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“This is the podcast we never wanted to have to make”: How 3 publishers pivoted to coronavirus podcasts

It appears that even a global pandemic cannot stop the growth of podcasts. Despite the loss of commuting time, some podcasts are seeing audience numbers continue to climb as people take more time to discover new shows. That’s before we even mention the flood of new shows hitting Apple Podcasts as everyone with a microphone tries their hand at the medium. 

Listeners are also turning to podcasts for vital information and updates on the coronavirus crisis, and some publishers have taken this opportunity to present trusted information in audio form, by spinning up new shows or pivoting existing podcasts to cover the crisis in more detail.

Here, we look at how the Evening Standard, The Telegraph, and Laudable from Reach plc and JPIMedia have reacted quickly to get their coronavirus coverage inside your ears.

Pivoting The Leader at The Evening Standard

UK newspaper the Evening Standard has been running The Leader as a daily comment and analysis podcast since September 2019, covering a range of subjects based on the leading news stories of the day. But as the coronavirus crisis grew, the team saw that the news was being completely dominated by one subject.

Chris Stone, the Evening Standard’s Executive Producer of Video and Audio, saw an opportunity. “It soon became clear that this pandemic was going to touch every area of our lives, and that there was a real need for regular, trustworthy daily updates to help people understand what was going on,” he told WNIP.

“London emerged pretty quickly as the UK epicentre, and Londoners are facing some very specific challenges in lockdown. The Evening Standard is in a unique position to be that trusted voice for Londoners, so it seemed natural to attempt to do that with our podcast as well.”

As a result, they decided to temporarily rebrand The Leader to ‘Coronavirus Daily’, and to tighten the London focus, although they are also exploring the virus’ impact around the world.

The host David Marsland and his team were already well set up to record out in the field due to the nature of The Leader, so switching to remote recording hasn’t been a huge challenge. “We tend to use Zoom because it’s easy to record the call to a computer,” Stone said, and explained that they often have a second device like a phone recording as well in case there are connectivity issues. “It’s not studio quality, but generally it’s pretty clear.”

Since refocusing the podcast to solely cover coronavirus-related stories, Stone has seen a definite lift in traffic, which is growing consistently week-on-week. “Our weekly listens now are almost double what they were at the start of March,” he told us in early April. 

Rebranding the podcast to be explicitly coronavirus-focused has also helped with an uptick in growth. “It’s well timed because the platforms are also making their own efforts to reach audiences with trustworthy coronavirus updates,” Stone explained. “Apple Podcasts have included The Leader in their ‘Covid-19: Essential listening’ collection, and Acast have helped us promote their show across their network too.”

Perhaps the most surprising success has come from YouTube, where the podcast has seen massive traffic spikes. “Some episodes are getting hundreds of thousands of listens,” said Stone. “This is in large part helped by YouTube’s own efforts to surface trustworthy coronavirus reporting via their Covid-19 news shelf on the YouTube homepage.” 

The latest on coronavirus from The Telegraph

The Evening Standard is not the only publisher to have quickly pivoted their podcast strategy. UK newsbrand The Telegraph saw an opening when their weekly rugby podcast Brian Moore’s Full Contact went on hold due to sporting cancellations.

“We had a bit of space open up in our roster, and traffic to the website was going through the roof on coronavirus content,” The Telegraph’s Podcast Editor and Coronavirus podcast host Theodora Louloudis told WNIP. “We could see that there was a huge appetite for succinct, trustworthy coronavirus content with a balance of news and analysis that delivered the key things that you needed to know.”

According to Louloudis, the conversations around setting up the podcast happened very quickly, resulting in daily podcast ‘Coronavirus: The Latest’. “It went from an idea to a show within just a few days, which is much, much faster than the podcasts we work on normally,” she said, comparing this to some Telegraph podcasts which can be in the pipeline for up to a year before launching.

But being one of the earliest coronavirus podcasts was important to the publisher. “It was a very quick turnaround, there were very quick conversations, and we just made a call and stuck with it.”

The podcast gives listeners a Telegraph subscription offer within the show itself which Louloudis says has been well received, but it is also helping towards The Telegraph’s wider goal of attracting registrations and subscriptions.

“Normally, listening is skewed heavily toward podcast apps. Now that may still be the case, but many more people than usual are listening to it on our site,” Louloudis explained. “So actually, it’s become a bit of a retention perk for subscribers who are already within paywalled content – we’ve embedded it into lots of relevant content – so that means they’re staying longer on the site.”

Embedding the podcast across different sections has also given The Telegraph the opportunity to introduce their journalists to a wider readership, with the podcast often covering stories across health, politics, business, travel and culture. “This is very much introducing people to the breadth and depth of our journalist’s knowledge,” Louloudis said.

A few weeks in, and the publisher’s quick pivot to Coronavirus: The Latest is paying off, according to Louloudis.. “This is the podcast we never wanted to have to make, and we wish we weren’t in this situation,” she emphasised. “That said, the numbers are really, really good. It had a million listens in its first 10 days across all platforms, and it’s one of the first things you see on Apple podcasts.”

The team have found highly engaged listeners who email in with questions every day, but Louloudis highlighted that she wanted the podcast first and foremost to be helpful to listeners rather than a smash hit. 

It has also been a valuable demonstration that podcasts don’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles to be a success. “There’s a place for bells and whistles, but this is a show that we’re making from afar,” Louloudis explained; like many podcasters she is recording under her duvet. 

“It does go to show that you don’t always need high production, a huge budget and massive sound design, if you have the cooperation of some really brilliant journalists who really know their stuff.”

Keeping it local with Reach

Our final example is a weekly podcast taking a very different approach to coverage. Alone Together was launched a few weeks ago by Laudable; a collaborative project between Reach plc, JPIMedia and podcast platform Entale. Laudable received a 500,000 euro grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative last year to help explore ways of making podcasts and other local audio projects financially sustainable. 

The podcast is hosted by three of Laudable’s producers; Matt Millard, Podcast Producer at Reach plc, Daniel McLaughlin, Podcast Producer at Manchester Evening News, and Morven McIntyre, Podcast Producer at JPIMedia. 

Matt Millard, Laudable’s Producer and Alone Together co-host said that the team had been put in a position where, like The Telegraph, production of some of their normal podcasts would be no longer possible. The team began toying with the idea of a coronavirus podcast, but after speaking to family and friends, they realised there was a demand for uplifting stories rather than the “doom and gloom” otherwise filling the news.

“We hear the serious side of coronavirus through the national news, so did we need another podcast that was reiterating the same points?” he told WNIP. “The core value of the Alone Together podcast is that we’re highlighting positive stories, and people that are doing good in their communities, helping people in need, offering useful advice and so on.”

Alone Together’s launch went through a different process to most of Laudable’s other podcasts. Normally, the team take ideas from journalists, and turn them into podcasts in a production and editing role, whereas Alone Together is being both hosted and produced by them. “We came up with the idea, and we’re actually executing it ourselves,” explained Millard. “For me, this is the first presenting I’ve ever done, so we’re very much learning as we go, but that’s part of the magic of the podcast.”

But their background as producers has helped immensely with rising to the challenges of remote recording. “When it comes to physically recording, the three of us have a bit of know-how, and access to this equipment,” said McLaughlin. “We’ve basically set up our own little project studios to make it happen.”

The team, like many of us, are homebound and spread across Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh, so have relied on their network of contacts within Reach and JPI to find these local stories. “We’ve had some of the journalists involved in Edinburgh and across Scotland giving contacts, and a lot has spread through word of mouth as well,” said McIntyre.

Because of the speed of the launch, the business model has taken a back seat for now. “Between coming up with the podcast and the first episode, there was not a lot of time, probably days rather than a week,” McLaughlin outlined. “Even though we’re physically apart, we’ve very much together in the production of this.”

Instead, the trio are focusing on keeping the boxes checked for local content. “We’re highlighting these small acts of kindness at quite a dark time, and we want to continue to highlight nice, local community stories,” said McLaughlin. “It’s not just giving us a moral boost, but also whether it’s the NHS workers we’re interviewing, or teachers, giving them a boost as well.” 

The response so far has been really positive according to Millard. “Considering we’re only a small podcast company and we’ve not been able to put any money behind advertising it, the figures we’ve seen are good,” he said. “For me personally, the reception from the newsrooms, and from family and friends has been great.”

Agility is king

The common theme across all of these publishers is the speed at which these shows have been launched or pivoted. Decisions on proposals and approvals which may normally take months have had to be taken in days in order to respond to market conditions.

Podcasting has the benefit of being an incredibly flexible medium which responds well to this kind of agility, but it is also a testament to the quick thinking and talent at these publishers to be able to produce quality products in such a short timeframe, and in complicated situations.

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