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Why every news publisher is launching a daily podcast

On December 3, The Washington Post is launching a new daily podcast. Called Post Reports, the 20-minute show will hit the web every weekday at 5 p.m. and consist of three segments: straight news, a deep-dive feature, and a lighter, more whimsical piece.

While this isn’t the Post’s first podcast, it’s certainly its most ambitious. The newspaper has been staffing up the show for months, and it’s dedicating eight full-time employees to the effort. An advertising rate card estimates an initial audience of a million listeners.

It’ll be entering a crowded market. Over the last year or so, we’ve seen daily general news podcasts launched by NPR, Vox, CBC, The Guardian, Slate, and ABC.

And of course you can’t talk about this genre of podcasts without addressing the elephant in the room: The New York Times’s The Daily. Hosted by longtime Times reporter Michael Barbaro, the podcast became a ratings juggernaut from almost the day it launched. It reportedly draws in 6.5 million unique listeners each month, with more than a million tuning in each day. The podcast’s success has propelled Barbaro to celebrity status; he’s appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers, sells out live events, and is even regularly recognized on the streets by fans. Apple listed it as one of the most-downloaded shows on its podcast app in 2017.

A daily podcast, at least one with good production values, is an expensive endeavor. So why are so many news organizations sinking so much energy and resources into producing them? There are three main reasons:

High frequency generates a larger audience

I recently interviewed Brian Alvey, the co-founder of Weblogs, Inc, which launched popular blogs like Engadget and Autoblog before being sold to AOL in 2005. I asked him how his team built such massive audiences for these blogs. “If you do 10 posts a day on Engadget, on Autoblog, you get X amount of traffic,” he told me. “And if you do 20 posts a day, you will double your traffic. So we would just do more posts.”

It’s been long known that publishing consistency plays a major role in online audience building, but this is especially true for podcasts. Podcasts can’t go “viral” in the same way that articles, images, and videos can, so any podcast audience can only be built incrementally, episode by episode. So a show that gets published every week day could, all things being equal, grow at five times the rate of a weekly show.

Dan Misener, head of audience development at podcast consultancy Pacific Content, analyzed download data on tens of thousands of shows, and he found that the volume of podcast episodes has a strong correlation with the size of the show’s audience. In fact, the top 100 most popular podcasts he analyzed had a median episode count of 203.5. If you’re hosting a daily podcast, you can hit that number within 40 weeks. A weekly podcast would take four years.

Passive consumption of content

There aren’t many times throughout the day when you don’t have access to a screen. When you roll out of bed in the morning, chances are your phone’s the first thing you check. You face a computer while you sit in an office all day. You have your tablet for when you lie back on your couch at night and on weekends.

Podcast listening fills the gaps in between. Whether you’re commuting to work, grocery shopping, cleaning, or just going on a walk, podcasts provide the opportunity for passive consumption of content while you perform menial tasks. This is a gap that, until recently, most publishers couldn’t fill.

It’s not a coincidence that almost all the daily podcasts publish either early in the morning or around 5 p.m. — they’re fighting to become a staple in your daily commute, reaching you at a time when you’d otherwise be unavailable. And with the rise of smart speakers and Bluetooth enabled cars, there are more opportunities for news consumers to eschew traditional radio and tune into a podcast instead.

Increased audience loyalty

Publishers that launch podcasts recognize that the medium can strengthen their core brand, something that’s become especially important as these news organizations try to build paid subscription bases. “When you listen to a podcast every week, it inevitably becomes a real presence in your mind, in the way that reading a writer’s articles does not,” said Slate Plus editorial director Gabriel Roth. “There’s an intimacy with podcasts that makes people interested in getting more.” In fact, Slate’s podcasts have become a major promotional vehicle for Slate Plus, with individual shows launching concentrated “pledge drives” to generate new subscriptions. Podcasting now accounts for 30 percent of Slate’s overall revenue.

The Financial Times, which runs a dozen podcasts, including one with a million regular listeners, views podcasting as a significant subscriber acquisition tool. “The majority of listeners to our current podcasts are not subscribers, but they are taking the time to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day on FT content,” Alastair Mackie, head of audio, told Digiday. “One of the challenges subscriptions businesses have is to engage people to the point where they convert. So to have a fertile hunting ground [for conversions] of highly engaged people, many of whom listen to 70-80 percent of the podcasts, is good. You’ll see a lot more of us trying to refine that. There is a big opportunity in using it to drive subscriptions.”

Direct revenue

A daily podcast isn’t just a marketing vehicle for a publisher, it also has the potential to generate substantial revenue. I already noted that podcasts drive nearly a third of Slate’s revenue. In a Vanity Fair profile of The Daily, Joe Pompeo revealed that the podcast is on track to bring in eight figures in revenue this year; it costs $290,000 for a brand just to enter the podcast’s rotating list of monthly sponsors.

According to the IAB, global advertising revenue for podcasts is projected to reach $650 million this year, which may sound like a lot until you consider that that’s less than what the New York Times generated in annual subscription revenue. But the industry is experiencing hockey stick growth; between 2016 and 2017, U.S. ad revenue grew from $169 million to $314 million. By 2022 it’s expected to reach $1.6 billion.

Many within the industry are eyeing a much bigger number: $17.6 billion. That’s the amount that traditional U.S. radio brought in over the last year. Even if podcasting is able to chip away at just a small chunk of those dollars, then there’s good money to be made in the space. Many of these daily podcast launches were made with the bet that the advertising market will only continue to grow. The current challenge is developing a product that’s so good that millions of listeners will turn it into a daily habit; the revenue will follow.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

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