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How The Telegraph uses podcasts to drive loyalty and engagement between journalists and listeners

Daily news podcasts may be an obvious choice for news publishers looking to get into podcasting, but the field is crowded and resource costs can be high. Instead, publishers are finding ways to tell stories differently using audio, both to reach new audiences and to build loyalty among existing readers.

UK national newsbrand The Telegraph has a growing portfolio of podcasts, of which three were recently shortlisted at the Publisher Podcast Awards; Moral Money for the Best Lifestyle Podcast, and both Chopper’s Brexit Podcast and Expenses competing in the Best News & Current Affairs Podcast category. 

Podcast Editor Theodora Louloudis spoke to Media Voices about The Telegraph’s podcast strategy, their commissioning process, and how she uses audio to leverage talent in their newsroom.

A growing podcast portfolio

The Telegraph’s audio portfolio has a number of levels. The first is the regular shows which run on a weekly basis: Chopper’s Politics (formerly known as Chopper’s Brexit Podcast), Audio Football Club, and Brian Moore’s Full Contact, which is their weekly rugby news show.

As well as the weekly podcasts, the team also produce a daily news briefing twice a day; a two-minute ‘micro bulletin’ which is also available as a smart speaker skill and a daily ten-minute coronavirus news update, which saw one million listens in its first ten days.

Finally, The Telegraph also produces a number of more ambitious series “which take us more out of the studio, with more crafted narrative storytelling,” according to Louloudis. These are often run as a series of six episodes a couple of times a year.

These series have ranged from an investigation into MP’s Expenses, looking at the stories of those who helped bring the scandal to light, to the recently-launched Crossfire; a six-part podcast looking at the untold story of Britain’s role in the Trump-Russia scandal.

There are varying levels of work involved in such a range of podcasts. The weekly ones are largely studio-based, with the exception of Chopper’s Politics which is recorded in a pub in Westminster. But although the location is different, the idea is the same; “We’re sitting around a table, and we have journalists and pundits talking,” said Louloudis.

At the other end of the scale are the documentary-style podcasts, which can take years to produce. “They can take a long time to really craft a story, and they’re much more heavily sound designed,” explained Louloudis. “You’ll have a lot of archive news clips coming in there, and sometimes we’ll commission music to be written just for the show.”

“They’re much more work, but more satisfying in a way. You’ve really crafted a story, and you’ve really got something quite evergreen to show at the end of it, whereas our other shows, you’re really looking for immediate reaction and analysis.”

Bridging the gap in the newsroom

Louloudis’ role involves developing shows with journalists around the newsroom who are often very experienced on print, but not very experienced on audio. This is a vital bridge that allows the expertise of journalists with a more traditional background to be brought in and used in a new way. They often come to Louloudis with an idea – often at least one a day – and pitch it to see how and if it would work in audio.

“We go through the idea together and decide how feasible it is, how much it would cost, and whether we’d need to take on help from a production company or freelancers,” she explained. “If we decide to go ahead with the show, I’ll work with the commercial team to see if we might be able to find some sponsorship.”

Not every show is appropriate for sponsorship however, and Louloudis said that The Telegraph will sometimes fund shows themselves to use as more of a “brand grower”. 

Louloudis explained that audio offers their journalists a way to go far deeper into a topic than they can in their day-to-day roles. “Our journalists are really good at crafting stories, but with daily news deadlines, they are often go go go. Sometimes they do have these bigger stories that require more analysis – even more than a long read,” she said.

“Podcasts are one of the only – I would probably say the only medium – in which they can really go very in depth and capitalise on their amazing contacts. They’re speaking to different people every day for different stories, and to be able to bring those all together into a series that leaves the reader feeling like they fully understood the story is quite satisfying.”

Growing subscriptions with podcasts

Monetisation is the biggest aspect podcasts are currently struggling with according to Louloudis, and this means that The Telegraph isn’t able to do everything they would like when it comes to aligning podcasts with their wider strategy.

One of The Telegraph’s stated business aims is to grow its subscriber bases, and the business has some aggressive targets around that. “We are thinking about subscriber-only podcasts, but the technology is a little bit behind where we’d want it to be,” Louloudis explained. “It can be quite clunky to offer people subscriber-only content, because subscribing on your regular podcast app doesn’t mean that you’ve paid us money.”

For Louloudis, there is definitely a role for podcasts in growing subscriptions, but in a less direct way. “We leverage the talent of our newsroom to show off what we can do, and then guide you back to pay the subscription on traditional platforms after that,” she said. “For us, it’s definitely driving subscription and engagement.”

Leveraging the talent of the staff also plays a key part in creating audience loyalty, Louloudis explained. “We really want listeners to get to know our journalists a bit better,” she said. “The hope is that they will realise that that’s someone they want to hear more from, if they’ve enjoyed their analysis, and then we can direct them back to the website.”

“Our journalists are very funny, clever people, and why would we hide that? There’s a time and a place [for personality], but I definitely think it plays a role, and it is something that we think about when we’re commissioning shows.”

Despite the technological hurdles with subscriber-only shows, The Telegraph is certainly not struggling with commercialisation. In fact, for Louloudis, the commercial element takes a back seat to the editorial focus when commissioning a show.

“We’d never make a show just because we’ve got the money for it,” she said. “We’d make a show because we want to do it editorially, and it fits well with our brand, and we think it’s worth doing.”

“If we get sponsorship, that’s great, and that means we can put more resources into it and bring on more sound designers, producers or journalists, but we lead with the show, and then if there’s a commercial sponsor that fits and isn’t jarring, then we’ll go for them.”

As The Telegraph’s growing audio team demonstrates, the publisher won’t be easing up on podcasting any time soon.