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Lessons from award-winning podcasts: Digiday Podcast’s Brian Morrisey

The winner of the B2B category in the 2020 Publisher Podcast Awards was the Digiday podcast from Digiday Media. We asked Brian Morrissey, editor in chief and podcast host, to share some of his insights into what has made the Digiday podcast so successful.

We’ll be releasing audio excerpts in a special Media Voices episode in August, as well as full transcripts from all the winners at a later date. For now, here are the edited highlights…

Launching

The truth of the matter is there wasn’t a specific thought process. We began, I think it was three years ago, when a colleague of ours, Ricardo Bilton said, ‘We should do a podcast!’ And like everything at Digiday we said, ‘That’s a great idea. Now do it.’

Our original podcast was a group of reporters talking about the news and we sort of went away from that. As a brand, we’ve tried to be a little bit allergic to being too self referential and into ourselves because we think the subject matter experts that we can convene are the ones that people can learn from.

I think what was key to us was to make the podcast true to who we were as a brand and as a company.

Interviews

It’s a pretty standard format for us that works and a lot of this is an outgrowth of what we’ve already been doing. The heart of Digiday and its origin is in-person events. The company began by gathering together a group of publishing leaders 12 years ago in a room to discuss the challenges that they were facing and how they were adapting their business.

That’s just as relevant if not more relevant right now than it was 12 years ago and so, when we were thinking about a podcast for us, it was how can this be true to who we are as a brand? That’s when we hit upon this model. I know it’s not the most exciting thing. It’s not a narrative podcast or anything, but it fit what the brand was about, and it also fit what we were good at.

Q&As

Anyone who’s been interviewed, also anyone who’s been a reporter, knows that 90% of the material gets left on the floor. That can be frustrating to those who get interviewed. They say, ‘Well, I spent an hour on the phone with you and you use two sentences of mine.’ Sometimes even no sentences. 

The type of podcast we do is, to me, like a better version of the Q&A. I think Q&A’s are really underrated if executed well. The Playboy Q&A’s that they would have, you know the one they did with Jimmy Carter, where he said he has lust in his soul? Those were classics of genre.

Doing a really good Q&A is not just putting on a tape recorder and then recording the answers. There’s an art to it. The New York Times has a really good Q&A with business leaders called Corner Office. So I think a podcast is kind of a version of that.

I think what is really good about a podcast, but can also be dangerous, is that there’s no place to hide. You can get media-trained executives, and they can get by at a conference because their marketing department will do the presentation. Even in a panel, right, they’ll just keep repeating the same jargon.

I feel like the podcast, it exposes that, sometimes ruthlessly. If there’s no depth to a person, to an executive, that’s going to become painfully clear in a podcast format.

The art of the interview

I think it’s the core of being a good reporter. A big part of being a reporter is developing a quick rapport with someone when you want to put them at ease, even if you’ve never met them before. Some of it is very transactional. You want to put them at ease for a reason, not because you’re a nice person necessarily, but because you’re trying to extract information from them.

I think that is a skill that’s really important in podcasting, because people are only going to let their guard down if they feel at ease. You’ve got to be able to meet someone for the first time and to make them feel at ease in talking to you.

I’m not going to make this out like it’s like some incredible thing. But there are some basic skills you have to develop, and one of them is being able to listen very intently. I think sometimes you have people who just want to get through a list of questions. I prepare for the podcast, but at the same time, I’m well aware that the conversation will evolve and I have to be listening.

Choosing guests

It’s mostly just people who I think are doing interesting things or they have lessons that they can share with others in the industry. At the heart of what we do, it comes in a lot of different flavours, but it helps people get better at their jobs. 

I’ve run into lots of people in different places who are like, ‘Oh, I listened to your podcast, and it’s helped me figure this and that out.’ And that makes me feel good because I think one of the unique things with Digiday is, we’re not just covering the media industry and all its ups and downs and craziness, but we’re living it too. So there’s some forced empathy there because this shit is hard, and we get it.

Recording in the office

We have a “podcast studio.” I’m making air quotes here, and that’s because the podcast studio is the – you’ll love this American euphemism – the wellness room. I’m sure you don’t have one, you probably just have like the nursing room or breastfeeding room! Obviously we vacate it in case anyone needs to do any breast pumping.

I think a lot of times people make it out too complicated. We just use a zoom recorder, a couple of microphones, the wellness room has a carpet in it, we’ve got some soundproof padding for the walls. It works fine. If too many people from Business Insider, who are our neighbours, are using the elevators, you might be able to hear a ding every now and again.

Recording during lockdown

We do tape synching. We’ll set up a Zoom call, and the Zoom call is really just for me and the person I’m interviewing to hear each other. But each of us are recording, for me on a zoom recorder, for them they’re doing the recording just using the voice memos on their iPhone.

Then (podcast producer) Pierre does what’s called tape synching; he just matches up the two tracks. The magic is in the editing and of matching up those tracks.

The quality so far has been pretty good. There’s a little less control because the other side has to be doing some recording, but we always have the Zoom recording as a backup.

Lockdown lessons

I think of all the lessons that this has taught us, one is, we both overrated and underrated human connection, right? We’ve overrated the need to, like sheep, go to an office – or maybe it’s like penguins, we waddle to the office then we waddle back.

You can do a lot remotely, and in many ways, you can be more productive remotely. I think of all the things that are going to change because of this, one is we’re going to change this podcasting thing. We were always insisting that people come to New York. I mean, screw that, we can do just as high quality a podcast, and do them wherever people are in the world.

Evolution

We’re doing a new video show every Friday at noon Eastern Time, which is using Zoom to have an interactive version of the podcast, that’s also video. That is, to me, just an example of how you adapt.

People aren’t commuting, people are in front of their computers more than ever now. On top of that, production expectations for video are simply lower now. I don’t know about British TV, but you turn on American news programmes, and it’s all just Skype. So I’m like, wait, I know, we can do that! 

Purpose

We always say internally, what job does this do? Some things do a straight monetization job. Some things you do just to build the brand, some things you do just to, I don’t want to say give back to the community, but really just because it serves a community reason. Some things are to drive memberships, some things for ads.

With the podcast, it does a few different jobs. I think the first and foremost job that it does is, it really serves as glue for the community. We’ve always wanted to put ourselves at the centre of communities, and when I go around to different places, it’s amazing meeting with people who are like, ‘Oh, I listen to you all the time’.

The connection of podcasts, just because the voice is a little bit more personal than writing, can serve an important role beyond money, particularly if you’re trying to put yourself at the centre of the community like we are.

I’m not super hung up on the direct revenue side, although it’s good. Our advertiser and sponsor base is probably new to podcast advertising, our sales team is new to it. We sell enough, we do some programmatic stuff, I’ve read ads. But we also use it to promote different things we’re doing, because again, we have a really engaged user base.

It’s really unique to have people spending, on average, a half hour plus on a piece of content. I mean, unless they’re really slow readers, I can’t imagine any of our regular articles achieving that. So you can market different services, we market our membership programme.

The future

The Digiday podcast is one of four that we do. We have the Digiday podcast, we have the Modern Retail podcast, we have the Glossy podcast, which is geared towards fashion, and then we have Glossy Beauty which is obviously about beauty. So it’s about growing the entire network, not just the Digiday podcast.

We want to try different types of podcasts, we want to be ambitious with the storytelling that we can do. Maybe this is just a blip in time, but how can we translate what we’ve done in podcasts, which we translated from what we were doing in text and in-person events, and translate the podcast into video.

It’ll have different dynamics. You need to do a lot more visuals, but to me, that’s a really interesting place to play.  This kind of conversation, I don’t know if people need to see us, but if you’re talking about instructional stuff, that can better be done with visuals. So I’m interested in practical content.

Our format for our (new video show) is how X is doing Y, how Politico is transitioning in person events to digital events, how Skift scrapped its paywall for a contributor model. That’s the kind of stuff that I’m sort of really into anyway. We try to figure this stuff out.

One other thing on podcasts, I would love to figure out a vehicle for a member exclusive podcast. I would love that. Memberships are critical to us. Events have been core to our business, memberships are now core to our business. They are what the future of Digiday is going to be built around.

That doesn’t mean that events are not going to be incredibly important, and I do believe we are going to go back to a time when we are gathering together in person, maybe even shaking hands, at least having drinks at the end.

Advice

I think starting a podcast from scratch is difficult if you don’t already have a brand and a community. And maybe that’s just me not being fully immersed in the medium. I mean to me, it’s a feature. It’s not a product, if you know what I mean.

Our product is a editorial proposition that expresses itself in a bunch of different ways, whether that’s through newsletters, whether that’s through things on a website, whether that’s through in-person events, whether that’s through podcasts, or whether that’s through video.

So to me, the core of it is, what is your editorial proposition? What makes you unique? What is the community that is around your content? I think it’s no coincidence that some of the most successful podcasts and companies are really built around communities, whether that’s communities around sports or communities around the future of publishing, like you guys.

To me, for the most part, podcasts are a great expression of the brand as a feature. There are instances where they’re the product, but I think the key when thinking through podcasting, is not your podcast strategy, it’s how podcasting can be a feature of your product strategy.

The Digiday team at the Publisher Podcast Awards in March

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world

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