By Gerard Cunningham.
The runaway success of ‘Serial’, the podcast from ‘This American Life’ producer Sarah Koenig documenting a 15-year-old murder case, has energised scrutiny of the format as a way for news outlets to attract audiences.
‘Serial’ is simply the most successful of a number of professionally produced podcasts, and it is no surprise that it comes from a public-radio background. Its parent show, ‘This American Life’, has already established itself as a podcasting hit, as have many other shows from the National Public Radio (NPR) stable, such as ‘99% Invisible’ and ‘Snap Judgment’.
On the face of it, there would seem to be fewer prospects for Irish news outlets hoping to get into podcasting.
Despite a high-power campaign beforehand, the first ‘Flannery Files’ attracted an appropriately embarrassing response, with barely 600 downloads in the first week. A softball blueshirt-on-blueshirt interview was always unlikely to ignite the popular imagination in 2014, despite the compere being soccer’s Bill O’Herlihy.
Podcasting has long moved from the amateur-enthusiast stage in the US. ‘99% Invisible’, for example, began as a ‘garage’ podcast, and is now broadcast. But it is still in its low-key infancy in Ireland. RTÉ places some of its content online, but although for example the ‘Documentary On One’ app contains the world’s largest archive of documentaries, the RTé Player app can be clunky to use. Most newspapers have barely engaged with podcasting. An exception is the Irish Times, which has put a major effort into several shows, covering politics, business, arts and culture.
One show however stands out from the crowd. ‘Second Captains’, from the team who presented ‘Off The Ball’ on Newstalk, before they were dismissed for having the temerity to ask for greater resources, regularly pulls audiences of 20-30,000 listeners for its unique gloss on sport. This compares to figures for the other Irish Times podcasts of roughly between one tenth and one fifth of that figure. Although numbers for downloads from iTunes and Stitcher are not available, they show a similar pattern, with ‘Second Captains’ outperforming all the other podcasts combined. To put those numbers in context, proportionate to population it means ‘Second Captains’ is doing as well in Irish markets as ‘Serial’ is in the US – a remarkable achievement.
The quirky humour of ‘Second Captains’ led by the likes of former Village writer, polymath Ken Early, has always made it stand out of from the crowd. The show also benefits from having an established legacy audience from its time as a broadcast programme on Newstalk. Indeed it now offers a TV version on RTé 2. By contrast the other Irish Times offerings sound like radio as usual, comprising panel discussions and one-on-one interviews.
The newly released Irish Times app, which allows listeners to hear podcasts directly on smartphones, is likely to build this audience even more. Exploited properly, by offering options such as ‘Most Listened’ or ‘Editor’s Picks’, this could introduce audiences to other new shows. However, it would require shows that offer something scintillating or at least unusual.
Packages taking a different approach to reporting could build on the same audience desire for something different that ‘Second Captains’ has so successfully exploited. Given the number of independent producers and freelance journalists experimenting with audio, an imaginative Irish Times could do worse than set aside a budget to incubate and develop such new ideas.
For now, funding for such projects is reliant on advertising, sponsorship and listener subscriptions, using models such as crowdfunding, donation requests or paywalls. And while the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) does fund independent production, the Sound+Vision fund steers away from news/current affairs to focus on documentary and fiction, and is limited by the Broadcasting Act to works transmitted over the air.
This seems unlikely to change anytime soon, with reforms on television licensing now long-fingered. The upside of an absence of this funding however, is that podcasters are freed from the restrictions imposed by BAI regulation, on broadcasters, although they remain subject to the Press Council code of practice.
Lyra McKee, a Belfast-based freelance journalist recently crowdfunded a book on the murder of UPP MP Robert Bradford. Her pitch, publishing one chapter of the book online at a time as her investigation progressed, both mirrored and predated the ‘Serial’ model.
“With the Bradford book, I was researching and writing a distinctly Northern Irish story yet it attracted readers from all over the world, as far away as South Africa”, says McKee.
“I think we need to stop thinking in terms of geographical markets when it comes to media content. Podcasting in many ways is just another way of telling a story and if you’re good at telling stories, borders become irrelevant because the Internet is a borderless territory. The Irish – North and South – also have the advantage of having a huge diaspora who want to find ways to connect with ‘home’”.
She’s a persuasive advocate for the genre.
“Advertising and sponsorship is certainly one revenue stream; I think we’ll also see reader-funding/pledges becoming much more popular too.
You don’t need a huge market to make it work, you just need a core group of really passionate fans. You may have only 300 fans who absolutely love what you do but if they love it so much they’re willing to donate €10 a month, say, then you have a means of making a living. The problem to date hasn’t been that people won’t pay for this stuff; it’s that we haven’t given them anything worth paying for.
Take the example of ‘Serial’ – they’re asking for donations this week. Am I going to donate? Absolutely. Each episode of the podcast has left me on the edge of my seat. They’ve given me an experience worth paying for.
They’ve turned me into an evangelist – I’ve been telling everyone I know to listen to it – by creating something really good. It’s a fundamental principle underpinning the ‘How do we get people to pay for content?’ debate yet it gets overlooked because everyone’s looking for a holy grail”. Sometimes these new media are simpler than it seems. •