Daily podcasts are booming. But here’s why some will fail…

In an increasingly crowded field of Monday-to-Friday podcasts, “The Daily” from The New York Times is still the most popular news show, with about 1.75 million downloads per episode. According to one estimate, the number of daily podcasts has more than tripled in less than two years. The competition now includes news shows by NPR, Vox, Axios, ABC News and The Washington Post.

Ever since its launch nearly two years ago, The Daily” has been my daily habit. Here’s why:

The host, Michael Barbaro.

He’s my pal. A buddy in my ear at the gym, in the car, or on morning walks with our dogs.

I’ve never met Michael Barbaro, but he sounds like a genuinely curious, charming and friendly guy. Writing in The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead calls him the “winning, accessible interlocutor of his news-gathering colleagues.”

He has soul, and that’s surprising perhaps, because over the years The Times has been called “the gray lady”, and is widely considered to be a redoubtable pillar of the elite, mainstream media.

Unlike the newspaper, “The Daily” is informal, even intimate, with moments of spontaneity and humor, as Barbaro lifts the curtain on the bench strength of diligent, hard-working Times reporters who cover their beats with dedication, humility, and street smarts.

Unlike many radio or TV anchors, he never pretends to know what he doesn’t. “The Daily” host is also an ombudsman for listeners as he guides us through the latest perplexing twist of the Mueller investigation or the unfortunate saga that is Brexit.

Barbaro gives us this wonderful sense that he’s hearing each reporter’s insights for the first time.

Same thing with “Serial” host Sarah Koenig, who, despite all her research and carefully constructed scripts, manages to sound is if she’s uncovering the story with you right alongside her. At times we think she’s bemused or even a little surprised as she stumbles across another twist in a complex, tangled web of facts.

The journey is the thing. We know where Koenig’s coming from and that’s a huge reason why “Serial” continues to be wildly successful.

Podcast producers can put too much emphasis on building a show with interstitial music, sound effects, and a multi-layered story arc. But the best storytelling on earth can stumble at the final fence if the narrator or host doesn’t connect with listeners.

And so it is with daily news podcasts. Successful shows need heart and soul as well as a good elevator pitch or a sense of mission. Without them they will fail.

The same is true for small, independent productions who have limited budgets and a relatively small following.

“I cannot tell you how many podcasts I’ve listened to where the host rambles and rants on about their life, their misery, their week, or their kids and family,” laments John Dennis in his recent article in Podcast Business Journal. “You can’t expect to grow, or even retain, your audience if you’re wasting their precious time.”

In addition to adding value or benefit to listeners, podcast hosts must be willing to be vulnerable, revealing something of themselves as they answer the crucial question: “Why am asking you to share some of your precious time with me”.

Richard Davies is the co-host of the weekly solutions news podcast, “How Do We Fix It?” and a podcast consultant and media coach at DaviesContent.com.

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Throw away the seatbelts. What I had to un-learn after a long career in network radio.

For more than three decades I spent my working life in network radio news, reading scripts and speaking to the clock.

As a journalist covering politics, wars and the financial markets, I had to master the art of the precis — telling compact, compelling stories using a minimum number of carefully chosen words. As a radio news-talk host, the “re-set” was a requirement. We had to remind listeners every few minutes what we were talking about and who we were interviewing. As a newscaster, I had to make sure that my four minutes at the top of the hour didn’t go as much as one second over.

However informal we tried to sound, there was a certain rigidity imposed by the strict discipline of the radio format. Podcasting is surprisingly different. There are so many radio lessons I had to unlearn.

First. Unfasten my seatbelt: replace the scripts with spontaneity. Many of the best podcasts are off-the-cuff and soulful, with moments of passion and humor. The best podcasters lift the curtain on their personal story and take full advantage of the medium’s extraordinary intimacy.

Second. The “clock” is gone and the need to “reset” also goes away. Instead of tuning in at random times, podcast listeners start at the beginning and usually stay with us for the entire show. Episodes can be as long or short as we want them to be. There is no ideal length.

Third. With other media, distractions are common, but podcasts are heard without the interruptions of timechecks, weather reports, pledge drives, and commercials. Most of our listeners are on their own and away from mobile screens with their instant messages and email reminders.

On our weekly solutions journalism podcast, How Do We Fix It?, my good friend and co-host Jim Meigs and I have found that the connection with our audience runs deep. And unlike TV and YouTube videos, audio listeners aren’t distracted by my crooked teeth, Jim’s beard, or our poor choice of clothing.

Another unlearning curve is that, as independent podcasters, we are the boss — our own program directors and content creators. There are no formats to worry about. Podcasters can develop deeper thoughts than broadcasters, and tell longer, richer stories. This leads to greater intimacy and allows for more innovation and creativity.

Who would have thought that four-hour podcast episodes told by a single-voice narrator could be a hit? With Hardcore History, former commercial radio talk show host Dan Carlin proved that a storyteller of great skill and knowledge can do things that are never allowed on radio.

Podcasts can also target niche audiences who are passionate about the topics being discussed. I am an art lover and one of my personal favorites, The Lonely Palette, lives up to its unusual promise of being “the podcast that returns art history to the masses, one painting at a time.”

While the entry barriers to podcasting are very low, and the equipment is cheap, all that freedom comes at a cost. It’s a bit like the Wild West. At last count there were more than 550,000 shows to choose from. Unless you are linked to a major brand, the challenges of attracting a sizable audience and finding sponsors are steep indeed.

Anyone with a new show has to learn how to be a marketer, come up with a 10-second elevator pitch, and in the words of social media marketing strategist Mark Schaefer, answer the “only we” of your brand — as in “only our podcast tells you this.”

The difference between radio and podcasting may appear subtle. However, professional broadcasters who move into this medium not only have to unlearn old habits, but learn brand new tricks.

This requires a mix of humility, curiosity, and no shortage of energy.

Richard Davies is a media coach, podcast consultant, and co-host of the weekly podcast, How Do We Fix It? at daviescontent.com.