In 2020, the news genre became one of podcasting’s content success stories. As more publishers raced to release shows about COVID-19, the election or just to offer a daily update on the world, listeners have responded. Podtrac reports that among the publishers and shows it tracks, news podcast downloads were up 98% last week versus a year earlier.
Speaking at Podcast Movement last week, news podcast producers said they have more in common with other genres of shows than many might realize. Mary Harris, host and managing editor of Slate’s daily news podcast What Next, said there are commonalities between narrative podcasts and a news show like hers. “What we are trying to do is make the listener the protagonist of the story,” she said. Harris explained that unlike network TV news that encourages consumers to be a “watcher” that passively receives news, What Next has a more proactive approach that introduces listeners to personalized reporters or just people who are doing things in their community. “Hopefully you are going to come out the other side with a deeper understanding of the story but also feel like you also can take action,” said Harris.
The New York Times-produced The Daily has become the most successful of the daily news podcasts, born out of the 2016 election. “The promise of The Daily is to just, in the best way the New York Times can, make sense of this moment,” said Supervising Editor Paige Cowett.
That means covering what the team thinks is the most important story of the day. But she said it too pulls from elements that other genres also lean on to make a daily news series that people want to download. “Our show is a narrative news show. A lot of it is interviews with reporters, but they’re interviews where it is reliant on a strong narrative and characters to explain the news of the day,” said Cowett.
For the Washington Post’s daily news podcast Post Reports, there remains a legacy of print in the air. “We think about the experience of reading a newspaper,” said host Martine Powers. “You’re looking for the news you know you want to know, but you also come across things that are surprising or you didn’t think you are interested in.”
That translates into podcast episodes that typically feature three stories to give people the big story of the day but also room for things from the world of sports, art or anything else. “We do a lot of stories about space,” Powers said. “That’s been very good for us during COVID because for this last six months it felt like every story that was the most important story was about COVID but we still had the ability to give people something that would expand their horizons or feel some connection with the rest of the world.”
Vox Media’s Today, Explained afternoon podcast is geared to be more than a “big story” show, said host Sean Rameswaram. That can involve anything from an interview, song, radio drama or just man-on-the-street interviews filling an episode. He said their mission is to make a “fun show” using lots of different textures. “We want to make it sound like something that you want to keep coming back listening to, because the news is punishing sometimes, and we’ve lived up to that promise,” said Rameswaram.
Producers Adapt To COVID-19
Carving out a podcast from an existing news operation is the most common path to release, but that does not mean the process is always easy. Cowett said at the New York Times it was important for The Daily to locate physically in the newsroom. “Establishing those connections to the reporters and editors, it was really important to be in the newsroom,” she said. Now that The Daily is on firm footing – it reaches about four million people each day, more than the print newspaper had at its peak – Cowett said that has allowed The Daily to adapt its production to the realities of producing a five-day-per-week series in the work-at-home pandemic era. “We’ve established ourselves and have deep relationships with reporters,” she said. “But it maybe has hindered our ability to meet new reporters and establish new relationships.”
Radio producers have long struggled with getting “good sound,” and that is something that Powers has said has become the biggest new challenge for the Post Reports team as COVID-19 has changed how episodes are produced. “There was a grace period for a month where hearing the dog barking, sirens, the kid crying, was endearing. Now we’ve got past that point,” she said. “Now we want to make sure we sound polished and professional and not distracting people with sound quality that we don’t want it to be. That’s a huge part of our days.”
Harris said there’s also something bigger at risk when reporters don’t leave the house. “You miss seeing things for real,” she said. Harris hopes to start getting more reporters into the field in the months to come. “I really miss being face-to-face with people,” she said. “You can do a lot over Zoom, but you can’t do everything.”