Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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Lessons from award-winning podcasts: Insights from The Week Unwrapped

The winner of the News & Current Affairs category in the 2020 Publisher Podcast Awards was The Week Unwrapped from Dennis Publishing’s The Week. We asked Arion McNicoll, editor at theweek.co.uk, to share some of his insights into what has made The Week Unwrapped 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

I guess we regard ourselves as not having been massively early to the party of podcasts, but I suppose we could see that podcasting was growing as a medium. We thought that we had an okay idea for the show that was going to look behind the headlines and try to find those under-reported stories in any given week.

I think that we wanted to try and shine a light on those things that we thought were maybe smaller than the big pandemic news, but nonetheless worthy of a proper forensic look. And also picking out the stories that we felt would have repercussions that were longer term for people. 

Also for us, I suppose it offered something slightly different for The Week as a publication. We really tend to be resolutely nonpartisan in the way that we present news in the magazine and online. We synthesise and we reflect the views of the media around us without necessarily giving our own point of view on it. The podcast allows us to slightly reveal ourselves and discuss our editorial judgements and our worldview.

It also had the benefit from an internal perspective of allowing us to bring together our various teams under the one product; bringing together people from the magazine, from online, and our US counterpart, The Week US and their online site, and then also MoneyWeek, our financial magazine. 

I think finally, it allowed us to reach into a different space, a different publishing arena, and find audiences there. And certainly our listenership skews younger, skews a bit more international than our readership, so that’s been quite useful as well.

Curation

Where the magazine is a statement of everything that has happened in that week that is of concern to the media at large, I suppose that here we’re slightly flipping that and going ‘What’s the media not talking about quite as much as it should or could be?’.

We apply the same sort of approach and scrutiny… there’s a lot of Week-ish DNA in how we come at the process. We try to reference publications from across the media in our analysis of whatever the subject at hand is. Every story that we write about starts out with a clip from somewhere else… any relevant journalistic voice that we think aids the story… cherry picking from the media and bringing it back into our own product.

External host Olly Mann

We wanted something that sounded professional. We were big fans of Olly, we didn’t actually know him ourselves, but we thought that he had that right combination of serious mindedness, but still light heartedness, if that doesn’t undersell us, and him! Not all of The Week is intensely serious. I think that we felt that he got what the magazine was all about and was a good mouthpiece for us. 

Also he had broadcasting skills. We’ve been going for three years now and we’ve all got a bit more comfortable on the microphone, but right at the beginning, we wanted to sound like we knew what we were doing. We brought in both him and a producer.

Recording in the office

We would love to be broadcasting from a beautiful booth with producers off to one side, but actually it’s a repurposed meeting room with foam panels on the walls trying to deaden the sound. They have a tendency to slip down and fall on our heads at inopportune moments! So that adds a sort of slight excitement to proceedings.

Certainly the kit that we use is pretty professional. Proper broadcasters will sometimes go into a closet to get the right audio quality for their BBC reports, or whatever it is. So we tolerate that, but we are keen to make sure that the rest of our kit is up to speed.

Recording during lockdown

The format is still the same, but the way that we put it together is slightly different. We all connect via Zoom, and that has an inbuilt audio recording system. We use that as our backup audio, but we are all using our phone’s audio notes to record individually wherever we are. We send our files through to our producer who then stitches them together piece by piece.

I think it does give a slightly different quality to the recording itself; part of what I think makes it work is that we are in the same room and there is that opportunity to bounce off one another. But we’ve started to get used to it, and we get how we can raise our hands to signal who’s next or whatever. 

I think in the end, we hope at least that listeners won’t hear too much difference.

Episode planning

I do the central coordination of who’s on each week; we have this rotating panel of team members who come on week to week in a group of three, Olly plus three panellists. Each panellist then pitches stories into a central channel to discuss whatever they have in mind – the world is running out of sand, for example.

They’ll pitch the world is running out of sand – it’s used in loads of concrete, it’s dredged from finite resources, we use more sand than we use oil – that will kick off a discussion in the group. We’ll work out whether it’s something that meets our twin criteria – is it under-reported and is it something of significance that’s going to have repercussions down the years?

Each panellist does that so we end up with three stories that we also try to balance between us… a bit of world politics, a bit of culture, a bit of media, so it’s not too same-y, any single episode. Once we’ve done that, then everyone goes off and does their research. And then we turn up on the day and hopefully a show comes together.

Podcast & magazine

There is a fairly loose relationship between the magazine and the podcast, but we have the editor of the magazine come onto the show every now and again, so there is a connection.

We wanted to make a show that would be a useful adjunct to the magazine so that there was a purpose for why, as a reader, you might want to also listen to the podcast. There are podcasts that are just a reproduction of a feature; that can be useful, it can be nice to hear a long form piece read out. But for us, we wanted to have a product that would make sense to our readers and give them reason to come to that as well as reading the mag.

It’s become quite a good discovery vehicle for us. We end up with the opportunity to throw some reporters at those stories and actually then cover them, often for the website. Occasionally things also get into the magazine.

Audience development

In the early days we used the magazine to try to grow our listenership. But I think as we’ve gone on, and the podcast has developed a life of its own, it’s sort of flipped in the other direction. We’ve been able to start using the podcast as a means of, not just straight up selling magazines, but bringing The Week journalism to audiences that otherwise might not have been familiar with it.

We really haven’t spent a lot of money in marketing the podcast itself. Every now and again we’ll repurpose in-house ad space to push the podcast, and that’s not just in The Week magazine, but across Dennis Publishing. The podcasts that other Dennis magazines have, we will promote in The Week. 

Apart from that, the main growth has been driven very largely by recommendations from other podcasts and other publishers. WIRED listed us about a year ago as one of their best podcasts that people should listen to. The Daily Mail listed us as one of the hundred best podcasts in the world. 

The High Low, the Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton podcast, they’ve been really great. Every now and again, they’ll talk about us and the stories that we’ve discussed on their show and that really does give us a boost. They’re a big show, so that’s been really valuable to us.

In the very early days, we approached Apple directly to get The Week Unwrapped listed in their New and Noteworthy section. They’re quite specific about what they require in terms of artwork, and there’s all these hoops to jump through but if you do manage to successfully do it, it can give you a big boost. 

Monetisation

In the early days – we still do regard ourselves as being in the relatively early days of putting this podcast together – I think we really had a focus on making sure that we were creating a worthwhile listener experience and that really trumped anything else.

Bit by bit I think we’ve started to introduce, for example, advertising slots. We work with Global and Dax to put – we hope – fairly unobtrusive ads into the show. And then we’ve also started doing the odd partnership where it’s right, where we feel it’s not causing any harm to the show.

We’ve had this spin-off edition, which we call Business Unwrapped. It drops into the same feed as the main podcast proper, and it’s the same sort of approach to subject matter, still looking for the under-reported stories, but just with a business-y, financial angle, and in conjunction with a partner.

We kind of thought that there would be much less take up from our standard listener for the spin-off show, but actually it’s probably about two thirds of the people who listen to the regular show tune into the spin off show, maybe even higher. We felt that it meant that people didn’t feel we were doing wrong by the show.

It still is the show. It’s still got Olly Mann hosting it. It’s still got a panellist, and then we often bring in an extra guest to also take part in just those shows. We really felt that the show had to be good enough from our perspective, that we were happy to put our name on it. 

Live Events

We took part in the Cheltenham Science Festival a couple of years back, and that worked quite well. And then we got involved in Podcast Live, which was a live event that ran in London.

It’s funny, when we do live shows, I think you’re in that same space that you are when you are finding advertising partners to work with. You just need to make sure that the product isn’t damaged by its live-ness. And there are listeners who inevitably will get in touch and say, ‘Actually, I don’t think that that works.’ 

At the same time, we’re conscious that actually, it’s quite nice for some people who tune in to be able to come and say hello and ask questions and talk to us. If you can make the show as close to the usual experience, even though you’re recording it on stage in front of an audience, then I think it can still work, but it is hard to do because it certainly changes the energy.

The Future

For us, I think there is a benefit in continuing to bed the show in, and I think that a lot of podcasts can be advantaged by a sort of dogged determination to produce week in week out. There’s a temptation to reinvent the wheel constantly. But actually, I think that what can help grow an audience is a certain amount of familiarity, and that comes from presentation. It comes from the people that you use. It comes from your story selection. It comes from the quality of the product that you end up with. 

That’s a boring answer but we do think that it’s really important that we don’t try to throw everything out and mess with the concept too much.

Advice

I would approach that question with great humility, because we don’t regard ourselves as experts yet.

I think there is a temptation, for someone who’s just starting out, to want to just do it yourself with your in-house team. If that’s where your budgets are at and that’s all you’ve got capacity for, then I think, go for it, do what you can. I’d still encourage any publisher to skill their own internal team up as much as they possibly can, train them on the products, get proper kit, make sure that their room has padding that falls down! 

But if they can, work with people who really know what they’re doing, at least to get you started. And you may find that from there, you get the kind of relationship that means that you want to keep going, or you may find that you have the skills quite quickly and feel you can put together the podcast yourself.

One of the virtues of podcasting as a medium is that it is very democratic. Anyone really can do it. It doesn’t take very much to start your own podcast, but I think there’s a really small but critical difference between an okay podcast and a good podcast. And I think it often does come down to production qualities, and presentational quality. And I think that stuff really can’t be underestimated.

In terms of growing audience, I do think consistency is key, and refining your own show so that it gets as good as it possibly can, but not messing with it too much, and making sure that your audience knows what they’re going to get. If you have a lot of money to throw at it, then you can start to throw up billboards and stuff, but if you don’t, then I think it does come down to just making the show as good as it can possibly be and hoping that people talk to each other about it.

The Week Unwrapped 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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