For two years running, The Week Unwrapped has scooped the ‘Best News Podcast’, fending off competition from some of the biggest names in publishing. Judges for 2021’s awards highlighted the superb audio quality, the skill with which the hosts presented a genuine and insightful conversation, and strong brand alignment.
Peter spoke to The Week’s Digital Director and podcast host Holden Frith. He discussed how their signature three story format had to evolve during the pandemic, the importance of varied points of view within the episodes, and why the podcast is addressing an audience in its own right rather than just being the magazine in audio form.
Note: This episode was recorded prior to Future PLC’s acquisition of Dennis Publishing, owners of The Week.
Here are some highlights, lightly edited for clarity:
Keeping the three stories varied amid a pandemic
We thought it had been hard to find stories that weren’t about Brexit for the first two to three years of the podcast, but that was a walk in the park compared with finding stories that weren’t about Covid. And, in fact it sometimes almost felt a bit trivial not to be talking about it. But we soon realised that actually, there was a real audience for stories that weren’t about the pandemic, or that were tangentially about the pandemic, so they were about how people were responding in ways that hadn’t been reported.
It was it’s certainly not the case that we never mentioned Covid over the past year. There was this sort of gravity about the pandemic in both senses of the word that drew seemingly unrelated subjects back towards Covid, and how we were responding to it. But we tried to make sure that at least two of the three topics we were doing each week had nothing at all to do with the pandemic. And then one might be an underreported element of it, or something that was changing the way we were living that was perhaps at least partially related to that.
But I do think there was a there was a real sense of people looking for a bit of an escape. And some people would find that in entertainment podcasts, or in listening to music, or listening to something that had nothing to do with with news at all. But other people did want to know what was going on in the world beyond the pandemic. And that’s the need that we tried to fulfil.
Creating The Week Unwrapped remotely
Covid posed two distinct problems for us over the past year. One was the subject selection. And then the other was just the logistics of how we produce the podcast.
The first way that was different was actually in just picking stories, because it used to be something we could talk about around the desk and exchange ideas and go back and forth. That all changed to Slack. While Slack has many qualities, it isn’t it just isn’t conversational in the same way that you can be if you are talking around a desk. In fact, as the year’s gone on, we’ve had to make it more formalised. We’ve had to actually bring forward the decision making process earlier in the week, because it was just a more long-winded process, and we couldn’t afford to be as casual as we had used to be.
Each each panellist comes up with a story idea or two, posts a link to some ideas about what we might talk about it, and between us we work out along with our producer Sophie King, whether the line-up feels like a good balance. We’re aiming for something that’s reasonably serious, something that might be a bit cultural, perhaps an international story. And also something that is is more light-hearted or more about debate. And so we’ll try to tick at least some of those boxes with the three stories we end up with.
The importance of different points of view
It’s more than just being a debate. Perhaps a conversation is a better way of framing it because I think debate raises the idea of the sort of Radio 4 Today programme; get two people at opposite ends of the spectrum who are never going to change their mind, and just watch them slog it out, which has its place, certainly in journalism. But what we were trying to do is much more, its three open-minded people, three people who may not actually have a settled point of view on topics, talking it through together and working out what they think about it as they go.
Sometimes there are subjects where people do come in with with much more strongly formed opinions. But in most cases, there’s at least one or two people who are trying to work out what they think about what we’re talking about in the room. And I think that has a very different sort of feeling to it than a lot of traditional radio discussion shows.
I think perhaps that something that has appealed over the past year, where there has been a lot of bad faith debate about a lot of different subjects, and hearing people who are genuinely trying to reckon with complicated ideas without falling back on ideological positions, I think is quite refreshing.
The listener relationship with the magazine
We tend to think of them more as listeners who may be interested in subscribing to the magazine. We know that some of them do. But mostly this is a new audience for us.
We have had some success in in promoting the magazine to that audience, and getting new subscriptions from that group is one of the key ways in which the podcast supports itself. But by and large, most of our magazine readers have never listened to the podcast.
We’ve just done a piece of research in which we’ve asked them to listen to it for the first time. And we find that they’re extremely receptive to it when we can get it in front of them. But as is often the case with podcasts, actually breaking down that barrier to entry, particularly if somebody has never listened to a podcast at all, is quite a tall order.
That does help to clarify our approach. We’re not trying to do a version of The Week magazine in audio form. We’re producing a podcast that is addressing an audience in its own right. And certainly we think that the way we tackle news, the approach we have is very much in keeping with The Week’s open-minded multi-vocal approach to to news.
This year’s Publisher Podcast Award winners will be revealed on April 27th at a live event in London, as well as streamed online. See our tickets page for more details. Entries for next year’s Publisher Podcast Awards will open in September. Think you’ve got what it takes to win an award? Sign up to our mailing list at www.publisherpodcastawards.com