Issue 179,  published October 2, 2018

The Telegraph’s Audio Strategy

The Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s major national broadsheet newspapers, is making a fresh push into audio content. I’ve been keeping an eye on things over there for quite some time now, ever since I heard that podcast critic Pete Naughton had signed on earlier this year to be the publication’s full-time senior audio producer. The Telegraph is a traditionally right-of-centre paper (in British terms, not American, of course), endorsing the Conservative Party in general elections and the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, and the average age of its readership is somewhere over 50. Given the generally younger and left-wing reputation of the podcast ecosystem, I was interested to find out how such a legacy media brand is approaching this expansion.

I spoke to Naughton over the phone to catch up on his activities since he took on the role in May. “Basically, the Telegraph started taking this stuff seriously about a year ago,” he said. “They had a new director of video and audio, and having spent some years in a bit of an agnostic position towards podcasting, they became more faithful.” The paper already had several shows in production; it was actually fairly early to release podcasts back in the mid-2000s, but that effort “just was naturally left by the wayside for a while” (I think in a similar fashion to the Guardian’s early efforts at a daily news podcast, which I reported on recently).

A good chunk of Naughton’s task, as is the case for many producers joining a big media company, was to become familiar with what audio the newspaper was already putting out, and to develop a sense of strategy and coherence around its slate of shows. “Part of it’s just been instilling best practice across our shows, trying to get things tightened up,” he said. “Even simple things like getting music beds sorted, and rethinking formats.” For example, as a result of this process, the Telegraph’s football podcast has been refashioned and renamed for the start of the new season this autumn.

Naughton tells me  that a big part of the Telegraph‘s audio operation will focus on smart speaker content. “One of the things we’re really proud of is that we were one of the first non-broadcast media organisations to dedicate full time staff to making bulletins for smart speakers,” he said. There are two people making four updates a day, seven days a week, that go out on the Amazon Alexa and Google Home infrastructures (with freelancers working shifts alongside the staffers to keep it running week-round). The main bulletins are current affairs-based, and there is also a separate technology news briefing. “We’re looking to roll out other subject-specific ones in the near future as well,” Naughton said.

Being at the forefront of new tech isn’t necessarily something that people associate with the Telegraph, but Naughton said a lot of work on new formats goes on behind the scenes. “There’s a team that does a lot of work on Instagram and Snapchat, and they’ve had a relationship with them since early on.” There’s a willingness to experiment and try new things, which has partly driven the push into smart speakers. “It was like, ‘look this is this is moving, we don’t quite know what it means yet, but let’s put some attention on it and get some resources to it and see if we can get something going,’” he said.

Audience growth has apparently bene encouraging, and the Telegraph hopes that the relationships they’ve formed with Amazon and Google by being among the first in the UK to get on the platforms will pay dividends in the future. They are also in the early stages of producing more interactive content for smart speakers. “There’s a lot more to come there that I think a newsgroup could be well positioned to use creatively, where people interrogate the news a bit more and ask questions of stories.”

Another area that Naughton has been focusing on: less timely audio content. Which makes sense, because in my experience existing publications tend to lean heavily into regularly produced, quick turnaround shows, so there’s a bit of an untapped market in longer-tail, less current affairs orientated productions. “That’s one thing that we’re keen to look at: building a body of audio journalism that isn’t necessarily timely or dated very quickly, but instead can live online and serve as a kind of encyclopedic resource for listeners,” he said.

He cited the example of Edgelands, a Telegraph podcast series made in collaboration with former Army officer and filmmaker Ash Bhardwaj, who recently travelled the length of Europe’s frontier with Russia. Bhardwaj collected plenty of tape while on his trip, which Naughton and his team then turned into a six-part travel series. “Travel felt like an underpopulated category. . . it was probably a three month turnaround, and that has gone really well for us — we’ll do another series from another location.” Part of the show’s aim was to drive registrations and signups for the Telegraph website (it has a metered paywall), and Naughton said that via a windowing strategy in which new episodes and additional content were available early for registered users, they saw a good flow of listeners to the site. Since the series isn’t time sensitive, people are still downloading it.

As ever, when a historic media outlet tries something new — the Telegraph was founded in 1855, and its current proprietors (the famed Barclay brothers) took over in 2004 — there’s an existing culture to deal with. “One of the things that every media organisation finds when they move into any new medium, but taking audio as the example, is that part of your job is to persuade the print journalists it’s a good idea and worth making time in their already very stretched schedules to give something to it,” Naughton said. That process has gone well so far, he said — people from the newspaper staff now approach him with podcast pitches, or are happy to be interviewed for the smart speaker bulletins. “I think there’s always a tipping point,” he said. “Once you make something successful, people are just keen to be involved in some way.”

At the moment, the Telegraph is monetising its podcasts in house, securing sponsors itself. At the moment, the paper’s rugby show, finance show and a few others all have headline sponsors through this mechanism. However, the plan is to move to a third-party programmatic provider [Editor’s note: !!!] in the near future, so that all their shows are bringing in some revenue.

For now, though, money is just one part of what the Telegraph is looking for in a successful podcast. They’re also looking for shows that can drive new website registrations, grow the publication’s audience, and increase its brand awareness. “Podcasts can reach out to an audience who don’t have a relationship with the Telegraph in another medium, or might even have a sense of it being a stuffy old publication,” Naughton said. “That’s something I’m keen to do more of, make audio products that are more playful, or younger, or pointing to something that we don’t really cover in the newspaper, so we can widen the spectrum of what we’re doing.”

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.