Daily news podcasts: building new habits in the shadow of coronavirus
1. Introduction and key findings ↑
This report focuses on the phenomenon of daily news podcasts, one of the fastest growing areas of media consumption and a format that has been a lifeline for many people during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. For publishers like the New York Times (The Daily) and the Guardian (Today in Focus) these on-demand audio briefings are now attracting large daily audiences, building habit and loyalty for their brands, and driving significant revenue too. Elsewhere the daily podcast scene is more nascent, though more European public broadcasters and commercial publishers have been embracing them in the last year.
This study is a follow up to last year’s News Podcasts and the Opportunity for Publishers, which mapped out the wider environment based on industry data and interviews with leading publishers in five countries (the US, the UK, Australia, France, and Sweden). In this report, we focus on what has happened since to daily news podcasts in terms of audience growth and best practice, and we add a sixth country, Denmark. We also look in detail at the way coronavirus has affected audience listening patterns, the way these shows are produced, and what has happened to the content itself.
As in our previous report, we combine data analysis of podcast consumption and production with industry interviews with key players in each market. Overall, publishers remain extremely bullish about the prospects for daily news podcasts while recognising that it may be only one of many new products that they need to develop to engage audiences and drive new revenue.
- Daily news podcasts make up less than 1% of all those produced but account for more than 10% of the overall downloads in the US and 9% in France and Australia, according to analysis of publicly available data. These shows are clearly punching well above their weight with audiences and have played an important role in helping to inform the public about a range of subjects, including coronavirus.
- Looking across six countries we have counted 102 daily news podcasts, of which 37 were launched in the last year. The French and Danish public broadcasters have made new investments, along with leading commercial publishers such as News Corp in Australia, and The Times and the Daily Mail in the UK. Apple has also launched a daily news podcast of its own – the first produced by a major platform company.
- The format pioneered by The Daily – a deep-dive of around 25 minutes – has proved particularly successful and has been most widely adopted by other publishers around the world. But this report has identified three other types: i) an extended chat; ii) a concise news round-up; and iii) a microbulletin aimed at smart speakers and streaming apps.
- More widely, publishers see daily news podcasts as a crucial way to attract younger audiences and to engage them more deeply with their brands. News organisations pursuing subscription business models say podcasts – specifically daily news podcasts – help increase loyalty and reduce churn.
- Patterns of listening have been significantly affected during the coronavirus crisis due to lockdowns and the loss of the daily commute. After an initial dip, listening to podcasts bounced back, with daily news podcasts faring better than most other genres. Our interviews suggest that advertising, too, has held up far better than in other areas, with many publishers reporting revenue matching or exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels.
- Coronavirus appears to have accelerated plans for daily news podcasts, with a number of publishers looking to tap into a heightened interest in news and in deeper coverage. A number of news brands launched ‘pop-up’ coronavirus podcasts during the lockdowns, many of which have become breakout hits.
- In this report, we start by setting out the key data showing how daily news podcasting has grown over the last year. We explore the latest developments in each country and incorporate case studies from companies that have launched shows in the last year. We pull together top tips from daily podcast hosts and editors on how to make a successful show and, finally, we look at potential future developments in distribution and monetisation.
2. Methodology ↑
The aim of this report is to understand more about daily news podcast production and consumption across six different countries – the US, the UK, France, Australia, Sweden, and Denmark – and how this has been affected by coronavirus. In order to understand production, we identified podcast shows that were tagged as ‘daily news’ by publishers themselves in July 2020 and could be considered ‘native’ or ‘digital-born’.1 We excluded daily radio or TV shows that were made available as podcasts without any adaptation. We supplemented this list by interviewing experts about the most widely used news podcasts and cross-checked this with industry data to ensure that important shows were not missed. We then categorised each podcast further to understand more about the originating producer – broadcasters, print and digital-born publishers, and independent podcasting companies and networks – as well as the different types of news podcasts, such as deep-dive, extended chat, news round-up, and microbulletins. This methodology informs our analysis in section 4.
Understanding podcast consumption is more challenging due to the fragmented nature of podcast platforms and the lack of comprehensive, publicly available data. The Apple podcast episode charts provide some clues about the most popular individual programmes each week. They are loosely based on recent downloads but only apply to the Apple platform and do not provide the underlying numbers. To help fill in these gaps, we have used consumption data provided by individual publishers and podcast aggregators, such as Chartable and Podtrac in the US, Triton Podcast Tracker in Australia, the ACPM tracker in France, Poddindex in Sweden, and the Podcast Index in Denmark. These podcast rankers often measure the number of plays for each podcast based on a standard industry measurement,2 but they only count podcasts from participating publishers and so are not representative of all podcasts. Where appropriate, we have used these to help inform our lists of top shows. Where we have specific numbers from publishers or aggregators, we have listed these separately.
In terms of our country selections, we chose the US, the UK, and Australia because these countries have been quick to embrace podcasting, with fast-developing monetisation and professional podcast services. France has an emerging podcast scene and is an example of a non-English-speaking country with a developed media ecosystem. Sweden and Denmark are two smaller markets with high levels of podcast consumption. We interviewed publishers that were producing daily news podcasts in all six countries to understand their motivations and to hear about their experiences of creating daily news output. A full list of interviewees is in Appendix A of this report.
3. Daily news podcasts in the wider ecosystem ↑
Podcasting has been around since 2004 but it is only recently that news podcasts have begun to take off. Improved speed of access, always-on connections, and the growth of streaming services such as Spotify have all encouraged news publishers to take another look at a genre that was assumed to be a poor fit for time-sensitive content.
Even today, only around 7% of the estimated 1.3 million podcast shows in the Apple directory are classified as news. But, as we revealed in last year’s report, the genre punches way above its weight, accounting for about 30% of top episode consumption in countries like the US, according to data sourced from the analytics firm Chartable.
Because Apple introduced a new ‘daily news’ tag in 2019, we are now able to easily separate out daily news shows from other news content, such as weekly chat, specialist content, documentaries, and true crime.3 This highlights an even more impressive performance for the daily news shows.
Daily news shows make up less than 1% of total production but account for up to 10% of the top 250 episodes in the US, 9% in France and Australia, and 5% in the UK.
Some daily news podcasts reach more people than traditional print or TV
These data do not fully reflect the leading position taken by the US in the development of podcasting, and especially in news podcasting. Not only are many of the top episodes in the US about news (30%), but overall podcast listening is also higher than in many other countries (see chart in next section).
This means that some daily news podcasts in the US now get very large audiences. The New York Times says The Daily now averages 4 million downloads per day – twice the figure they were touting just one year ago. ‘The Daily is now becoming a very major news platform in ways we had never expected. It has become as big, if you do the math, as primetime Fox News,’ said presenter Michael Barbaro at a podcast event in September 2020.4
Many European publishers don’t release podcast numbers, but the Guardian (UK) says its flagship show, Today in Focus, reaches hundreds of thousands of people each day – more people than now buy the daily newspaper.5 The FT News Briefing now gets more than 2 million listens a month. France’s most successful daily news podcast, La Story from Les Echos, now gets 770,000 downloads a month according to publicly available data.6 The raw numbers are mostly lower in smaller markets like Denmark and Sweden.
Podcasting attracts a younger, better-educated audience
Data from the 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News Report show that around a third of Americans and Swedes (36%) listen to at least one podcast monthly compared with around a quarter in Denmark (28%) and France (26%), and nearer to a fifth in the UK (22%). Of these, around half say they listen to news podcasts in the US, and nearer to a third in European countries such as the UK.
Podcast listening overall also skews young, with under-35s in the UK four times more likely to consume a podcast when compared with over-55s. Previous research shows that younger groups spend a considerable amount of time listening to podcasts (Flamingo 2019) and generally listen to the majority of each episode. They say they appreciate the diversity of voices and enjoy getting away from screens.
Many broadcasters we spoke to for this report see podcasting as a crucial way of attracting the next generation of listeners. ‘Our podcast audience, our core podcast audience is about 20 years younger than the core [radio] news magazine audience,’ says Neal Carruth, Director of On-Demand News Programming at National Public Radio (NPR) in the US. ‘We know that if we want to reach those folks, it’s going to have to be on-demand and it’s going to have to be digitally.’
Newspapers too are seeing disruption from rapidly changing consumer habits and an increased use of audio. The Evening Standard has built its business on understanding and serving the needs of London commuters for many decades: ‘You see people putting down their books and their newspapers and listening instead,’ says Chris Stone, Executive Editor for Audio. ‘People aren’t reading on their phones as much – they are listening to podcasts, so let’s get their ears as well.’
While podcasts are certainly attracting younger groups, data from the Digital News Report 2020 also show that news podcasts currently tend to perform better with highly educated and more urban groups. This is a highly prized group for advertisers and for publishers looking for potential new digital subscribers. But many public service broadcasters have a responsibility to not just chase those who already have good access to information. ‘There is nothing wrong with young people who are affluent,’ says Kamal Ahmed, Editorial Director at BBC News and Head of News Audio, which includes podcasts such as Newscast. ‘Of course, we want to serve them as much as anybody. But we need to see how [podcasts] can start penetrating different audiences.’ The BBC is currently developing new shows in conjunction with radio stations Radio 1 and Radio 1 Extra, that already have strong connections with these harder-to reach-audiences.
For publishers like the Guardian, podcasts are also a way of reaching diverse audiences. ‘Podcasting is almost certainly reaching a different audience to our traditional readership,’ says Robert Abel, Head of Commercial Strategy for Audio at the Guardian. ‘Different in terms of geography, different in terms of social makeup, in terms of ethnicity, and in terms of age particularly.’
The platform picture is changing fast
Most podcast listening has traditionally been done via Apple devices, but in the last few years a range of streaming apps have embraced podcasts, while broadcasters have also revamped their apps to showcase podcasts in addition to live and catch-up radio.
Public broadcasters in particular are concerned that, as podcast listening grows, they may lose the direct connection with audiences they have enjoyed on radio. The BBC often releases content first in its own BBC Sounds app to try to increase its value as a destination, while Radio France recently set a target to have 50% of listening via its own platforms by 2020, compared with just 32% at present.7 ABC in Australia has restricted some podcast content from third-party platform Spotify for similar reasons.
Overall, Apple remains the most-used podcast app in all the countries in our study, but Spotify is now a strong second according to data sourced from Chartable for this report (see chart on previous page). Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Castbox, Acast, Pocket Casts, and Stitcher are other popular apps. With Amazon Music also now adding podcasts, and Google surfacing podcasts within its core search results page, there are more opportunities than ever to distribute news content to more diverse audiences.
4. The Growth of Daily News Podcasting in Six Countries ↑
In our last report (News Podcasting and the Opportunities for Publishers) we identified around 60 active daily news podcasts that were produced especially for the medium (or that were significantly adapted from radio output to fit the podcast medium8).
Twelve months later, this total has risen to 102 active daily news podcasts, with 37 new shows, using the approach described in the methodology section.9 This shift is driven by increased publisher investment in audio generally rather than a specific response to coronavirus – though that has also played a part. The biggest growth came in Australia, where launches from News Corp and a number of other publishers led to a doubling in the number of shows from six to 13. In the UK, The Times of London has launched a new daily podcast (Stories of our Times), as has the Daily Mail (The Daily Show). A new show from DR, the Danish public service broadcaster, started in February just as the coronavirus pandemic hit, while Radio France launched its daily news podcast in September. Meanwhile, Apple News started its own show aimed at morning audiences in the US – the first from a tech platform.
Different types of daily news podcast
The longest-running daily news podcast is The Gist, started by Slate in 2014, but acceleration of the genre really came with the launch of The Daily in 2017. Many publishers we interviewed for this report said their shows were directly inspired by this format:
We all fell in love with the New York Times’ The Daily and felt our journalism could translate into a daily dive. We also looked at it as the biggest funnel into our other journalism. And the most accessible way of taking in serious news.
Rebecca Costello, CEO, Schwartz Media, Australia (7am podcast)
But this exploration of one story in depth, often using narrative storytelling techniques, is only one approach used by publishers. Detailed analysis of our list of native daily news podcasts identified four distinct types, often aimed at specific audience needs and with different implications in terms of the resources required to create and maintain them.
Deep-dive: Examines one, two or three subjects in detail. Tends to be heavily produced using sound design and narrative storytelling techniques. Examples:
- The Daily (New York Times), Post Reports (Washington Post), Please Explain (Sydney Morning Herald), Today in Focus (Guardian), La Story (Les Echos), Genstart (Danish Broadcasting Corporation)
Extended chat: Round table discussions, informal style, flexible format taking single or multiple topics, sometimes extended monologue. Examples:
- Newscast (BBC), NPR Politics, the Ben Shapiro Show (The Daily Wire), News O’Clock (Buzzfeed), various coronavirus podcasts
News round-ups: Podcasts that have the aim of briefing people in a concise way at particular points in the day. Normally includes a range of stories. Examples:
- FT News Briefing, OmniPod (Omni, Sweden), BBC Global Podcast, From the Newsroom (News.com, Australia)
Microbulletins: Very short news bulletins that provide a quick summary of the day’s news. Often aimed at voice devices such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home as well as Spotify. Examples:
- BBC Minute, NPR News Now, Ekot (Swedish Radio)
Overall, the deep-dive format popularised by The Daily is most widely produced, accounting for nearly half (43%) of all the podcasts analysed. Print and digital-born media in particular have focused most on this format because it is seen as a good way of showcasing the depth and range of newsroom expertise. Broadcasters have generated fewer ‘native’ news podcasts overall, partly because they can be seen as competing with radio programmes that are already available on demand (Newman and Gallo 2019).10
In the following chart we have mapped the length of these different types of podcasts in order to highlight four length clusters. Microbulletins have an average length of around three minutes, news round-ups are around 10–15 minutes, deep-dives tend to be around 20–25 minutes or longer, and extended chats sometimes last more than an hour.
Daily news podcasts: Average length by category
Average length calculated from the last 15 episodes from September 2020. Source: Reuters Institute analysis
What is the ideal length for each podcast type?
These length clusters can be partly explained by the different audience needs that publishers have identified but also by changing technology and distribution.
Research shows that many longer podcasts are listened to via a smartphone or in the car when out and about, so length is often tailored to the average commute.11 This tends to be just over 25 minutes in the US but a bit shorter in Europe.12 But in reality, many people’s routines have been disrupted by coronavirus, and there are many other regular activities which lend themselves to consuming news podcasts, such as going to the gym, walking the dog, or doing the chores at home (Newman et al. 2020). In theory there are no constraints on length with a podcast, but in practice many publishers recognise there is a competitive market for attention and say it is better to be concise: ‘If it’s going to be news and it’s going to be daily, it can’t be too long,’ says Neal Carruth from NPR in the US. ‘It can’t wear out its welcome. We think 15 minutes or less.’
The Financial Times has also taken a disciplined view of length for its daily FT News Briefing, which rounds up three or four stories in ten minutes. ‘Listeners like predictability, particularly when they’re fitting this into their morning routine,’ says Aimee Keane, Acting Head of Audio at the FT. ‘No one has much time anymore. So this guarantees that I’ll have the three or four stories needed if my boss brings it up in a meeting.’
But there is no common agreement on length. The BBC’s Newscast format, which started with Brexitcast and has developed through Coronacast and Americast, can often run to half an hour or more. It is designed to allow senior correspondents to talk in a more informal way and to express their personalities in a way that is often constrained on radio or TV.
I think what we learnt from Brexitcast was just that tone of being really informal and relaxed and having a conversation like normal people in a room with correspondents, at the end of the day. And the audience just lap that up. They were a bit sick of the kind of dinner jacket [approach] and somebody speaking at you via bulletins or one- or two-minute two-ways.
Dino Sofos, Head of News Podcasts, BBC
Others have also been keen to explore the lack of constraints that traditionally come with a radio or TV schedule. Pierrick Fay, host of La Story from Les Echos, says that the coronavirus pandemic has encouraged him to be freer to break ‘the rules’ and more focused on the content itself: ‘What has changed with the lockdown is how I freed myself from the 25-minute psychological line that I shouldn’t cross. What matters to me now is what people have to say.’
While extended-chat and deep-dive podcasts are well suited to those looking for deeper background and analysis, news round-ups, and microbulletins are designed to be more functional and so tend to be shorter. The length of podcasts is also increasingly influenced by platforms like Amazon, Google, and Spotify, which are sometimes pushing for shorter content to fit platform requirements. In the last year, some of the biggest growth has come from smart speakers and from distribution via Spotify’s Your Daily Drive, an algorithmically created playlist that mixes music and podcasts to suit your tastes. Although longer podcasts are included, the format tends to preference more snackable material.
Staffing levels required
Daily news podcasts represent a major commitment for publishers. The relentless schedule and increasing audience expectations around production quality are not for the faint-hearted. In talking to publishers over the last two years we have found a wide variation in approach. The New York Times’ The Daily podcast has a dedicated production team of around 15 people. This level of staffing allows them to fully research topics in advance, create plot driven narratives, and structure interviews in detail before they happen. The Guardian has a team of nine for Today in Focus, including a presenter, a producer/presenter, two executive producers, several journalists, and a sound designer – one of the most important members of the team. The success of the podcast has enabled an additional producer to be added this year for the main segments, which has allowed more advanced planning and a higher level of production: ‘If you have anything less than that, you’re going to have to go for a less-produced, more basic news offering – which is absolutely fine. But it’s just not what we have set out to do,’ says Anushka Asthana, host of Today in Focus.
But other publications have far less resource at their disposal. ‘We have just two people. They are reporters and producers and engineers,’ says Patrick Syk, Head of Audio for the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, who was doubling as presenter/producer on the day we interviewed him because the regular staff were on vacation. ‘We’re a big newspaper, but we couldn’t staff eight or nine people to do this. The market in Sweden is not big enough to have that kind of team for one single podcast.’
Some news organisations look to leverage staff across a range of production tasks for maximum efficiency. In the UK, the Evening Standard’s audio team produces bulletins for smart speakers, audio stories, and its daily news podcast. Presenter David Marsland works with one assistant producer to assemble this newsy round-up show, called The Leader, at 4pm every day, aimed at the evening commute: ‘We must have done about 300 episodes between the two people we have now. Resource wise, that’s been a challenge. You don’t get very many days off.’
Different staffing levels reflect to a large extent the strategic importance placed on daily podcasts by different news organisations. For the New York Times and the Guardian investment in audio represents a major commitment from the top, with the aim of building habit and attracting younger audiences. The case for investment is also clearer in the US and the UK, where the podcast advertising market is buoyant and many shows are already profitable. In smaller markets and for smaller publishers, investment in audio has felt like more of a risk and many podcasts are seen more as experiments to stimulate demand from both audiences and advertisers.
Broadcasters split over dedicated or hybrid staffing models
While newspapers and digital-born brands often need to build studios and bring in new audio skills, broadcasters have plenty of both available in-house. But with money tight, some broadcasters are looking to make the most of existing resource as they move further into daily podcasting. NPR’s Up First, one of the most successful news round-ups in the US market, uses a hybrid production model, where items aired in the early segment of the radio show Morning Edition are repackaged as a podcast by the same early morning team. This makes the process really efficient but means they have had to sacrifice the idea of a dedicated host. ‘The guiding principle with Up First was to find ways to create a sort of dual-use property that could work as a segment of a big successful radio show and could also work in the on-demand space,’ says NPR’s Neal Carruth.
Other broadcasters using a dual-use approach include Swedish Radio, which repackages extracts from its popular Ekot brand as part of a regularly updated news podcast through the day. The BBC’s Global News podcast is a native show but uses the same team that produces news radio shows to ensure maximum efficiency while maintaining a different approach to presentation. There are two editions each day which requires a team of presenters and was relaunched in 2018 to give it a more informal and ‘podcasty feel’, according to Commissioning Editor Jon Manel. The Global News podcast remains the BBC’s most successful show with downloads running into millions and growth of 40% on an annual basis.13
The BBC’s Newscast and Americast are now reshown on television, ensuring that the time invested by senior BBC correspondents gets a wider audience. ‘In this age of streamlining output and making the most of people’s time and resources, it remains [a] podcast first, because that’s its purest form. But it also works for TV,’ says Dino Sofos, Head of BBC News Podcasts. Newscast is filmed in a radio studio to maintain its informal style.
But while these dual-use techniques make sense for extended chat and shorter podcasts, creating distinctive deep-dive formats often requires a different approach. Danish public broadcaster DR decided it needed to hire a dedicated team with experience of native podcasts to launch its daily Genstart. NPR continues to experiment with production models. It has just launched Consider This, which reworks content from its evening current affairs show All Things Considered, but other shows such as The Indicator and the NPR Politics Podcast are all original podcasts with dedicated teams.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to team size and structure. Our research shows that teams with the highest dedicated staffing levels often produce the most listened to podcasts, along with personality-driven extended-chat shows. Dual-use news approaches are less expensive to run but risk losing the authenticity and intimacy that podcasts provide. As audio portfolios grow, publishers will continue to look for that sweet spot between distinctiveness and efficiency.
The role of the podcast host in creating an intimate style
News organisations hope that podcasts will create a daily habit and build loyalty to the brand. In that light, many of our interviewees stressed the importance of finding the right person or people to host or anchor the show. ‘We needed someone who could embody our podcast, a host that would be immediately identifiable,’ says Erwann Gaucher, who helped develop Le Quart d’Heure for Radio France. ‘We tested three different hosts before finding what we thought is the right formula [France Info journalist Céline Asselot].’
Relationships with hosts are an even more important feature of longer, in-depth podcasts where the host will interview countless guests each week. ‘There’s a lot more opportunity to show a piece of their personality,’ says Anthony Galloway, Global Head of Audio for the Wall Street Journal, which oversees the business-focused daily podcast The Journal. ‘These are the people that we welcome into our homes and now increasingly directly into our ears with our headphones.’
Many print and digital publishers have hired former broadcasters with a proven track record, such as Jules Lavie, the host of Code Source at Le Parisien, who is a former radio journalist at France Info. Dagens Nyheter turned to a former Swedish TV anchor with a gravelly voice as one of the hosts for its daily show DN Studio: ‘Likeability is always a key factor in podcasts,’ argues Martin Jönsson, who runs audio strategy at DN. ‘It’s very, very important.’
But what about the perspective of the hosts themselves? How do they see their role? Anushka Asthana, the main host of the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast for the last two years, says one important aspect is empathy and trying to help listeners understand a story at a deep level. But at the same time, she also tries to build in some jokes and some fun:
You’ve got to be physically warm and have a bit of a laugh with it and really feel like you are in the room with the interviewee so that you can react to what they’re saying. We really structure interviews – that’s part of the trick of these things – but you shouldn’t squeeze all the fun and warmth out of it, which is the risk.
Informality and fun are key parts of the BBC’s Newscast format, which involves senior correspondents sitting round a table at the end of a long day, sharing stories and interacting with listeners. The tone is often very different from that of a traditional radio broadcast. ‘When we were making Newscast into a daily product we discussed how you keep the podcast feel of intimacy, familiarity, warmth, discussion with a daily agenda,’ recalls Kamal Ahmed, Editorial Director at BBC News.
In the heat of stories like Brexit and coronavirus, senior journalists like political editor Laura Kuenssberg, Europe editor Katya Adler, and senior correspondent Chris Mason have developed a close bond and on-air chemistry, facilitated by host Adam Fleming. This is a style that seems to be enjoyed equally by the cast and audience, whose contributions and questions are an important part of the show.
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all for the ideal length of a daily news podcast, neither is there consensus on how to approach presentation. Some daily podcasts try to build the programme around a single host, while for others it’s a two-hander or group affair with more scope for interaction. Longer podcasts offer more opportunity for showing the personality of hosts and building relationships with the audience, while shorter podcasts, such as microbulletins and some news rounds-ups, are more about efficient delivery of the news itself. In this more functional context, the host becomes less important and other audio branding, such as musical stings, help to reinforce the identity of the news organisation.
5. The Impact of Coronavirus on Consumption and Production ↑
We’ve already noted that many news podcasts are specifically designed for morning routines such as getting ready for work or commuting. But coronavirus lockdowns have significantly disrupted these habits. ‘It was a really fast drop across the board. And it happened within a matter of days,’ says Dave Zohrob, CEO of analytics company Chartable. ‘You eliminate the commute, you keep people at home, and 20% of their listening went away.’
Another view of changed habits is captured in the following charts which aggregate podcast data monitored by Acast, one of the largest European distributors of podcast content.
In both the UK and France, the morning peak was significantly higher in January (orange line) compared with May (turquoise line). The curve had flattened considerably as a result of lockdowns and other restrictions on movement, with listening spread out more throughout the day. Other countries showed similar, but less dramatic, effects.
Time of day listening to news podcasts, Monday–Friday, UK
Time of day listening to news podcasts, Monday–Friday, France
Source: Acast. Based on aggregated data from news podcasts in the UK and French networks. The scale for the number of listens is not included as this is aggregated private data.
The Economist has also picked up these changes in listening habits for both its morning briefing product and its deep-dive The Intelligence. ‘We don’t see as high a spike during commute times, but we also don’t see as much of a drop off at midday', says Frank Andrejasich, Product Manager for Audio. ‘This suggests to me that people are potentially engaging more regularly and just filling different open spaces’. Listens for both products are significantly higher than before the crisis with listen through rates of between 70 and 80%.
Other publishers have also been encouraged by the durability of morning briefing products – even if the context is now different: ‘It used to be on the subway or on the way to work. Now, it’s when I walk the dog, when I make my toast, when I have a shower,’ says Aimee Keane, who oversees the FT’s News Briefing. ‘Encouragingly, it’s still a part of their morning routine.’
Listening has come back quickly, especially for news
In terms of overall consumption, Acast data confirms that listening to all podcast genres dipped at the very start of the crisis (late February/early March) but then bounced back quickly (see chart below). News grew by around 30% in the UK between January and August – along with comedy – while sport podcasts lost traffic after being hit by the loss of live action.
News shows like Today in Focus from the Guardian and Pandémie, a twice-weekly podcast from Le Monde, got some of the highest figures across the Acast network. But escapist content also did well, with shows such as Off Menu performing well in the UK and a French podcast that explored emotions such as ‘hope’ and ‘resilience’ attracting many listeners. Shows on mindfulness and mental health also performed well according to Acast.
Change in podcast listening across the Acast network by genre, Jan–Aug 2020, UK
Top Acast podcasts during lockdown
Podcasts have also held up better commercially than other forms of media where advertising has been adversely affected. ‘There was an initial pausing and cancellation of campaigns,’ says Joe Coperman, SVP Sales at Acast, ‘but we’re delighted how quickly advertisers came back.’ Many publishers interviewed for this report said that in most cases advertising revenue is at similar or higher levels to those in January – but this has not been true everywhere.
Pop-up coronavirus podcasts
One reason for the strong interest in news content over this period has been the agile approach shown by publishers. Dozens of daily news podcasts were launched in March and April, focusing only on the pandemic and its implications.
In the US, CNN was first out of the blocks at the end of February. ‘We launched in two days,’ recalls Megan Marcus, Executive Producer of CNN Audio. Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction is hosted by CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr Sanjay Gupta, and the combination of his deep medical expertise and the tone of the show were key ingredients according to Marcus: ‘I wanted bedside manner. I knew this was going to be a scary, overwhelming time.’
In Australia, public broadcaster ABC took a similar approach by pairing health expert Dr Norman Swan, a veteran broadcaster of 30 years, with a younger health reporter. ‘Norman Swan has now become an Australian legend. Everyone wants a piece of him,’ says Tanya Nolan, Managing Editor, Audio Current Affairs at the ABC. The show focused on answering listener questions about the virus but has branched out into deeper investigations into aspects of the science. The resulting Coronacast has been one of ABC’s most successful podcasts ever, with more than 100,000 listens for each episode. ‘It did prove that a) people want relevant, direct, trusted information, and b) they want their questions answered. They don’t want a lot of sort of fluff and bubble and froth,’ says Nolan.
Early mover advantage was clearly important in terms of distribution as the key platforms such as Apple, Spotify, and Google actively looked for reliable content to promote. NPR in the US also took just a few days to get Coronavirus Daily from green light to launch: ‘We got it out there at a moment when interest in coronavirus was so off the charts that I think that the show had the sort of hockey stick growth that you just don’t see in this competitive environment,’ explained Neal Carruth, Director of On-Demand News Programming. ‘It was essentially an exercise in kind of artful aggregation. We took material from the NPR news magazines and did a little bit of editing, some sound design and some really elegant writing and put it into this nice 12-, 13-minute package every day.’
Other news organisations adapted existing podcast franchises rather than creating new ones. The BBC’s weekly Newscast was turned into a daily Coronacast, drawing on the expertise of the in-house medical team as well as external experts. The Evening Standard rebranded its Leader podcast for several months while interest was at its height.
Changing working patterns
Not only were podcasters covering perhaps the biggest story of their lifetimes, they were also deeply affected by it personally. Several hosts became ill with the virus, while lockdowns forced most staff to present and edit content from home using makeshift studios. Kate Linebaugh of The Journal recorded the show from a tent in the basement of her home for several weeks, while co-host Ryan Knutson broadcast from his wife’s closet.
ABC’s empty podcast studio ready for action once restrictions are lifted
Photo courtesy Kate Linebaugh
Thomas Rozec, host of Programme B (Binge Audio) in France, said the whole team had to learn how to work in a different way: ‘We had to accept not having our interviewees in the studio and recording our interviews via apps. With hindsight, I think that this experience was positive. It showed us how to fully enjoy the potential of the format.’
But all of this has added time and complexity to an already pressured daily schedule. Despite heroic efforts to get the shows out on time, many feel something is missing. ‘One thing that the podcast has suffered from is that it doesn’t have that dynamism that you have when you’re face to face with your co-host,’ says ABC’s Tanya Nolan, who had just built a new podcast studio before the lockdown (see above). ‘I really wanted to break down that “Voice of God” radio set-up and make it much more of a place where you’ve got stand-up mikes, you’ve got a couch, you know, you’ve got an operator in a corner who’s just recording.’
Many of those we interviewed can’t wait to get back to studios and offices, not only to increase the personal touch but also to foster team creativity. But at the same time, coronavirus has brought more flexible approaches to production and formats that might not have happened otherwise.
6. Case Studies and Publisher Strategies Across Countries ↑
In this section we take a country-based view of developments over the last year and hear about publisher motivations and strategies. Case studies have been chosen to include a range of different news formats, commercial publishers, and public service broadcasters, and to focus on some of the daily podcasts that have started most recently.
6.1. The United States
As we’ve already noted, daily news podcasts are some of the most successful shows in the US market. Four of the top five shows are daily news according to Podtrac, which ranks publisher shows on an opt-in basis. Neither Podtrac nor individual publishers generally reveal actual download numbers, but some are prepared to talk about change over time. NPR, for example, says top news shows NPR News Now (+71%) and Up First (+67%) have continued to grow rapidly over the last year despite intense competition and the impact of COVID-19.
Year-on-year growth (NPR): average weekly users
Source: Splunk, NPR podcast logs, weeks beginning 28/06/2020–20/09/2020
National Public Radio
National Public Radio (NPR) now operates seven different daily news podcasts aimed at different times of the day or at specific audiences. The latest addition to the portfolio has been an evening round-up podcast, Consider This, which draws on material from the long-running radio show All Things Considered. One innovation of this show has been the injection of local segments from partner stations, using technology originally developed for targeted advertising. A user downloading the Consider This podcast in Los Angeles, for example, will now get a package that includes a 12-minute national segment and a seven-minute local one: ‘It turns out that the that the podcast audience is just as enthusiastic about the national–local blend as the radio audience has been, that they want an easy way to get national news and local news in one package,’ says NPR’s Neal Carruth.
NPR is partly responding to audience interest in more on-demand audio, but news podcasts also make sense commercially. It expects to make more from podcast advertising in 2020 than from broadcast radio ads.15
Apple News Today
New competition in the morning round-up space has come from an unlikely quarter. In the summer, Apple launched its own daily podcast, hosted by Shumita Basu and Duarte Geraldino, who had both previously worked in US public radio. The entire team was recruited during the pandemic and have had to work virtually across time zones to assemble the nine-minute show early each morning. This is an unusual podcast in that it doesn’t do its own interviews but rather showcases the best and most interesting stories from a range of US publications. ‘Apple News Today really is an extension of the work we already do in the Apple News app in terms of curation,’ notes Lauren Kern, Editor-in-Chief of Apple News. ‘It’s a big step for us in that we’re now putting faces and voices of Apple News editors out in public and talking more about journalism and why we think a certain story is good.’
This show is a clear signal that Apple wants to up its game in audio, which it recognises is a key way to engage younger demographics. The show is currently free, but Apple is also looking at ways to use audio to drive subscriptions to its premium Apple News+ product. It has also been experimenting with 20 audio stories a week from leading publications, read by professional actors.
The 'Wall Street Journal'
The Wall Street Journal has been investing hard in audio over the last few years. It is best known for The Journal, a deep-dive show launched just over a year ago, as well as What’s News, a round-up of business news published twice a day. Tech and money briefing podcasts round off the daily portfolio alongside a minute-long microbulletin aimed at smart speakers.
The Journal podcast itself is unusual in that it is a co-production with podcast specialist Gimlet, now owned by Spotify. The relationship with Gimlet has helped Journal staff to develop audio-first production techniques, but the wider business relationship has also been important. The Journal was prominently featured in the launch of Spotify’s Your Daily Drive in the US and there has also been early access to targeted advertising products being developed by Spotify.
Both advertising and audience demand have remained buoyant through the coronavirus story, while the pandemic has accelerated innovation in storytelling techniques. ‘The first episode that we did related to coronavirus was mid-January. And we had a reporter who was on the last train out of Wuhan [in China]. When you can experience that through sound, it resonates in a very intimate way,’ says Anthony Galloway, Global Head of Audio for the Wall Street Journal. ‘We’ve been trying to find new approaches to the story that just embrace the world that we’re in.’
A key motivation for the Wall Street Journal has been the role that audio plays in driving habit and engagement with its members. ‘We always need to be providing our members with products that are worthy of the subscription price that they pay us every month,’ says Drew Stoneman, VP Commercial Strategy at The Journal. But because audio sits outside the paywall it also creates a revenue opportunity too: ‘All the ad categories that you’d traditionally associate with the WSJ are investing in audio so that make us very happy. Podcasting is still a very small part of the overall pie of digital revenue. But if you look at percentage growth, it’s considerable.’
Today Explained – Vox Media
Today Explained is a living embodiment of the Vox brand’s wider mission to explain the news. ‘Our role in the news ecosystem is not to be a breaking news source. It’s not to compete with the New York Times or with CNN on getting out the latest turn of the screw. It’s really about providing context,’ explains Liz Nelson, Editorial Director for Podcasts at Vox.
Vox has learned a lot in the last few years about how to explain stories in different formats. It has discovered that audio is particularly good at engaging people through first-person stories. For that reason, the programme is often structured using an A and a B segment, says Liz Nelson: ‘If we take Beirut and the explosion there as an example, our A segment was talking with a journalist who was actually in a cafe in Beirut when the explosion happened. And then the B segment would be with somebody else who can give you the background and the context.’
Another key part of the success of the podcast is the way in which host Sean Rameswaram approaches each interview looking to help listeners understand – rather than to show off his own knowledge: ‘He wants to be an avatar for the audience and ask the questions that they would ask’, says Nelson. ‘It is very important for them to feel that they have somebody who’s in their corner in these conversations.’ Today Explained was originally a co-production with podcast specialist Stitcher but has been brought in-house now that sufficient expertise has been acquired. Vox Media, which encompasses a range of other brands including the Verge, SB Nation and Recode, continues to invest in audio, with around 200 podcasts in its network. This kind of scale helps with monetisation as well as facilitating other podcasts to be more easily discovered.
6.2. The United Kingdom
There is less competition in the UK, especially for deep-dive podcasts, not least because the BBC suspended production of its flagship Beyond Today at the start of the coronavirus for operational reasons. It is due to return, but not as a daily show, while Newscast, as we’ve already noted, is more of a chat show released at the end of the day. New competition has come from The Times, which launched a deep-dive podcast, and from the Daily Mail with a round-up show broadcast at 5pm each day. There is no podcast ranker in the UK so the following should not be read as an ordered list.
UK Guardian podcast growth
Source: the Guardian. Average of podcasts, including Today in Focus, Football Weekly, Audio Long Reads, Politics Weekly, and Science Weekly
Stories of Our Times – 'The Times' and 'The Sunday Times'
Former BBC Journalist Manveen Rana is the voice behind the new daily news podcast from The Times. ‘It’s a unique piece of Times journalism told in depth every day in audio,’ says Jimmy Buckland, Head of Strategy for the Wireless Group, which produces the show along with other Times podcasts. ‘There are not a lot of daily podcasts in the UK telling one story in the quality that we can do using the journalistic network that The Times has.’ Wireless operates Talk Radio in the UK and is part of the wider News UK group, which owns The Times. This partnership brings professional studios to the party along with considerable commercial expertise in monetising and distributing audio.
From a business perspective The Times hopes audio can increase the loyalty of existing users and also help bring in the next generation of subscribers. It is early days, but they have already been encouraged by younger demographics coming from distribution via Spotify and other third-party platforms. But this podcast is part of a long-term audio play that includes a new live radio station – Times Radio – which launched in summer 2020. Both are seen as complementary parts of the offer – one bringing depth and intimacy and the other bringing range and companionship.
The Daily Show with Andrew Pierce – 'Mail Plus'
Audio is seen as a good way of allowing Daily Mail readers to get closer to journalists and writers that they enjoy in print. That is the premise behind The Daily Show, which was conceived as a vehicle for Andrew Pierce, one of their most high profile columnists. ‘We were clear from the start that if we wanted to do a vital, energetic, opinionated, fast-moving, but intelligent show, there was only one man for it,’ says Gordon Thompson, Editor of Mail Plus.
Pierce is an enthusiastic host who works with a small team of researchers and producers to put out a half-hour show that is published at 5pm every day. ‘We experimented early on with longer interviews and different formats,’ says Thompson, ‘but we settled quite quickly on a sort of faster-paced style that was four to six guests with a strong human interest and features element to it, as well as the hard news.’
The show sounds more like a traditional talk radio programme than a podcast, which is partly because this is a format the older Mail readership understands. The challenge has partly been to educate that traditional audience into a new way of consuming Mail content at the same time as trying to attract the next generation of readers.
Sky News has been pushing further into audio over the last year, reaching 15 million listeners with its podcasts in the nine months to September, compared with just 5 million in the whole of last year. Its commitment is reinforced by the fact that the flagship Sky News Daily is hosted by one of the network’s top presenters, Dermot Murnaghan. The show started out as a news round-up but is now a deep-dive looking at one subject, which is released in the early evening each day. This focus on explanatory journalism is very much in keeping with the wider strategy to move beyond breaking news into more specialist journalism. ‘One of the values of Sky News is to provide clarity in an uncertain world,’ says Head of Radio, Dave Terris. ‘We can really get stuck into that detail and provide that explanatory clear content for audiences that want to take that deep dive.’
As in other countries, we find broadcasters trying to leverage their expertise and skills in audio to meet the challenge of changing audience habits. To some extent this is a defensive strategy, as newspapers like The Times, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail look to step on their territory, but it also raises existential questions. Traditional formats of radio and TV haven’t changed for decades and younger audiences are looking for more informal and less confrontational types of content. Podcasts seem to fit that bill.
Over the past 12 months, only one daily news podcast has been launched in France: Le Quart d’Heure, an original production from Radio France. Until now, many traditional media outlets have been reluctant to invest, leaving the field clear for early adopters Les Echos, Le Parisien, and 20 Minutes. Although there is an embryonic podcast ranker in France, only a few shows have signed up so far, so the following should not be read as an ordered list.
The launch of this podcast has involved overcoming editorial, creative, and structural challenges for Radio France, the umbrella organisation for most of the French public radio stations. The project draws on resources from different radio stations within the group (mostly from France Inter, France Info, and France Culture) for the first time and has involved building a large dedicated team – something that none of the stations could have managed on their own: ‘To build a high-quality daily news podcast, we need at least four to five staffers,’ says Erwann Gaucher, Head of Digital at France Inter, ‘otherwise, we won’t have the quality we are looking for.’
Unlike other French daily podcasts that are built on The Daily model, Le Quart d’Heure has designed its programme as a hybrid between a deep-dive and news round-up. Host Céline Asselot goes through three stories in 15 minutes, but with a scripted and highly produced feel. With sounds and archives illustrating the podcast, Radio France has been willing to experiment with a non-traditional format to attract a new and younger audience.
One reason why it has taken Radio France some time to develop a native news podcast is the strong performance of its catch-up radio offer, where existing shows are made available as podcasts. ‘In total, all the podcasts from the France Inter morning show (le 7/9, airing from 7 am to 9 am) make between 7 and 9 million monthly downloads,’ says Gaucher. Partly as a result, France Inter has until now focused on less topical output, such as a docu-series on the November 2015 terror attack (2 million downloads for eight episodes) and Intérieur Queer, a podcast covering gender issues. A weekly news podcast, Pour Suite, had to be suspended because of the first lockdown in March, after weeks of experimentation trying to find the right tone and editorial approach.
More daily news projects in the pipeline?
Some media companies contacted for the report mentioned a daily news podcast project in the pipeline. Le Monde is planning to launch a new show in early 2021, which will be a collaboration with Spotify: ‘We clearly see the point of having a daily audio appointment to engage with a new audience,’ says Alexis Delcambre, Deputy Managing Editor in charge of digital at Le Monde. This follows positive audience reaction to Pandémie, a podcast it started during the lockdown and which covered COVID-19 issues twice a week until June. With this first experience of a regular news podcast based on The Daily’s model and produced by four staff, the aim was to ‘understand what it really means to produce a podcast within the newsroom’.
For Le Monde, news podcasting represents only one part of a wider digital strategy aimed at attracting and engaging younger audiences. In this respect, investment plans often need to be stacked up against those for Snapchat, YouTube, or TikTok.
The main French regional news outlet Ouest France, meanwhile, has focused on developing a wide range of shows for its readers, rather than committing to a single daily news podcast. Its ‘Mur des Podcasts’ project (Wall of Podcasts – a webpage aggregating all its audio productions) gathers almost 30 podcasts from across the newsroom. Edouard Reis Carona, Head of Digital, explains: ‘With this strategy, we feel more flexible as we are able to adapt to news, events and to the journalists’ desires without being constrained to the production of a very time-consuming and expensive daily programme.’ Ouest France currently lacks the resources for such a podcast, as its team consists of just two full-time employees – an audio journalist and an audio editor. Its only daily podcast is a short, enhanced read of an original story from the evening edition of the newspaper, called Sur le pouce.
Early movers see audience growth but struggle to monetise
Les Echos (La Story), Le Parisien (Code Source), and Binge Audio (Programme B) have shown strong audience growth for their deep-dive podcasts since their launch in the summer of 2019. Weekly downloads for La Story peaked at 190,000 during the lockdowns, with growth more than doubling in the year to September.
None of the three publications have yet managed to turn a profit, despite running with relatively lean staffing levels (three people on average). Podcast advertising in France appears to be developing more slowly than in the US or the UK, but according to Pierrick Fay, producer of La Story, this is not the main objective: ‘Podcasting is a way to diversify our online offer. It’s a showcase that highlights the quality of our newsroom.’ At Le Parisien, an internal study analysing the behaviour of their subscriber base has shown that ‘podcast listeners are three times more likely to remain subscribers’, says Pierre Chausse, Head of Digital at Le Parisien. ‘It’s a strong retention rate for a non-premium offer.’
Weekly downloads of La Story (Les Echos)
Source: Les Echos, using figures from Acast
A new podcast ranker from the association ACPM started in June 2020 with the aim of giving advertisers consolidated and certified download numbers. This may help raise the profile of podcasting and make it easier for advertisers to assess buying opportunities.
Australia has developed into one of the most competitive daily markets in our study, with a number of new daily shows, a new podcast index, and growing advertiser interest. Public broadcaster ABC continues to develop its offerings, including its deep-dive podcast The Signal, a successful coronavirus podcast, and daily content for smart speakers. Meanwhile News Corp, one of the biggest publishers in Australia, has launched a range of short- and longer-form offerings linked to its most popular titles. A new podcast tracker has been launched by Triton Digital but does not include the public broadcaster ABC, so the following should not be read as an ordered list.
From the Newsroom
News Corp Australia recently set up a new audio business with a mix of specialist production and commercial skills to drive opportunities in podcasting and short-form audio that works across all the mastheads. One of the most successful early initiatives has been From the Newsroom – a partnership with leading web portal news.com.au launched in January 2020. Aimed at a millennial audience, the format is a fast-moving, bite-sized news podcast presented by young journalists Andrew Bucklow and Brontë Coy. The show is designed as a concise briefing to be consumed via a smartphone or via smart speakers in the home and is updated twice a day.
But this is just part of a rapid expansion of the podcast portfolio. The Herald Sun, based in Melbourne, runs a deep-dive podcast called The Splash, while other local state mastheads across the group such as the Daily Telegraph, the Courier Mail, and the Adelaide Advertiser have launched shorter bulletins aimed at smart speakers. The aim is not just to make money today. Senior executives see audio as an important way to attract and then engage new users: ‘What we do is use audio as a hook,’ says Ainslee O’Brien, General Manager of Commercial Networks, News Corp Australia, ‘and a marketing channel for our journalism with the hope that we redirect back to our masthead to become a subscriber.’
Australian Broadcasting Corporation – The Signal
Like other broadcasters featured in this report, podcasts have become a critical way of futureproofing spoken word audio for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). ‘Whilst we have the ability to do catch-up radio on digital products, there is just a cohort of the audience that are never going to come and listen to the radio, whether you put it on a mobile app or not,’ says Tanya Nolan, Managing Editor of Audio Current Affairs at ABC. Part of the answer is investment in a range of digital-first podcasts with a younger tone. Flagship deep-dive news podcast The Signal is presented by two younger journalists who, Nolan says, have been able to tap into a range of subjects and make them relevant. ‘News is just overwhelming. We have generalised anxiety across the human race. And I think that what news needs to do is step back and really hold people’s hands through the biggest stories and explain it to them in a way that that is meaningful.’
Nolan has resisted taking The Signal back on the radio because she feels its tone would stick out. She’s also worried about diluting its focus on the under-45 audience. So how is a daily podcast different to a radio programme? ‘It’s the [slower] pace. The production values are as important as the content because it’s the narrative journey that you go on.’ Podcasts need to capture attention in the first 30 seconds, she says: ‘The top is vitally important. So the scripting is very important, but also the music, the atmosphere, the whole feel of it. And then you’re all of a sudden taken on this journey. And before you know it, 15 minutes later, you finish the whole product. So for us, it’s really about that narrative arc.’
The ABC does not give precise listening figures but told us that audiences for The Signal have roughly doubled in the last year. Podcasts in general are starting to make a substantial difference to overall listening, especially with the target younger demographic.
7am from Schwartz Media – Small publisher’s early mover advantage
An increased focus from big players seems to have stimulated the overall market rather than taking audience away from some of the pioneers like independent publisher Schwartz Media. The 7am podcast leverages writers and columnists from The Saturday Paper and The Monthly magazine and follows the deep-dive format. ‘We’re averaging 55,000 listeners a day,’ says CEO Rebecca Costello, who adds that the podcast now reaches the largest daily audience of anything they produce across print and online. ‘It’s the number five podcast in the country up against all of these commercial providers. It’s quite extraordinary.’
The podcast is also paying off in business terms. Podcast advertising grew during the pandemic, Costello says, in stark contrast to the decline in ‘print and online display’. 7am has also now added a contribution model where readers can support the podcast and its ‘in-depth journalism’ financially. And it acts as a marketing funnel for the paid products in print and online. ‘It’s really raising awareness of us and the other things we do. It’s ticking all the boxes,’ says Costello.
The Australian daily news market is characterised by a number of other smaller publishers who were early to market, including The Quicky, which has found success with a hybrid 15-minute podcast that starts with a news round-up before moving on to focus on one big story. Guardian Australia has also entered the market this year, tapping into the experience of the Today in Focus team in the UK to develop Full Story, a podcast which fully embraces a narrative storytelling approach.
6.5. Sweden and Denmark
In both countries audio listening remains synonymous with dominant public broadcasters (Swedish Radio and Danish Broadcasting), which have both invested in podcasting in the last few years. This may have somewhat limited the opportunities for commercial publishers, along with the small market size which has made it hard to sustain daily podcasts based only on advertising. We have taken these markets together due to some similarities in characteristics.
Our research shows that in both countries daily news makes up a much smaller proportion of the total podcast market (just 2% and 1% respectively) than in other countries. This is partly because other genres, such as culture and documentaries, are extremely popular. But it is also because supply is more limited. There are just a handful of native daily news podcasts in the Danish market and only nine in Sweden.
Genstart – Danish Broadcasting
The new daily podcast from public broadcaster Danish Broadcasting (DR) has been both a critical and audience success. Launched just weeks before coronavirus lockdowns, it has consistently been one of the most popular podcasts in Denmark with plays approaching 450,000 each week. The audience is younger than the traditional radio listeners and they engage for the majority of the 20-minute show.
Directly inspired by The Daily, the team visited the New York Times, as well as the Guardian and the BBC, to learn how to pace the podcast and how to structure interviews and scenes. As well as finding the right host, DR brought in an editor who had been studying podcasts in the US and a technician and sound designer who had experience of creating these moods and scenes. Based on the New York Times model, each podcast tries to draw listeners in and then to develop an emotional story, so the casting of the guest is crucial: ‘Our News podcast will always seek a person who has a special relationship to the story they are telling. It might be an expert, but they need to have some feelings in the story,’ says Claus Cancel, who is executive producer of the programme.
A key example of this approach was when the host himself, Knud Brix, got coronavirus. In true podcast style he documented every ache and pain on his personal journey from diagnosis to recovery. ‘He’s really sick when he’s making this episode,’ says Cancel, ‘so you get to know him when you hear the episode, you get a clear picture of who this person is.’ For several months the content of DR’s podcast focused only on coronavirus, but it has now returned to a more varied agenda.
Commercial providers pursuing paid models
DR’s entry into the market has forced Politiken to rethink its proposition to some extent. It has tried to focus more on its own distinctive tone, and on areas of strengths such as culture and politics.
Because of the difficulties of selling advertising around podcasts in Denmark, Politiken has made its daily news podcast part of its wider subscription benefits for three days a week. Along with the e-paper and the app, data shows that podcasts are a key way to build engagement and reduce churn. ‘What matters is that we get our regular subscribers to spend time with us and get to know us,’ says Troels Behrendt Jørgensen, Digital Director at Politiken. ‘And I think podcast is a brilliant tool for that.’ Politiken is adding further paid podcasts, including a weekly politics one, and has improved the user experience for audio within its app. Because of the coronavirus crisis, Politiken dropped its podcast paywall for almost two months, allowing more people to sample the product and leading to record audience figures.
Zetland is another publication that keeps its daily podcast just for subscribers. The digital-born outlet has a younger audience and has also embraced audio by getting journalists to read its stories aloud. Like other publishers, Zetland has found that audio is a key factor in retaining subscribers. Much emphasis is placed on the user experience on the website and mobile app, which includes features such as ‘save for later’ and allowing users to pick up listening on different devices.
Also inspired by The Daily, the Helikopter daily podcast is currently produced on the day and released at 4pm for the early evening peak. Now they want to increase the quality further and are planning to take on an extra producer so they can plan more items in advance.
Helikopter is only available to subscribers via the app, website, and email
A key factor in the success of the podcast has been the tone, which is quite different to the formal approach taken by radio and TV. ‘Especially amongst our young members, that neck-tie kind of voice doesn’t give authority. They just don’t buy into it,’ says Editor-in-Chief Lea Korsgaard. ‘So, this means a totally different role for the host. You should show your own engagement with the story, show that you’re passionate about it, show that it matters for you. Sometimes, maybe even cry a little bit.’ Helikopter has just hired a new host (from the public service DR), but the first thing they had to do was to get him to sound less professional: ‘Try to tell the story as if you actually care, try to sound like a friend,’ advised Korsgaard.
Swedish Radio (SR) had been planning a new native daily news podcast, but these plans were put on hold after the pandemic hit. Instead, it has split the podcast feed from its popular news brand Ekot into two parts. One carries longer, in-depth segments published a couple of times a day, the other is a feed of short bulletins aimed at smart speakers. SR has also launched a new ‘dual-use’ podcast aimed at younger listeners. The P3 News With podcast takes an item from its morning show, for example a profile of the US politician Kamala Harris, and repackages it as a podcast each day.
Alongside podcasts, a key focus at SR is new opportunities around more atomised news content, where individual stories can be surfaced and played – in many cases automatically. SR has created playlists for its own apps around top news and specialist subjects like science and coronavirus. This has involved removing host introductions and making all items self-contained. This is a different approach but one that SR believes will allow content to be scaled and personalised in the era of smart speakers and voice search. ‘It gives us so much flexibility, to compile different playlists in personalised forms,’ notes Olle Zachrison, Head of Digital News Development at SR. ‘By focusing on the smallest components, the atomised building blocks of a newscast, we’re trying to rebuild it from the bottom up.’
Commercial competition hots up
Audio has been an increasing preoccupation for the main newspaper groups in Sweden. Dagens Nyheter converted its weekly DN Studio into a daily deep-dive in early 2020 after much deliberation, while other big newspapers such as Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet operate daily podcasts and/or bulletins aimed at smart speakers. But the motivations at Dagens Nyheter are not just related to the audience. ‘It has been a good way to get reporters to understand that there’s so much more to tell in the story than just writing it,’ says Martin Jönsson, Head of Editorial Development at DN. ‘It’s part of the cultural transformation in the newsroom.’
7. Future Developments and Conclusions ↑
This report has provided evidence from six countries about the growth in consumption and production of daily news podcasts and other on-demand audio. If anything, these trends have been accelerated by coronavirus, a story which has lent itself to deep, considered explanation as well as regular updates on a fast-moving story. Although habits have been disrupted with the loss of the commute, audiences for most daily news podcasts have continued to grow, and new podcasts have been launched to cater for this growing demand.
We have identified four different types of daily news podcasts, ranging from long, extended chats to New York Times-inspired deep-dives to concise news round-ups, and finally short bulletins for smart speakers. In this fast-moving space there is no right or wrong answer about format or about length, but a strong focus on audience needs and fast-changing listening habits is essential.
The challenge is perhaps greatest for radio broadcasters, who have to maintain ‘flow radio’ services for older listeners at the same time as investing in podcasts for younger demographics. As our interviewees have made clear, this is not a simple reversioning of radio output. Podcasts are mostly listened to through headphones and this requires a more intimate approach – as well as content that engages the emotions. Narrative techniques that build on a movie model of storyboards, scenes, and moods are one way of doing this, but this is not the only approach. Shows like Newscast from the BBC can create a familiar cast of characters that can guide you through a story and bring warmth and fun to the party as well. Dual-use podcasts are increasingly starting life as digital-first formats before migrating to radio and TV.
For legacy print and digital-born publishers, news podcasts represent a different dilemma. It is easier to embrace new thinking and create entirely new formats, but the infrastructure and skills need to be built from scratch. That requires considerable investment which, at a time of declining revenue, in the middle of a global pandemic, requires both commitment and nerve.
Evidence in this report that audio helps to retain existing subscribers will support many of these business cases, but bringing in revenue today is also a pressing concern. While some news organisations are making money from daily news podcasts, in countries like the US and the UK most of the rewards are going to a few big publishers that have invested early. Advertising and sponsorship opportunities have so far been more limited in smaller European countries.
A related worry is the extent to which publishers will be able to get new products discovered as competition grows. The largest publishers can use their own platforms to cross-promote new daily podcasts, and they are also likely to be top of the queue for promotion on third-party platforms such as Apple, Spotify, and Google. Smaller publishers worry about being squeezed between these big beasts on the one hand and more niche publications on the other. The US market, for example, with 51 different daily news podcasts, now looks extremely crowded and only a truly distinctive new proposition is likely to gain attention. But in other countries – as DR and Radio France have both discovered – there are still opportunities to build an audience with a substantial and focused investment.
Daily news podcasts have been successful in reaching younger audiences – at times 20 years younger than that for the radio – but these premium products have so far been less good at attracting those who are less interested in news in the first place. In this respect, the promotional power of platforms such as Spotify, Amazon, and Google could be crucial in getting to those harder-to-reach customers – but this hypothesis still needs to be tested.
Looking to the future, some publishers are looking at emerging opportunities around repackaging individual stories for smart speakers and voice search. But in this area, where there is often only one response to a voice query, publishers are likely to be even more dependent on platforms. By being aggregated at the platform level there is also less opportunity for the publisher to get full credit for the content that it has created. Longer-form daily podcasts, on the other hand, provide more time to build relationships with listeners and more opportunities for the tone and values of the brand to shine through.
Over time, all of these options may need to be explored, with audio set to become a bigger and more important part of the media mix. Daily news podcasts will often only be one part of a wider audio strategy, but for many publishers these flagship products will drive the biggest audiences as well as being critical brand ambassadors for the next generation of listeners.
- Flamingo. 2019. How Young People Consume News and the Implications for Mainstream Media. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
- Newman, N., Gallo, N. 2019. News Podcasts and the Opportunities for Publishers. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
- Newman, N., Fletcher, R., Schulz, A., Andı, S., Nielsen R. 2020 Digital News Report 2020. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
1 Apple changed their news categorisation in 2019, introducing a ‘daily news’ category for the first time. Our data was sourced from Chartable, an analytics company that uses the metadata provided by Apple and other platforms.
2 Podcasts are measured by adding downloads and streamed plays, normally by using IABv2 standards. It is not possible to know how many of the downloaded podcasts were actually listened to, so publicly quoted numbers should be treated with caution. This podnews article provides an overview of measurement issues.
3 This process is not perfect as not all publishers tag content correctly, but our analysis indicates that most daily shows are captured this way.
5 Interview from October 2019 in News Podcasts and the Opportunities for Publishers (Newman and Gallo). Since then, listenership of the podcast has grown further (interview October 2020).
6 ACPM ranking, September 2020.
7 'Radio France affine sa stratégie numérique et signe un accord de distribution avec Deezer'. Challenges. October 2020.
8 We define this as an audio programme produced and designed as an on-demand programme/show, without being bound to the radio or TV broadcasting schedule.
9 We included one extra country, Denmark, in this year’s study but this accounted for just five extra podcasts.
10 We define native podcasts as those that are created first for podcast distribution or those that have had substantial adaptation to make them suitable (as distinct from current affairs radio programmes available on-demand).
11 ‘Podcasts: Who, Why What, and Where’, Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019.
13 Comparing average downloads March, April, May 2019 with average downloads March, April, May 2020.
14 Acast was founded in Sweden in 2014 and is one of the largest podcast distributors in the world. In the UK Acast distributes content from The Times, the Guardian, The Economist, and the FT, among others. Around 70% of commercial podcast distribution in the UK happens via Acast.
15 'NPR Podcasts Revenue On Track To Out-Bill Its On-Air'. Inside Radio. July 2020
About the Authors ↑
Nic Newman is Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute and lead author of the Digital News Report and an annual study looking at trends in technology and journalism. He is also a consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product, audience, and business strategies for digital transition.
Nathan Gallo is a media reporter, research assistant, and consultant. He graduated from City, University of London with a Masters in Journalism, Media, and Globalisation and from Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne with a Masters in Media History.
The authors are particularly grateful to the many media executives and other experts who gave their time to be interviewed for this report. We would like to thank Chartable for providing data on news podcasts and the role of daily news, to Acast for providing aggregate data of consumption across their network and to National Public Radio (NPR), the Guardian, and Les Echos for providing private industry data to illustrate specific points. Finally, we are grateful to the research team at the Reuters Institute for their valuable input at various stages, including thoughtful comments on the manuscript, and to Alex Reid at the Reuters Institute for keeping the publication on track at all times.
Published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism with the support of Google and the Google News Initiative.