Almost a year ago, when Coronavirus was just starting to rear its ugly head in Europe and North America, there were fears that widespread work from home, and the loss of the daily commute, would end the success of news audio. However, while audiences were no longer listening to audio during their commutes, enough people were listening to more podcasts to offset that loss. In short, the morning peak for news audio is gone, replaced by sustained listening throughout the day.
A recent report from Reuters even calls audio “a bright spot for news media”. With that in mind, join us for the latest article in our Business of Audio series as we explore three trends to keep in mind for your 2021 news audio strategy.
Paid podcasts go mainstream
When we first started exploring the world of news audio, advertising was still the main revenue stream for most podcasts. Still we were heartened to see successful subscription strategies for podcasts starting to emerge. Liverpool sports podcast company The Anfield Wrap was an early adopter, successfully delivering subscriber only content to more than 10,000 subscribers (something that required running their own backend via an Amazon server).
In the years since then, we have seen more and more podcasts adopt paid-for models, whether it be early-access for subscribers (as The New York Times did for Caliphate) or member-only podcasts (as The Guardian experimented with). However 2021 is the year that premium podcasts might finally go mainstream, something predicted in the latest Reuters report as well. The technical ability to offer subscription podcasts has improved over the years and it’s set to potentially get even easier this year. Apple is rumoured to be considering adding a subscription service to its podcasting business this year. While Apple is the most widely used podcast platform on the market (and the word podcast even comes from a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast), in recent years they have been challenged by the significant growth of Spotify and Amazon audio.
It will be interesting this year to see how Apple’s subscription podcast plans come to market. Details are still unclear, but there are reports that Apple will set up a system to charge for individual podcasts as well. Beyond the technical help Apple’s subscription service may provide for some publishers, the broader impact on the industry might be more important. Just as we have seen how Netflix adoption has helped educate audiences on the importance of paying for digital content, Apple’s podcast subscription offering might help increase the number of listeners willing to pay for subscription podcasts on all platforms.
Loyal listeners demand accountability
We have discussed before the inherent intimacy audio brings to news: most people wear headphones while listening to podcasts, so the anchor is directly speaking into their ear.
When you listen to a podcast every week, it inevitably becomes a real presence in your mind, in the way that reading a writer’s articles does not. There’s an intimacy with podcasts that makes people interested in getting more.Gabriel Roth, Editorial director, Slate Podcasts
That’s one reason why The New York Times has seen such success with The Daily. The podcast’s host Michael Barbaro has become a bonafide celebrity with a loyal fanbase. In just under four years, The Daily has become an important distribution method for The Times’ journalism and it reaches more people than the newspaper, attracting more than 4 million listeners a day. This success has inspired countless daily, rundown podcasts from other publishers.
This loyalty among listeners comes with heightened expectations. An example is the recent controversy around another podcast from The New York Times, Caliphate. After a key source was recently found to have lied, Michael Barbaro was invited as guest host to discuss the controversy. The episode aired with no mention of the fact that Barbaro is engaged to a Caliphate producer. The concerns over the journalistic ethics standard for audio at The New York Times had led to more than 20 public radio stations across the US refusing to air new episodes of The Daily, as they had previous been doing.
This story serves as a good reminder for publishers experimenting with audio: listeners have as high standards for audio as they do for written journalism. Maybe even higher, as podcasts often have just one single host, something that the written newspaper doesn’t have an equivalent of. Just as The New York Times has blazed the trail for investing in news audio, publishers today can learn from this experience to avoid creating a star anchor on their own podcasts. It’s also an opportunity perhaps for American newspapers to make a play for a national audience on their daily podcasts.
New standalone audio platforms
Last fall we started seeing a trend of publishers in Europe launching their own audio platforms. The Netherlands stood out with two new entries on the market, with both NRC and De Correspondent releasing standalone audio platforms. These two apps differ on content however, as NRC Audio has a large offering of their own podcasts in addition to international podcasts, while De Correspondent’s platform is focused on bringing their quality audio journalism to listeners in a controlled manner.
While De Correspondent’s podcasts remain available via third-party platforms such as Spotify and iTunes, this new audio platform was created so members could be the masters of their “audio destiny“. It is an interesting strategy, explaining to members directly the risk relying on other platforms brings for publishers, while framing this option as the responsible choice for their audience’s privacy concerns. Another important reason they launched this platform is so they can ensure they deliver the high-quality experience their members expect, no matter the medium. The focus on good design is clear in the app, with similar branding as their other digital platforms including the iconic sketches.
On the other hand, NRC’s audio platform offers readers all their podcasts together with thousands of other podcasts from around the world. Still the ability to offer listeners a controlled audio experience, with high quality and a clean design, was an important motivation for NRC as well. When first launched, everyone could listen to all content. As of this month, NRC will test with subscriber-only audio content.
For publishers considering launching their own audio platforms, we would recommend considering how listening habits are evolving and making sure to future proof the platform. For example, the Reuters report predicts that the popularity of video podcasts will continue to grow this year. Spotify has adopted this format, inspired by the success The Joe Rogan Experience has seen with this, and audiences may come to expect a video component to their audio going forward.