Interviewer: Peter Houston
Theodora: I feel like telling you about being a Podcast Editor at The Telegraph this month is different to me telling you about being a Podcast Editor at The Telegraph last month, to the month before, to the month before, to the month before! Because it is a job that’s changing, in a department that’s changing, in a newspaper that’s changing, in times that are changing.
And times that are busier and busier, it seems. But maybe that’s just the podcasting world.
Peter: So it’s all about the change?
Definitely. We went from being a team of zero when I started at The Telegraph two years ago, and the audio team was mainly freelance producers, up to a team of what we are now currently, which is two, or soon to be two.
We’re in a bit of a gap in between all the producers and currently a team of one but hopefully by the time this podcast comes out, I won’t be stressed because we’ll be a team of two.
So before we talk about what you actually do, how did you get to the point of being the Podcast Editor at The Telegraph? What’s your career trajectory at The Telegraph?
Yeah. So I started working in radio. That was my first job, I was a newsreader on local radio. They got Radio Jackie in southwest London. And so I really learned the ropes on local radio and started on work experience and was put on air on day four or something, with huge imposter syndrome, but really, really good experience. And my aunt found it very exciting because she lives near Tolworth and she would get the odd shout out when no one was listening on a Sunday 3am shift. Got to keep the family happy!
So yes, I started in local radio, ended up working there part time over my journalism masters, and then went a bit dolally and moved to Paris to work in TV news for a couple of years at France24 doing international TV news. It’s really the opposite of what I do now, because for that we were constantly live and constantly on air, whereas obviously now, this is as live as it gets, this interview.
I really don’t do anything that’s live anymore. So I think if you can do the stress of 24 hour rolling news, you can do the stress of it or the lack thereof, of podcasting.
So this is an easy gig for you then.
It’s different, I won’t give you that! It’s less fast paced, although turnarounds can be quick, certainly when I was producing the Brexit podcast, that tested me. But yeah, different. I would say there’s plenty of pressures, not least being a small team, but different.
So I was in Paris, having a lovely time, but very different time, and then eventually decided I wanted to come back to London. I was always really interested in British politics and ended up being put on covering loads of British politics but in Paris, which just seemed a bit silly, since I’d grown up in London, I just thought, why am I doing this from Paris? Why aren’t I in Westminster?
So moved back to England and was looking for something both where I’d have the opportunity to work in political journalism, and also move back into the audio space, which was my kind of first love.
And this job came up at The Telegraph, which was called ‘broadcast journalist’ two years ago. And ‘broadcast journalist’ means something really different everywhere. This particular role was writing, presenting and producing news bulletins for flash briefings.
So it was quite new as a space, the smart speaker space, and I sort of saw The Telegraph and smart speakers and I just thought, oh, that’s interesting. It’s not really what I’d expect from a very traditional – or so I thought – news publication. And they took on two of us to do it full time.
So we would run these flash briefings, so basically, four three-minute news updates to go on smart speakers and podcast apps four times a day, staffed by freelancers to do the other two days a week.
I did that for a year, really got to know loads of journalists around the company because I would forever be dragging them into the studio. Anyone who’s worked in the daily print paper knows that that is not the easiest thing when people are on daily deadlines and I’m there saying, ‘I’m sorry, but have you heard of a flash briefing? And do you want to come on it, and we do it four times a day, please come in today and this afternoon!’
But it was a really good way to get to know the journalists, and I guess in hindsight to build up their trust a bit. And then that job ended up being staffed by freelancers because they decided after a year to move me into podcast production.
I had already been producing our Brexit podcast which was called Chopper’s Brexit Podcast – it’s now called Chopper’s Politics – on the side for six months, and I was a complete podcast addict. And the good thing about working in audio is that you can spend all day every day with headphones on and everyone thinks you’re doing work. I listened to loads of podcasts mainly outside of the job. You’ve got to keep up with the competition!
And then I became a full time Podcast Producer, our first full time Podcast Producer in January 2018. I was reporting to the then Podcast Editor, and then he very kindly vacated his job in last November, so I very luckily got bumped up, and I’m thrilled to now lead our small, perfectly formed podcast department.
Excellent. So in terms of what you do day to day, what is the Podcast Editor’s role?
So a lot of it involves developing shows with journalists around the newsroom who are often very experienced on print, but not very experienced on audio. So they might come to you with an idea – in fact, they often come to you with an idea, I’m getting pitched around a show a day at the moment, which is keeping me nice and busy – we go through the idea and decide if and how it would work in audio, how feasible it is, how much it would cost, whether we’d need to take on help from a production company or for some freelancers.
And then 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, or we’ll decide that the show isn’t appropriate for sponsorship and we’ll fund it ourselves and use it as a bit more of a brand grower.
And then I do all the production side of things as well. So I’ll produce the content, decide alongside the presenters what we’re going to feature in each show, I’ll edit the show along with the help of some freelance editors, upload it and then take it straight through to the promotion side of things as well. So work heavily alongside our social and website teams to make sure that the content is promoted around the website and on social.
So it’s really taking the show from its birth to its end, but then obviously we have the weekly ongoing shows as well which keep us nice and busy on production side of things.
So what is the Telegraph’s podcast portfolio look like right now? You do sound busy – what sort of size, how many podcasts are you talking about?
Okay, so we’ve got three shows that run every week. We’ve got Chopper’s Politics, which does what it says on the tin, it’s our political show. Audio Football Club, which is our weekly football news show. And Brian Moore’s Full Contact, which is our weekly rugby news show, headed up surprise surprise by former England hooker Brian Moore.
So we’ve got those three weekly shows, they run all year round. We have some freelance producers who come in, I do the rest of them.
And then we have our daily two minute news briefing, which is produced twice a day. And that’s just a kind of micro bulletin, news bulletin. It’s also a smart speaker skill.
So those are your weekly or daily. Then we also have kind of big, more ambitious series which take us more out of the studio, more crafted narrative storytelling. And we tend to run series of six episodes, maybe a few times a year.
Like Crossfire, the Trump Russia story.
You took the words right out of my mouth! We are running one at the moment called Crossfire, which tells the untold story of the UK’s involvement in the Trump-Russia scandal.
So those are quite different. You know, Chopper’s podcast, the football podcast, the rugby podcast are the kind of ongoing, almost news driven, whereas the other ones are almost documentary format. Is that right?
Yeah, exactly. So the weekly ones that run throughout the year are largely studio based, although we do record Chopper’s Politics in a pub in Westminster. But the idea is the same, we’re sitting around a table, and we have journalists and pundits talking.
Whereas the kind of narrative series – we’ll call them the documentary series – they are much more work in terms of, you might spend…Crossfire we’ve spent the past year on it.
Obviously, there were some months that have been more work-intensive than others. But yes, they can take a long time to really craft a story, and then also, they’re much more heavily sound designed. So you’ll have a lot of archive news clips coming in there, music, sometimes we’ll commission music to be written for the show.
So they’re much more work but more satisfying in a way in that you’ve really crafted a story, and you’ve really got something often quite evergreen to show at the end of it, whereas our other shows, you’re really looking for immediate reaction and analysis.
So is that the real benefit from The Telegraph’s point of view, that it’s got a shelf life that a weekly doesn’t have, you can sit there for however many months and people will just keep coming back to it?
Yeah, definitely that plays a role. I’d say the other thing is that our journalists are really good at crafting stories and that they don’t often get a chance to do that sometimes in their daily roles. So you know what it’s like, the daily news deadlines, I’m trying not to use the word churn, but you are go, go go. And sometimes they do have these bigger stories that require more analysis, even more than a long read sometimes.
So it’s one of the only – I would say probably the only medium – in which they can really go very in depth, unless they are doing a very long read, but we don’t publish as many of those.
I think that’s interesting because it’s just, we talk about what podcasts can do that print can’t do, or what online can’t do, and that’s definitely one of the things that I think people are seeing, is that idea that you can take the serialised approach, you really get inside the subject.
Yeah, totally. And capitalise on their amazing contacts. They’re speaking to different people everyday for different stories, and to be able to bring those all together into a series that leaves the reader kind of feeling like they fully understood the story is quite satisfying.
So you’re saying you’re getting pitched almost one a day. The print guys – the print guys is probably not right anymore because it’s not just print is it – but are the sort of text based journalists really getting behind the audio side of things?
Yeah, there’s been a real shift whilst I’ve been at the company. I think it’s a mixture, I mean we’re all listening to more and more audio, so you can imagine the journalists going home and thinking, well, hang on, I could do that myself. And so yeah, I think it is that the space is growing.
I think a part of it is that it’s the cool new thing. Maybe video were being pitched loads of stuff a couple of years ago. And I think it is just that it’s a chance to slow things down a bit in such a fast paced newsroom and they just see it as an opportunity to do something a bit different and to reflect on things a bit more once a week.
When you’re being pitched these ideas, is there a single thing that you’re looking for, like a launch strategy or something that defines a Telegraph podcast?
So I’m definitely looking for something that a Telegraph listener would be interested in. I mean, you’re not going to make a kind of Radio X Podcast for a Telegraph listener, although, I’d like to see you try actually, although our listenership does trend – as is completely usual across the industry – but our listenership does trend from what we know, a bit younger than our readership.
So it is a bit different but yeah, definitely something that a Telegraph consumer, or The Telegraph audience would be interested in. So we’re really big on politics, we’re really big on business, we’re really big on the royal family, our key topics. I’d keep the brand in mind.
Then I’m looking for something that we can do particularly well. There’s so much competition out there, we’re not the best place people to do a daily deep dive show with our small but perfectly formed team. We’ll leave that to the New York Times.
They’ve got about 20 people working on that show!
I know, if some of them would like to come and work alongside me then…! But you know what, that’s how it is at the moment. And we’re not best placed to do that.
But we are really strong on political analysis. So I’m always open to hearing a new way of covering that, and something ambitious and interesting from a voice that I think the listeners would be interested in.
One of The Telegraph’s stated business aims is to grow its subscriber bases, digital subscribers, quite aggressive targets for that. Is there a role for podcasts in that sort of bigger business aim?
Actually, you brought up something that I definitely should have said, that we are always looking for shows that fit in with our wider offering; if a show has a really good place on our website and a way in which we could present that show really well, in the context of The Telegraph website, you know, we might be running a campaign around it, or we might have a series of long reads in which we could embed it, that’s always a big plus too.
In terms of the subscriber offering, yeah, definitely. I think that’s twofold. First of all, we really want listeners to get to know our journalists a bit better, maybe even the more personal side of our journalists – their personalities – through our audio, that’s inevitably going to happen, even by hearing their voice, rather than just the written word.
The hope is that they will realise that that’s someone they want to hear more from, if they’ve enjoyed their analysis or whatever it is, and that we can then direct them back to the website. You can get your first 30 days free access to The Telegraph, so there’s really no excuse. Have you done it?
Okay, there’s still time. So yes, it’s a little window into our offering.
We are thinking about subscriber-only podcasts, I think everyone is at the moment, thinking about how that could work. The technology is a little bit behind where we’d want it to be, it can be quite clunky to offer people subscriber-only content because obviously, subscribing on your regular podcast app, Spotify, Apple podcasts, etc. doesn’t mean that you’ve paid us money, anywhere.
But there is definitely a role for us to grow subscriptions. It just might be leveraging the talent of our newsroom, showing off what we can do and then guiding you back to pay the subscription on traditional platforms after that.
I guess The Athletic did that, they put free podcast content out to drive online subscriptions. So I think there’s a strategy there. How important is it – you just mentioned personalities – how important you think personalities are in podcasts, like Brian Moore, who’s a huge personality or even politically you have journalists like Chopper or whatever?
Yeah, I do think that personality is really important. Obviously, it depends on the kind of show that you’re doing. But I think there’s probably a reason why we stuck a whole load of our host names in the title of our shows, as you said, we’ve got Brian Moore’s Full Contact, Christopher Hope, our chief political correspondent, his nickname is Chopper, he’s Chopper of Chopper’s Politics, and we’ve got Bryony Gordon’s Mad World.
I think it depends on the subject matter, doesn’t it? Look, you’re probably not going to go to a daily news bulletin for the personality. But you are going to go to something like Bryony Gordon’s Mad World to hear Bryony really connect and empathise with her interviewees. She discusses mental health with prominent people who haven’t necessarily discussed their struggles before.
Politics…look, no one’s going to say no to the odd lighter moment in a political podcast, not least because it can all get so serious. So yeah, showing a bit of personality is no bad thing.
And also our journalists are very funny, clever people and why would we hide that? There’s a time and a place, but I definitely think it plays a role, and it is something that we think about when we’re commissioning shows, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.
So discoverability to me is one of the biggest problems and particularly for publishers, but podcasts in general, would you agree with that?
One of the biggest, I do think it’s getting better. We’ve got far more curated lists on podcast apps. You’ve got a good mix of bigger and smaller publishers.
When Google introduced that search engine feature where you can now Google podcasts about whatever, gardening, fishing, skipping, and it will come up with a list of shows, if you think about how you would go around finding a new podcast, if you wanted a podcast about gardening, Googling it would be a pretty good way to go about it. I think it probably says a lot.
On the flip side, it probably says a lot that there are lots of new platforms being set up in this kind of quest to become, dare I say it, the Netflix of podcasting, and to show off lots of other podcasts, BBC Sounds being just one of them.
So that probably says that there is still a big discoverability problem. I think it’s it’s getting better. It’s not there yet, and that you have to be really proactive still about promoting your podcast.
But I would put it to you, Peter, that monetisation is the biggest issue in podcasting. But yeah, discoverability is a huge issue.
So in terms of monetisation, I know it’s important, it’s important for everything in media, but what comes first, driving maybe subscription revenues and audience engagement or actual full- on sponsorship?
For us, it’s definitely driving subscription and engagement. I guess it depends whether you see your podcast, if you are a subscriber-driven company like we are, do you see your podcasts as a retention perk for people who are already subscribed? Or do you see them as a way to drive subscriptions afresh?
If it’s purely the second, then I salute you, you’re clearly doing something groundbreaking that no other publisher has ever thought of before, because it’s just not as easy as that.
I think most most subscriber-only businesses, or primarily subscriber businesses would definitely sit somewhere in between the two of those.
But yeah, I mean, for us, look, we’d never make a show just because we’ve got the money for it. 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 or producers or journalists, but it’s not led by…we don’t get big commercial pitches in that say, ‘Please make us a podcast about this.’
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.
So as The Telegraph’s first full time Podcast Editor, do you see that role developing obviously, more at The Telegraph, you’ve got someone starting soon, but in other publishing organisations, do you see it becoming more of a sort of feature?
Definitely. I mean, it used to be really quite rare to see these full time podcast jobs coming up, and used to get the sort of podcast twitterati if we can call ourselves that, manically sharing them. It is becoming more common.
Obviously you’ve got the rise of the daily show, and the Guardian have, I think it’s eight on their daily show? And that’s just on one show alone, and they’ve got plenty of shows. The daily show is driving that. It’s a different story, of course, but as we see audio growing in general, something like The Times Radio, I’d imagine we’ll see lots more of those jobs coming up.
So yeah, if you’re looking, it’s a really good time.