Saturday June 6, 2020

The word of pod: Nadine O'Regan on the Irish podcasting revolution

In the US, more people now listen to online podcasts than go to the cinema. In Ireland too, the phenomenon is growing at huge speed, with many well-known figures hopping aboard the bandwagon. Is it here to stay, or just a flash in the pan?

Nadine O’Regan

Arts Editor and Columnist

@nadineoregan
9th June, 2019
7

Inside a building on Lombard Street in Dublin 2, a transformation of a curious kind is taking place. Everywhere you look, there are pots of paint. Bright-coloured chairs are stacked in one corner. Microphones sit on tables and jut out from stands. In one corner, a painter primes the walls.

This space used to be known as the famous Westland Studios. It’s where well-known records by the likes of Bob Dylan, Sinead O’Connor and Hozier were recorded, among many others. But now the enormous sound desk is lying abandoned, and soon the building will be full of a different breed of audio specialists: podcasters.

In the coming months, people will arrive in here to record true crime podcasts, conduct interviews and deliver private monologues into microphones. There’ll be a coffee hub and a bigger studio space for video podcasts and live podcast recording sessions, with small audiences.

Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, makers of West Cork, the podcast about the unsolved 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier

It’s all part of Alan Bennett’s plan. He’s the founder of the Irish podcasting network Headstuff, which began life in 2015 and currently hosts 22 shows on its network, generating 180,000 downloads per month.

In common with many business people in Ireland, Bennett is observing the worldwide trend for podcasting and hopes to be part of making podcasts as important an audio phenomenon in Ireland as they are in Britain and the US, where podcasters such as Adam Buxton, Joe Rogan and Russell Brand are well known to the listening public.

The renovation will give Bennett three more studio spaces to add to Headstuff’s existing studio in the building. It’s an exciting time for the network – and a daring one.

“It’s such a young industry,” Bennett says. “Podcasting is so flexible. Podcasters don’t have to fit into any schedule. They can talk about whatever they want and they don’t have to break every 15 minutes for adverts. And it’s global: we get listeners from all over the world.”

Podcasting might still be in its infancy in Ireland, its audience dwarfed by the figures for Spotify and radio, but it’s the area in which a lot of excitement is being generated. In recent weeks, new podcasts have been launched by journalists, presenters and broadcasters including David McWilliams, Roz Purcell and Una Mullally.

Jennifer Dollard of Acast: ‘Podcasting can offer a lot more to audio-hungry people because it’s on demand’

Comedians Des Bishop and Alison Spittle have podcasts. There are odd pairings: comedian Maeve Higgins has a climate-related podcast with former president Mary Robinson – and great successes: Second Captains remains a doughty leader in the field. At Electric Picnic in 2017, there were queues stretching almost into the campsites for the live recording of Rubberbandits frontman Blindboy Boatclub’s hit podcast.

The figures around podcasts are startling. Apple Podcasts features more than half a million podcasts, making it impossible for any person to ever hear them all, even on triple speed (that’s the way the cool kids are listening to them in Silicon Valley these days, the better to soak up information).

When the hit podcast Serial was launched in 2014, it notched up 40 million downloads for its first season and paved the way towards making podcasts mainstream. Throw a stone on the streets of New York, London and Dublin these days, and you’ll hit a podcaster. (Declaration: this reporter also has a podcast. Go figure.)

People love to talk. But the questions generated by the podcast trend are just as important as the billions of words pouring into people’s ears via platforms including Spotify, Stitcher and iTunes.

Should all creative types launch their own podcasts? Is there a worthwhile business model in it? Should Irish companies start their own podcasts? Should advertisers consider going the podcast route in preference to, or in addition to, radio and television? Or is it just a load of hot air? A – whisper it – fad?

***

Julie Jay: ‘You have to do podcasting because you love it’

John Davis first began podcasting back in the dark ages of 2006. A music and film industry veteran who had recorded music with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and worked as an engineer on films including Last Action Hero and James Bond: Licence to Kill, Davis – a Dún Laoghaire native – decided to move back to Ireland from London with his family with grand plans of becoming a podcast producer.

“People were talking about the idea of podcasting – and I loved the idea of it,” he says.

The problem was, he had arrived into the market far too soon. Sitting in a coffee shop in Dublin, Davis grins at the memory of his slightly naive former self. “I did a podcast with [Fianna Fáil MEP] Barry Andrews,” he says. “Fair play to Barry, we did a few episodes and it sat on his website. But we didn’t promote it properly. It wasn’t done right.”

Davis parked the idea, worked at Newstalk and then RTÉ for several years, and then finally set out for pastures new when he felt the industry was beginning to accept podcasting.

According to Davis, it was the smartphone, with its capacity to stream audio easily, that was the game-changer. “After 2008 and the smartphone, the market was ready for it,” he says.

Davis, 52, now works as a podcast producer for big clients such as Intercom, the unicorn software firm, and the Financial Times, as well as having just launched a new economics podcast with his childhood friend, the economist David McWilliams.

John Davis, podcast producer: ‘It’s about opening up a conversation

But he also produces a podcast for Matheson Solicitors, a very different type of client, which is looking to carve out a niche in a small market, and do something of worth: it has a podcast on employment law, which is hosted by Bryan Dunne, head of employment at the firm.

“It’s a niche market, but a well-targeted market, so the people who listen to it really appreciate it,” Davis says. “People value that.”

Podcast can work as a form of content marketing for companies – and increasingly more companies are waking up to that reality. “It’s about opening up a conversation – a non-threatening conversation – with your audience,” says Davis.

“It’s about thought leadership and having something to say. Sound quality is also important – an awful lot of podcasts sound like they’re recorded in a toilet. If you’re asking someone for an hour of their time it’s a big ask, so you’ve got to make it worthwhile and make it a production. There are 660,000 podcasts with something like 28 million episodes out there, so quality is important.”

An in-house podcast is an interesting option for a company, depending on what they stand to gain from it. “It’s not appropriate for everybody,” Davis cautions. “What’s crucial is knowing your audience and targeting your audience. There’s a lot of bandwagon-jumping.”

On the plus side, the risk for many companies is relatively low: a podcast can sit as part of the marketing budget, and in-house podcast-makers aren’t subject to the pressures that come with seeking sponsorship or trying for subscribers on Patreon.

For the independent podcaster, on the other hand, the reality is very different.

***

Alan Bennett of Headstuff: the company is looking for the podcaster that will ‘give Ireland its Serial moment’

Julie Jay is a buzzy kind of person. With a spill of curly hair, a teaching background and an earthy vocal tone, she’s smart, funny and extremely motivated. The perfect podcaster in other words. Having recently launched a full-time career in comedy, Jay is constantly thinking about stories and how to tell them.

“You have to do podcasting because you love it,” she says. Jay is co-host of the Up to 90 podcast, a nostalgic, witty look at the 1990s, which she started with her friend Emma Doran on the Headstuff network.

After almost a year of presenting the podcast for no payment (Headstuff does not directly pay its presenters), Jay and Doran have won a sponsor in the shape of Kopparberg Cider for a period of three months.

“Financially it’s great to have support,” says Jay. “But it’s a lot of work. We just love the medium, and Emma and I are genuinely such good buddies – it’s a massive advantage when you’re working with your best friend.”

For presenters like Jay and Doran, presenting a podcast is comparable to being in an indie rock band, where it’s possible to get attention, praise and column inches – but not necessarily have a take-home fee worth talking about.

David McWilliams and John Davis have launched an economics podcast

Recent figures from MidiA Research have revealed that, on Spotify, podcast curators require 80,000 listens per month to generate €6,500, based on a 20,000 average listenership per weekly podcast. There are other routes – many podcasters make money from the crowdfunding platform Patreon, where their fans pay to support them – but for a lot of hosts, who may not be well known, that model is out of reach.

People can podcast, but they may never make a euro from doing so, despite the hype. Jay is honest about the fact that she had expected the podcasting model in Ireland to gain more traction by this point in 2019 than has actually been the case.

The problem for Irish podcasters is also regional. While Irish podcasters exist in a strong, supportive community – you’ll often find independent podcasters such as Sophie White, Esther O’Moore Donoghue and Jarlath Regan recommending podcasts via their social media accounts – that doesn’t necessarily make it that much easier for an Irish podcaster to break big.

Although a podcast can be listened to by anyone, anywhere, it’s hard for Irish podcasters to make themselves visible to an international audience. Blindboy – one of Ireland’s most successful podcasters – gained huge traction Stateside after recording an episode of his podcast with the film director Spike Lee.

Likewise, Gordon Rochford of the well-known podcast Those Conspiracy Guys, which has IAB-verified statistics of more than 150,000 downloads per episode, is insistent that Irish podcasters need to think big and clarify their goals if they want to make a living from podcasting.

“Nobody in America is going to get jokes about Tayto and red lemonade,” Rochford says. “I wouldn’t say: ‘Pander to an American audience’, but they’re the biggest audience in the world for podcasts. Sixty per cent of my audience are American, and 22 per cent are in Britain.

“I make international content – I do a lot of stuff about conspiracy theories, and that’s a universally appealing topic. The two things I always recommend are, one, plan ahead: if you can’t plan ahead by 50 shows then don’t start a podcast, because you’ll run out of content. And two, don’t just talk about what you did during the day, because your life is not that interesting. Provide people with a service. Save someone time.”

If podcasters take themselves and their content seriously, is it possible that they could transform themselves from being the kind of act who plays a dive bar in Dublin into the kind of act who plays the 3Arena? Could a humble Irish podcaster become the musical equivalent of Arcade Fire?

***

Some weeks ago, Acast, the Swedish podcasting monetisation company, arrived in Dublin to give a well-attended talk on podcasts in the Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield. Representatives from several Irish newspapers and media companies were in attendance, not simply to report on the event, but to soak up information for their own in-house podcasts.

Acast launched in Sweden in 2014. By 2015 it had a British office, and soon after, offices in Australia, France, Germany, the US and Norway. Its most popular podcasts include The Adam Buxton Podcast, My Dad Wrote a Porno and The Football Ramble. Already successful abroad, Acast sees Ireland as an opportunity because the market here for podcasts is still in its infancy.

“The market in Ireland is so fast-growing and so ripe,” says Joe Copeman of Acast. “We see here great similarities to what we saw in Britain a few years ago. The whole reason for today is to make people aware of the opportunity and make them aware of how attractive this platform is. It’s a new world of audio.”

A podcaster signed to Acast doesn’t receive an upfront payment from the company, but they do receive other benefits. “We provide hosting, analytics, distribution,” says Copeman.

“The final part of the jigsaw is monetisation. We get advertisers and sponsors, and put them in the podcast. We talk to advertisers, explain the environment and benefits. We sell podcasts week-by-week and share the revenue with the podcaster. We also provide advice to podcasters about their format. As soon as you get decent listeners, it becomes more attractive to advertisers.”

In Britain, Acast recruits podcasters based on weekly listens – around 8,000 for a minimum. But in Ireland, it has a lower bar of around 2,000 weekly listens. Earlier this year, Acast recruited its first Ireland content manager, Jennifer Dollard, who moved from Dublin to London to work with the company.

Previously a radio producer at Today FM, Dollard’s job at Acast is to seek out Irish talent and bring them to the network. Irish podcasters who have signed up to Acast in recent times include the comedy duo The 2 Johnnies, the author Caroline Foran and the musician and mental health activist Bressie.

Dollard finds the creative challenge of the job – as well the newness of the industry – very appealing. “Irish people adore audio,” she says. “Podcasting can offer a lot more to audio-hungry people because it’s on demand; you’re not relying on a schedule. You know nobody is calling time behind the scenes after four or five minutes.

“For me, in radio, I was watching the podcasting industry skyrocket and I thought: ‘I want in on this.’ It’s hard not walking into a ready-made audience, as you would with radio, but with podcasting, when you get them, you have such a loyal audience. They’re with you for life.”

***

With its capacity for intimacy and longform content, the burgeoning podcast industry is a disruptor to radio, and a threat.

According to the most recent Ipsos MRBI statistics from 2018, conducted in parallel with the JNLR, which publishes audience figures for radio stations, the audience for podcasting represents just 1.6 per cent of the audio market, with radio gobbling up most of the pie. But that figure is hotly disputed.

“The JNLR is basically a glorified survey,” says Gordon Rochford of Those Conspiracy Guys, pointing out that tracking downloads is a far more accurate route to measuring success than knocking on the doors of random people’s houses and asking them to fill in a form.

In the advertising world, clients are beginning to develop a strong interest in podcasts. “Podcasts are definitely something we consider more,” says Mark Delany, director at Mediaworks.

“There are obviously very few Joe Rogans, but there’s huge potential here over the next few years. We aren’t doing a huge amount in terms of spot activity around podcasts, but we have had a client who got into the co-curation and co-production of a podcast: Lidl launched a parenting podcast in partnership with Mediaworks and Packed.House. It’s an example of how brands can use the podcasting format to add value for their customers. It becomes a space for them that they can own quite easily.”

Convenience is still a hugely influential factor in how people choose audio. “The vast majority of people will choose to flick on Radio 1 because it’s easy,” Delany says. “That may change over time as people’s behaviour changes, but I think we will continue to see radio be strong. With podcasting, it’s now about, how do you make it easier for people to access? We have a view that the more collaboration that goes on, the better the chance of success.”

Some advertisers are making the leap into the podcasting world. It was recently announced that Just Eat had entered into a three-month sponsorship of the weekly pop culture podcast Popsessed, presented by Conor Behan and Holly Shortall, and produced by Xposé and Virgin Media Television. Eamon Dunphy’s The Stand podcast is also produced in partnership with Tesco Finest.

There may be advertisers, meanwhile, who are currently considering whether to take a punt on controversial presenter George Hook. The former Newstalk presenter has a new podcast called Alternative View, and he’s offering to read out 30-second and one-minute spots for €120 and €200 respectively. “These are getting-to-know-you prices,” Hook has said.

Elsewhere, many journalists and broadcasters, including David McWilliams and Una Mullally, are moving towards the Patreon model, where fans can pay the price of a cup of a coffee every month to support them.

For some people, the thought of asking their followers to directly contribute to their coffers may feel uncomfortable. But they need to get over it, says McWilliams.

“I’ll tell you what feels more uncomfortable: working for free,” he says. “Everyone needs to get paid, right? And working for free is a really stupid idea. You know it from journalism – there are too many people who seem to think that it’s okay for journalists to work for free, but you’d never ask a painter to paint your house for free.”

Another, perhaps more subtle model, is the idea of the podcast as a form of publicity – a loss leader for a paid event down the line. In his book Rockonomics, published this month, the late author Alan B Krueger muses perceptively on the importance of uniqueness in the media.

“News is available from countless online sources, often for free,” Krueger writes. “The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Bloomberg and the Economist all increasingly rely on live events for revenue. Soon newspapers and magazines could be loss leaders for live conferences and lectures.”

There’s a solid argument that the podcast may soon regularly function in exactly the same way: as a publicity tool to whet the appetite for the live tour, that will take in multiple venues across Ireland and Britain.

The Irish podcaster Blindboy Boatclub might complain on his Twitter feed that companies refuse to sponsor his podcast because he’s too controversial, but he is already getting tours in the United States, and has played sold-out dates across Ireland, as well as generating incredible returns via his Patreon account, where he has 4,628 subscribers.

Podcasts can also generate an appetite for a spin-off in printed form: in recent times, the hip-hop artist and interviewer Scroobius Pip, the author Deborah Frances-White and the novelist Bret Easton Ellis have all published books based around their successful podcasts, and there are undoubtedly more to come.

But the trick for everyone – whether they be a book publisher or podcast platform provider – is in finding the good content, and spotting the burgeoning podcasting superstar. Much like a record company, which deals in risk as part of its day-to-day proceedings, podcast companies can expect to find that their one successful podcast may wind up paying for nine other non-successful ones.

Luck plays a role, as does timing. Currently, Headstuff uses its revenue from producing commercial podcasts for clients such as the Star, Click & Go and the Mirror to offset the costs of hosting and marketing original podcasts, such as the Alison Spittle Show and No Encore.

“I love all the shows, but having the network costs us money,” says Alan Bennett of Headstuff. “The sponsors don’t cover the costs. But we think we can do more, and build towards the podcasts we want to make in the future.”

With Headstuff’s three new studios shortly due for completion, Bennett is interested in talking to investors who will – as he puts it – help them find the podcaster who will “give Ireland its Serial moment”.

***

In terms of Irish successes, there is no doubting the genuine success of a podcast like the sports podcast Second Captains or the interest sparked by the West Cork podcast, presented and produced by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde for the Audible network. West Cork investigated the unsolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier outside the village of Schull in December 1996.

Bungey and Forde have recently released a new podcast, an extremely enjoyable series entitled Stay Free, presented by rapper Chuck D from Public Enemy, which tells the story of British punk legends the Clash. They’re also working on a second series of West Cork, which is highly anticipated by fans around the world. The way Bungey sees it, podcasting has given him a new lease of life in his career.

“I’ve done quite a few different things in the area of journalism,” says Bungey. “Podcasting is one of the few things out there in journalism that isn’t dying a miserable death. More people listen to podcasts in the US than go to the cinema. You can see that people really want the content and are willing to pay for it.”

Bungey would be the first to admit that the industry hasn’t hit upon an ideal business model for podcasting. “The industry hasn’t yet worked out how to maximise making money.” He is hopeful, however, that matters will change.

“Who knows whether podcasting will be a growth thing for years, but at the moment it’s exciting,” he says. “It’s the beginning rather than the end.”

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