talent, they need to be ensure they get their 15%! But often the manager relationship is a pretty deep one, the trust that’s built up from the work managers have done to help talent’s careers, puts them in a great position to develop new businesses with them.

The idea of “we must be the ones to disrupt our own business” often gets a glib eyebrow raise or is regarded as a somewhat hackneyed phrase. If a media company’s corporate strategy is to embark on success in a new market, it’s essential that attitudes and structure are re-evaluated to make that able to happen. And that’s difficult when it’s at such odds with where success has historically come from.

Many companies find the only way to do this is to set up new units. It can be successful, but often falls prey to political in-fighting or budget battles. In a large corporation, that can be hard to win when you’re haemorrhaging cash whilst trying to build something new.

New companies and start-ups in the audio space also face challenges. For those in podcasting, who don’t have the resources to embrace bubble-like growth, they face the challenge of competing, whilst still trying to be a business with a road to profitability. This is tough whilst the bubble-embracers have seemingly endless cash and the media companies have a strong balance sheet and a variety of routes to market for their product.

For me, it’s essential that these companies are specialists or occupy a specific topic, or vertical. Trying to be a generalist podcasting firm, in an accelerating market, would seem a challenging place to be. For specialist firms, building audiences around a subject would seem to provide greater opportunities in and around podcasting – whether that’s events, publishing or other digital content. It doesn’t stop you putting podcasts at the heart of what you do, but it does provide opportunities to broaden revenue if the goal is medium-term profitability.

I also think being in a vertical gives you some broader potential exit opportunities, allowing you to swim with other companies in your topic, as well as other podcast businesses who are after more scale.

Overall though, the companies that will do well in the podcast space are those that either have a lot of money, or the ones that have real focus and drive. Both probably need a decent helping of luck too.

How will companies tackle podcasting in 2022 (6 minute read)