Charlotte Henry has been out and about at industry events the past few weeks. Here, she explains why publishers across the board are struggling to find the balance between professionalisation and informality when it comes to podcasts and newsletters.

Towards the end of May, I was at the Podcast Show London in a packed, hot Business Design Centre in Angel. Delegates from some of the biggest publishing and tech companies in the world were there too, an indication of what a key part of the calendar this show has become. No mean feat in an industry that loves a get together and has plenty of them.

And the busiest session I attended? You will be shocked to know that it wasn’t James Corden interviewing his boss at SiriusXM, but YouTube. 

While I am rather protective of podcasts as an audio experience, (perhaps a topic for a column at another time…) the video platform insists it is working hard to offer much more to podcasters. This includes better RSS integration and a focus on improving metrics, something that is critical to both creators and advertisers. YouTube also says it is recommending more podcast episodes to podcast consumers.

It remains to be seen how this plays out, but these changes may tempt publishers to move away from proprietary platforms or at least make greater use of YouTube. (Although I remain a strong advocate of owning your content.)

Setting the right tone as a professional publisher

Elsewhere, listening to some big mainstream broadcasters who also do podcasts was illuminating. When discussing the “How to Win an Election” podcast from Times Radio (on the day the General Election was called!) Lord Peter Mandelson exclaimed that the show is “barely produced”. That may or may not be true, coming from the ultimate spinner it is hard to tell. 

Either way, that vibe, that sense of spontaneity, is crucial to a successful podcast and something all publishers strive for when they debut a show. That can be challenging when launching a product within a traditional institution that has always operated with a formal brand voice.

Attempting to achieve that can sometimes go too far and lead to a dumbed down approach or patronising attitude. It is clear that at the BBC in particular podcasts and radio broadcast are considered “different”, with podcasts seemingly the informal chat after the main show. 

Amol Rajan perhaps put it the most starkly when he declared, “The Today programme is not a podcast.” Indeed not, but I’d hope by now that publishers and broadcasters had moved on from considering them the inferior or less serious product. Shows will suffer if they think in that way.

Rajan’s colleague Justin Webb posited that podcasts are more dangerous than live broadcasting as participants are more relaxed. A warning for both guests and hosts! 

Thankfully, Rajan, a self-confessed podcast junkie, did also describe the idea of so-called peak podcast as “utter bullshit” written about “by intellectually docile writers”. You’ll find no such thing at Media Voices! 

The approach from Global seems somewhat different, as they work to grow the “Agents” family of podcasts and other products. However, The Sports Agents co-host Mark Chapman confessed that moving into podcasts “takes a bit of getting used”, even for an experienced broadcaster like him.

Allowing individuals to shine in newsletters

Then, of course, we had the Publisher Podcast and Newsletter Summit, followed by Publisher Podcast Awards a couple of weeks ago. It was a long day but a great one, and I loved hosting the Newsletter summit. 

Listening to the speakers in that room, it was obvious how fundamental newsletters are to publishers of all sizes. Almost all cited the importance of the direct connection between creator and consumer that a mailing list can build. It doesn’t matter if you’re the New York Times or a solopreneur, talking to people directly matters.

But it goes beyond that. Even, perhaps especially, those from bigger companies highlighted how important a personality is in a newsletter. Big publishers tend to be concerned about their brand, but allowing a writer to have their own voice, to essentially be a creator within the company, is really important.

Many of the rules of a successful newsletter resemble those for a successful podcast. They require consistency, a strong voice and a purpose. Why should people give up their time for you? Creators know that they have that battle from the start. Traditional outlets need to remember that people are not going to click open or play just because you’re The Telegraph, The Times or The Guardian. Everyone starts with zero subscribers.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the summits and awards also demonstrated how independent creators really can mix it with the big boys, not least with “Film Stories with Simon Brew” being crowned the Publisher Podcast of the Year 2024. 

These events over the last month reiterated the range of opportunities offered by the creator economy and highlighted lessons mainstream publishers can take from it. To benefit, they are going to have to embrace the creativity that I saw whilst maintaining at least some control of their content and IP. Trying to swim against the tide will only lead to them drowning.

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