Standing out in a crowded market: what makes a top news podcast?

The 2023 Reuters Institute Digital News Report (DNR) revealed that podcasts were once again on the rise, but news podcasts face stiff competition for attention: 30 per cent of Brits listen to a podcast, but just 8 per cent listen to a news podcast.

Podcasts are growing in consumption on average – from around a quarter to about a third (34 per cent) – but news podcasts have grown more slowly despite the competition heating up. However, some shows are enjoying both newfound and long-lasting success.

Podcasts by BBC News (Newscast, Americast and Ukrainecast), Global Media (The News Agents), The Guardian (Today In Focus) and The New Statesman (The New Statesman Podcast) are among the most popular shows in the UK.

Nic Newman, Reuters Institute

At our digital journalism conference Newsrewired this month, the DNR lead author Nic Newman spoke to representatives from these four news organisations to understand what is driving their current strategies and success.

Dispensing with formalities

Public broadcaster BBC dominates the group with three podcast shows in the top 10: Newscast, Americast and Ukrainecast. These all fit into the ‘extended chat’ podcast format.

Executive producer Jonathan Aspinwall, who leads these shows, says the aim is to make audiences feel smarter about the difficult and dominant news stories.

It has been beneficial for specialist reporters to pile into a podcast studio at the end of the day to give audiences a lowdown on the latest news.

Even though questions loom over the public broadcaster’s impartiality, podcasts are seen as a way for reporters to take a more relaxed stance.

“We’re used to the BBC formal way,” says Aspinwall. “We’re losing the cloak of formality and are able to relax.”

Diving deep

Breaking the mould is The Guardian and its flagship podcast Today In Focus, the only ‘deep dive’ show in the top 10. It has been running for five years and amassed 250m all-time listens.

It publishes a daily documentary-like episode on subjects “that might have otherwise been overlooked”, according to audio producer Courtney Yusuf.

He highlights an episode he worked on about how a killing on the New York subway exposed a broken system as a key example.

Yusuf adds that “great tape” combined with top sound quality gives you the flexibility to tease soundbites early in the episode or save them for a bombshell moment later on.

Stories like these create loyalty: three quarters of its audience have listened for at least a year and 35 per cent have listened for more than three years. The publisher has also found that half of its audience are 25-34 and female (52 per cent).

Fast-track to stardom

Launched only last year, Global Media’s The News Agents has skyrocketed in popularity – hitting 24m downloads this year – helped by three superstar hosts Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall.

The chemistry of the hosts is no doubt crucial. But Vicky Etchells, head of news and factual podcasts, says having big names behind the mic means there is no need for lengthy introductions. Watch the below clip and notice how the hosts introduce themselves: “It’s Jon, it’s Emily, and it’s Lewis.”

“The first two minutes are utterly crucial,” says Etchells.

What you also notice within those first few minutes are two former BBC pros – Maitlis and Sopel – who can laugh, swear and speak their minds freely.

Another big draw of the show is that audiences can now get a sense of what these household names – who have long been bound by impartiality guidelines – really think about issues of the day.

Topicality breeds popularity

Like the BBC and Global Media though, video is seen as a critical play at The New Statesman, where listenership has doubled from overhauling its strategy, with video very much playing a key role.

Video is a better way to promote podcasts than audiograms (audio creatively visualised as waveforms), says podcast producer Catharine Hughes.

The show is seen as an extension of the magazine, pushing out a twice-weekly politics podcast, and two more episodes scattered throughout the week.

The ‘extended chat’ show aims to be very topical, but the publisher remains aware of how negative that can be. That is why it pays to play around with host dynamics.

“It is important to have moments of relief in the conversation,” says Hughes.

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