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The Telegraph has been investing in audio journalism over the last two years, to bolster its subscription offering and find a younger audience.

In 2020, the news organisation had two full-time members working on audio with four weekly podcast shows; Chopper’s Politics, to keep up with all the latest from Westminster; Planet Normal, a place for news and views with two of their most popular columnists, Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan; Mad World, a mental health podcast about “ordinary people with extraordinary stories” hosted by Bryony Gordon, and Full Contact, its rugby podcast with Brian Moore.

The coronavirus pandemic proved a catalyst for growth, moving quickly to launch its Daily Coronavirus Podcast. That year, The Telegraph experienced a 120 per cent rise in audio listenership but by the end of the year, it knew it had to move onto something else.

Today it has five team members working on audio plus freelancers and production companies it works with on specific projects. Audio is not restricted to just podcasts, though. As the coronavirus saw the emergence of social audio platforms; first the rise-and-fall of Clubhouse and then Twitter's clone product Spaces which seems to be a hit with news publishers to spark a live discussion with their social media followers.

The Telegraph has been able to pivot towards the war in Ukraine quickly and innovatively, putting out a daily Twitter Spaces event to discuss the situation and latest updates. For those that miss the live broadcast, it gets swiftly turned around that evening into a podcast called Ukraine: The Latest.

Though audio can be quite time-consuming to put together, Theodora Louloudis explains on the podcast that having a dedicated audio team means they can move at speed on stories, in a more engaging way (at least research groups have indicated audio scores highly for engagement).

They are not precious about topical podcast shows and they do not overstay their welcome. "When the time comes, this is not a show we plan to continue, and god I hope we don’t have to. We will fold on that show and move on to the next thing people are talking about," she says.

Narrative audio-first approach

The Telegraph has also tried to steer away from the bog-standard interview shows or roundtable-based episodes. Instead, narrative-driven, episodic documentary series are becoming a hot commodity, like the award-winning investigative show Bed of Lies, telling true stories of greed, betrayal and deception. Its latest season looks at one of the biggest medical disasters in history.

These shows are even more time-consuming to make, as they can take three, preferably sixm months to complete, according to Louloudis. The advantage, however, is that narrative shows are more evergreen and often are revisited by audiences, whereas daily news shows fade into irrelevance over time.

Classically, a print and text organisation like The Telegraph would also consider audio an afterthought. A brilliant piece on the website might be given audio treatment down the line. Loudloudis is changing that, soliciting pitches from senior print journalists who can tell their stories in audio instead.

This audio-first journalism then looks to leverage the power of digital to promote the shows, like embedding clips into articles or repackaging the show onto YouTube, like the aforementioned Ukraine: The Latest podcast, rather than starting with a topic in print and reversioning in audio for that audience.

Getting acquainted with audio

Some print journalists, however, are not always familiar with the audio medium, and that has thrown up its share of challenges.

"Something I have always found funny when I joined The Telegraph (and I’ve been here just over four years), was that I'd work with incredibly experienced, talented, award-winning print journalists and I would feel terrible imposter syndrome," she explains.

"Then I'd get them in the studio and they'd want their hand held, or ask me questions as if I'm some kind of expert - which I certainly didn't feel like I was at the time.

"Normally I'd start to talk to them like they're children and then immediately feel silly because they get it immediately and I’ve just patronised an incredibly experienced journalist who just needed some hand-holding because often it's just a confidence thing or a slight tweak in how they write."

How does Louloudis counter these wobbles in confident or self-belief for those new to the microphone? Many of these print-first collaborators were active podcast listeners, but those who were not benefitted from exposure to some high calibre podcasters and presenters. Another tip is to reassure them that audio is a forgiving medium and good editing goes a long way to clean up the show.

"They’ll listen to the after and generally people are surprised by how good they sound, which is not all down to good editing, people are just a bit hard on themselves when it’s a new medium.

"It can feel a bit bitty when you’re doing it as well. There are some days when you need to stop and correct things, or an interviewee will cancel 10 minutes before we start recording. Hopefully, no one has ever listened to one of our shows [and realised] but a good edit means that is all smoothed over."

Breaking fresh ground in audio

For any other print-first outfits or freelancers, Louloudis says complex long-reads have big potential to move into audio because they can be broken up into segments, chapters and episodes quite neatly.

On the other hand, she cautions writers moving into audio to avoid stories with big hurdles to jump over as they can end up relying too heavily on produciton-intensive techniques like voice actors, because you require parental consent or face legal restrictions. Seek stories which are revealing and focus on original journalism, instead.

"As a person in the audio side of the industry, I’m thrilled to see more places investing in meaty audio journalism that’s really cutting-through. [Now] we [get] it a little bit more, we get sniffs that other places are working on stories we’re thinking of doing. I didn’t use that to have that nearly as much [before].

Another area that may be familiar to print journalists but is only just emerging in audio are paid podcast subscriptions. Spotify and Apple podcasts have enabled listeners to support their favourite podcasts and get exclusive content in this way.

Spotify currently allows podcast creators to start a subscription service without charging them any fees, and lets them retain all subscription revenue until 2023, at which point there will be a five per cent fee on earnings going forward. Apple, by contrast, gives podcasters or platforms 70 per cent of their subscription revenue to start with, minus any taxes. After a year, that goes up to 85 per cent but doesn't include any ad revenue, which the producers keep.

The Telegraph is yet to take up these opportunities, with Louloudis concerned that these deals do not recognise the inherent value the news organisation is bringing to those platforms, and the fact that subscriptions do not overlap; a Telegraph digital subscriber would still have to subscribe again to Apple or Spotify to receive the exclusive audio content under this model.

The news organisation has dabbled with putting out early shows for subscribers and bonus content, and it will keep experimenting with those options. For now, the focus is on growth before starting to monetise listenership more deliberately.

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