In a very crowded field, it takes constant change (and sometimes a gamble) to make it in podcasting. The New Statesman, winner of the ‘Best Commercial Strategy’ for the second year running at this year’s Publisher Podcast Awards, has struck the right balance between engaging listeners, growing its audience, and crucially, making money from its podcasts. New Statesman’s Chris Stone explains more…
Podcasters need to let it hang out more. Be a bit rough around the edges. Not be afraid of making people laugh. And forget the media training that taught people of a generation to speak in “a certain way”.
Chris Stone is generous with his advice and knowledge. We are meant to talk about the New Statesman podcast network’s award-winning commercial strategy (who in the media doesn’t want to know how to make money?) but he patiently expands on all questions podcast, from how to beat AI to the meteoric rise of political podcasts and how small publishers can connect with their audience.
Under Stone’s stewardship – he is Executive Producer of Audio and Video at the New Statesman – the New Statesman Podcast was crowned Best Political Podcast for the third year running at this year’s Publisher Podcast Awards. The judges said “it is clear the team really knows their audience and gives them what they want in the simplest and most effective way.”
Moreover, the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report ranked it in its top 10 most popular news podcasts in the UK, along with big hitters such as Goalhanger Podcasts’ The Rest is Politics, Global Media’s The News Agents, and the BBC’s Newscast, Americast and Ukrainecast.
The New Statesman’s audio output is a masterclass in creating a stable, lucrative portfolio of podcasts which rigorously delivers not just revenue, but audience growth.Publisher Podcast Awards Judges, 2023
Despite these accolades – or maybe because of them – Stone is continuously changing the New Statesman’s podcast content offering and strategy. It’s all about flexibility, he stresses, and an integrated approach. There is, after all, an appetite for quality content analysis and commentary that “help people understand the forces shaping the world”.
“Podcasts are a uniquely useful medium for providing that to an audience. They offer kind of an informal, conversational style that draws an audience in and makes them feel part of the gang, part of the crowd. They enable you to run interviews, for example, for longer than a traditional broadcast slot. And they are on demand, which means that people can find the podcasts they like. They build their habits around them, and they can listen to them when they want to.”
Taking a gamble and revising the podcast strategy
In the past three months, Stone has taken a risk, as he puts it, and revised the content strategy. The New Statesman had three running podcast feeds: The NS podcast, focused on politics, World Review and Audio Long Reads, with features and essays. Along with the publication’s magazine, website and newsletters, the same theme ran through them.
“In our case, that’s politics from a cultural perspective, and culture from a political perspective,” Stone says. “All addressing the question of how do we understand the forces shaping our world? So, now we’re trying to make our main podcast feed more reflective of that.”
He has now consolidated the three feeds into a single feed and turned the “You Ask Us” listener questions into its own episode.
“Throughout the week, you’ve got a much broader spread of content that doesn’t have that uniformity most podcasts go for. But it does more broadly reflect the output of the New Statesman. Now this is a gamble….one of the great things about podcasts is that you get to build a relationship with a particular group of hosts.”
So far, results are promising and audience numbers are rising, Stone says. (In yet another breakthrough, publishing video podcasts on YouTube has more than doubled the New Statesman podcast audience. Not to mention that YouTube has the benefit of algorithmic discovery and is monetizable.)
And it is an audience of key opinion formers that is particularly attractive to advertisers, which is partly why Stone could adapt his commercial strategy.
“About 40% of our listeners work in politics and policy. We have a large chunk of listeners who work in business and are senior decision makers, C-suite level, and key opinion formers in the media. And our podcasts receive 90 to 100% listen-through. So our audience is massively engaged.”
Clients and agencies come to the New Statesman because they want to meet that audience, Stone says. And putting their podcasts in the main mix of all their other content makes them profitable.
Platform revenues (the New Statesman works with podcast company Acast and has a co-selling arrangement) remain “incredibly useful”, but the New Statesman also offer podcasts as part of multi-format packages within the wider stable of content. This might include clients sponsoring live events or running ads on the website.
Thinking holistically about your commercial offering, including podcasts, is vital. One of the most successful things that we have done is to break down the silos between the different departments, and bring all of those into multi-format packages that our sales team can easily say to a client, [if] you want to hit this audience, here’s the solution.
But it all comes down to giving the audience what it wants. And the best thing about podcasts, Stone says, is “the way they can welcome people into their own tribe. And if the hosts are warm, and if they [the audience] like the characters, then they feel part of the gang.”
“What AI can’t do is that community-building personal relationship, so anything that we can do now to build real-world personal relationships with people, human to human – and that can be podcasts, that can be newsletters , that can be live events – is AI-proof.”
You can watch highlights (and view the key timestamps) from our interview with Chris below:
Key Time Stamps
1:14 > There is clearly an audience appetite for political podcasts. I mean, the success of The Rest Is Politics, everybody knows, is stratospheric, at the top of the charts. Same with The News Agents. That’s news and politics at the top of the charts. The Apple podcast charts are dominated by political discussion. And we have seen on the New Statesman podcast that there is a growing appetite for quality content, quality analysis that helps people understand the forces that are shaping the world right now.
14:33 > Broadly we find podcast listeners are fairly tolerant of ads. I think there is a fairly standard acceptance that I’m getting this piece of content for free, therefore it’s going to have ads on it.
23:40 > There are multiple examples of niche publishers releasing podcasts that reach maybe hundreds of listeners a week but because of who those audience are, that is a monetizable product. Don’t fear the small and niche. There’s power in that.