Issue 229,  published October 8, 2019

The Other End of Buzziness

Journalists write about new stuff. I know this: I’ve been both a writer and an editor for over ten years; I’ve had my pitches for pieces about cultural things that are cool-but-ongoing turned down, and I’ve passed on similar ideas from others in turn.

Perhaps it used to be the case in podcasting — as I’ve heard from some people who have been putting out episodes since the mid 2000s — that a new show could make a dozen episodes and find its feet before embarking on a publicity campaign. Nowadays, though, the way all the promotional mechanisms of this industry are set up means that a new podcast’s best chance of visibility is when it launches. That’s when new subscriptions will propel it up the Apple Podcasts charts, and the very fact of its newness will attract journalists to review it and curators to feature it. When it’s a professional and commercial endeavour, a regularly-publishing show needs to ride the wave of this early momentum if it is to find a monetisably-sized audience quickly. Even the best podcast-specialist publicist will find it hard to get coverage for a podcast 30 episodes in.

I started thinking about this problem when I briefly took this newsletter over from Nick this summer, and I was suddenly getting the new show announcements that usually grace his inbox in mine. All these new podcasts, all hoping to reach enough people to keep publishing into the future. Maybe some of these launches will do so successfully, but it is likely they will find it harder to attract press attention again. After all, “podcast people like continues to publish episodes” is a tough sell for a piece.

Which all got me wondering: shouldn’t I be paying more attention to the shows that make it, rather than just thinking about the ones that are as-yet untested? The constant grind of serving an audience and trying to grow a base doesn’t go away just because the press mentions come along less often.

To understand better what this position looks like from the podcaster’s point of view, I got in touch with Geoff Lloyd, a British radio presenter and broadcaster who currently hosts two podcasts: Adrift and Reasons To Be Cheerful. Both launched in 2017, after Lloyd left his regular presenting job at Absolute Radio, and each has now racked up over a hundred episodes. When I spoke to him over the phone last week, Lloyd explained that the two shows have very different missions, but in each case there’s a specific aim for it beyond just “do more downloads”.

With Adrift, he said, he and co-host Annabel Port are trying to serve their long-standing audience. This podcast, in which they talk about social awkwardness and social anxiety, is “a kind of continuation” of the radio show the pair hosted on Absolute Radio for almost a decade, although it’s now a completely independent podcast-only production. “With time, it’s become almost like a little club, really, which is what I always intended it to be,” Lloyd explained. “It does get numbers. But it’s very much static.”

They’re ok with the fact that the show isn’t for everybody, and that it’s not the easiest thing to sum up quickly for a press hit or recommendation. “If you are a socially incompetent person, it really resonates with you. And if you’re not it probably sounds like drivel.” As a result, new listeners usually come via word of mouth, and their audience is very loyal. “It never drops in terms of listeners, and it doesn’t grow exponentially or anything either,” he said.

Other high profile engagements the hosts do don’t seem to have much impact — Lloyd has been presenting Saturday mornings on BBC Radio 5 Live recently, for instance — but even that doesn’t cause much of an uptick. But that doesn’t really bother him, because the way he measures the success of the show is what it gives to its audience. As long as people who have the same anxieties and awkwardness as him are finding it useful and enjoyable, Lloyd said, he’s happy and feels no particular need to push the podcast or strategise particularly hard for its growth.

It’s a different story with his other podcast. “With ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful,’ we’re constantly thinking about what we do with it and where we go with it,” Lloyd explained. He co-hosts this show with the politician Ed Miliband, the MP for Doncaster North and between 2010 and 2015, the leader of the UK Labour party. In each episode, the pair discuss a policy issue that is a “reason to be cheerful” and interview an expert about the subject. (Recent topics include the case for universal free childcare and decolonising the teaching of history.)

“It became this big thing very quickly, and then I think Ed had the realisation that perhaps it could get ideas that would normally only be seen in think tank reports and read by spads [special political advisors] out to a broader audience,” Lloyd said. They started out funding the show out of their own pocket, but now that it brings in money via sponsorships and live shows (Lloyd works with Acast on both of his podcasts) they’re able to pay for a researcher to help expand the remit of what they can cover. Miliband doesn’t take any fee for his involvement.

After two years and counting of weekly episodes, what helps them keep the momentum up is still the original mission of the show: to lighten the gloomy political times by better understanding areas of endeavour where there are still positive outcomes. “The objective isn’t increasing the number of listens to the podcast. The objective is to increase the reach of these ideas that we’re talking about,” Lloyd said. To that end, they’re working on plans to do more video content with their guests, to make a website that allows listeners to engage with the topics in more depth, and perhaps launch a book club so that the community can read relevant non fiction together.

Lloyd has been in the game long enough to know that it’s new, buzzy things that are easier to get attention for, though. “I’ve found it so frustrating at different points of my career when I’ve been doing new things and they get the attention, and then you feel you can hit a real purple patch of something and no one’s interested in a purple patch, they’re interested in things when they launch,” he said. “I don’t get why newness is such an orthodoxy. But I feel that like so many things in life, if you start pulling the threads the whole thing comes unravelled very quickly.”

Here’s what I took from the conversation: if a show has defined and attainable objectives, there’s no reason why fatigue or disillusionment has to set in, even though it’s been in production for a long time. But I also think that we here at Hot Pod, as well as others in this position, can help by finding new ways to cover long running shows — and, additionally, realising that even the best ideas have a lot of growing to do.