An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, December 2014 edition
The runaway success of Serial, the podcast from The American Life producer Sarah Koenig documenting a 15 year old murder case, had brought renewed focus on the format as a way for news outlets to attract audiences.
Serial is simply the most successful of a number of professionally produced podcasts, and it is no surprise that it comes from a public radio background. Its parent show, this American life, has already established itself as a podcasting hit, as have many other shows from the NPR stable, such as 99% Invisible and Snap Judgement.
On the face of it, there would seem to be fewer prospects for Irish news outlets hoping to get into podcasting. Despite a well publicised campaign beforehand, the first Flannery Files attracted only a lukewarm response, with barely 600 downloads in the first week. That said, a softball interview with Bill Herlihy is unlikely to ignite the popular imagination.
Podcasting is still in its infancy in Ireland. While it has moved from the amateur enthusiast stage in the US (99% Invisible began as a “garage” podcast, and is now broadcast) most Irish efforts are still low-key. RTÉ places some of its content online, but although the Documentary On One app contains the world’s largest archive of documentaries, the RTE Player app can be clunky to use. Most newspapers have barely engaged with podcasting, with the exception of the Irish Times, which had put a major effort into several shows, covering politics, business, and arts and culture.
One show however stands out from the crowd. Second Captains, from the team who presented Off The Ball on Newstalk before they were dismissed for having the temerity to ask for greater resources, regularly pulls audiences of 20-30,000 listeners for their unique approach to sports coverage.
This compares to figures for the other Irish Times podcasts of roughly between one tenth and one fifth of that figure. Although numbers for downloads from iTunes and Stitcher are not available, they show a similar pattern, with Second Captains outperforming all the other podcasts combined. To put those numbers in context, proportionate to population it means Second Captains is doing as well in Irish markets as Serial is in the US, a remarkable achievement.
The newly released Irish Times app, which allows listeners to access podcasts directly on smartphones, is likely to build this audience even more. Exploited properly, by offering options such as “Most Listened” or “Editors Picks”, this could introduce audiences to other new shows. This though would require shows that offer something out of the usual. The quirky humour of Second Captains has always made it stand out of from the crowd, by the other Irish Times offerings sound like radio as usual, consisting of panel discussions and one-on-one interviews. The show also benefits from having an established legacy audience from its time as a broadcast programme on Newstalk. Packages taking a different approach to reporting could build on the same audience desire for something different that Second Captains has so successfully exploited. Given the number of independent producers and freelance journalists experimenting with audio, the Irish Times could do worse than set aside a budget to incubate and develop such new ideas.
For now, funding for such projects is reliant on advertising/sponsorship and listener subscriptions, using models such as crowdfunding, donation requests or paywalls. And while the BAI does fund independent production, the Sound+Vision fund steers away from news/current affairs to focus on documentary and fiction, and is limited by the Broadcasting Act to works transmitted over the air. This seems unlikely to change any time soon, with reforms on television licencing put on the long finger.
The upside of an absence of this funding however, is that podcasters are freed from the restrictions imposed by BAI regulation on broadcasters, although they remain subject to the Press Council code of practice.
Lyra McKee, a Belfast-based freelance journalist recently crowdfunded a book on the murder of UPP MP Robert Bradford. Her pitch, publishing one chapter of the book online at a time as her investigation progressed, both mirrored and predated Serial model. “With the Bradford book, I was researching and writing a distinctly Northern Irish story yet it attracted readers from all over the world, as far away as South Africa,”says McKee.
“I think we need to stop thinking in terms of geographical markets when it comes to media content. Podcasting, in many ways, is just another way of telling a story and if you’re good at telling stories, borders become irrelevant because the Internet is a borderless territory. The Irish – North and South – also have the advantage of having a huge diaspora who want to find ways to connect with ‘home’.”
“Advertising and sponsorship is certainly one revenue stream; I think we’ll also see reader-funding/pledges becoming much more popular too. You don’t need a huge market to make it work, you just need a core group of really passionate fans. You may have only 300 fans who absolutely love what you do but if they love it so much they’re willing to donate €10 a month, say, then you have a means of making a living. The problem to date hasn’t been that people won’t pay for this stuff; it’s that we haven’t given them anything worth paying for.”
“Take the example of Serial – they’re asking for donations this week. Am I going to donate? Absolutely. Each episode of the podcast has left me on the edge of my seat. They’ve given me an experience worth paying for. They’ve turned me into an evangelist – I’ve been telling everyone I know to listen to it – by creating something really good. It’s a fundamental principle underpinning the ‘How do we get people to pay for content?’ debate yet it gets overlooked because everyone’s looking for a holy grail.”