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Sept. 18, 2018, 11:43 a.m.

The Guardian is getting into the daily news podcast game — here’s what it learned the last time it tried

“If you didn’t read The Guardian or know anything about it, you should be able to listen to that podcast and get an idea of the stories we thought were important. We certainly tried to reflect The Guardian’s values.”

Last week, The Guardian announced it was joining the cluster of publications currently developing a flagship daily news and current affairs podcast. It will be hosted by Anushka Asthana, a former senior political correspondent on TV for Sky News and The Guardian’s current political editor. (Asthana is actually one half of a job share for the role with colleague Heather Stewart, which was a groundbreaking arrangement for Westminster political reporting when it began in 2016).

The daily news podcast is scheduled to launch before the end of the year, and it will be monetised by Acast, which had previously worked with The Guardian on the latter’s Football Weekly and Politics Weekly shows. Bose will serve as its first sponsor, and I’m told that the launch sponsorship slots for the show in the U.K. have already been sold out.

Leo Hornak, formerly of the BBC (and who you might remember as the producer behind This American Life’s “Abdi and The Golden Ticket“), serves as executive producer overseeing a team of six journalists. Hornak wasn’t able to share any details at this point when I reached out. He did, however, offer a broader view closer to launch date, so we’ll probably revisit the story then.

In the meantime, some brief thoughts and a dash of historical context from my end. The challenge for any show like this is a big one: how to get into major subjects deeply (the announcement says the aim is to “take listeners behind the headlines”) while also maintaining a wide enough topic range for the podcast to be fully current and informative, all in a tight 20- to 30-minute package and on a daily release schedule. News consumers can already get basic headlines and recaps pretty easily from the news segments on commercial radio and social media feeds; if it’s to get them to put on their headphones and download a podcast, the upcoming daily news product needs to offer something more.

I would argue the daily news podcast terrain in the U.K. presents an additional challenge, given the BBC’s unparalleled reached and fairly unassailable reputation as an unbiased source of news. That’s on top of the fact that podcast awareness here lags behind the U.S. According to RAJAR, the official body that measures radio audiences in the U.K., 11 percent of U.K. adults listened to a podcast in the first quarter of 2018, whereas this year’s Infinite Dial report put monthly podcast listening in the U.S. at 26 percent.

On the flipside, there are two things that could potentially work in the Guardian’s favor. First, the newspaper has a distinctively liberal and left-leaning outlook, which could give its daily news podcast a way of attracting listeners who are keen on exploring the news more deeply but are frustrated by the way BBC has covered divisive issues like Brexit. (The success of single-issue podcasts in this space like Remainiacs and Agitpod certainly suggests there is a market for an unapologetically left-wing take on such matters.) If Asthana is permitted to put her personality and views into the show, that will go a long way to differentiating it from the sterile, characterless style enforced by the BBC’s impartiality rules, too.

Second, podcast listenership in the U.K. is highest among younger people, who are also far less likely to listen to live radio or watch traditional televised news broadcasts. They are the growth market for a show like this, and it shouldn’t be afraid of tailoring its content and style to them.

It should be acknowledged that this isn’t the first time The Guardian has produced a daily news podcast. That honour goes to a show first called Newsdesk, later renamed Guardian Daily, which ran from March 2006 to July 2010 (here’s the first ever episode and the entire archive). Interestingly, this fact was first left off the press release about the new daily show and only subsequently added, presumably after host Jon Dennis reminded people of the original podcast’s existence on Twitter.

I spoke to Dennis on the phone to find out a bit more about how Newsdesk came into being in 2006. At the time, he was deputy news editor for Guardian Unlimited, as the publication’s website was then known (it had a separate staff from the print newspaper). The site’s first foray into podcasts involved the comedian Ricky Gervais when, in the latter part of 2005, the site hosted The Ricky Gervais Show. According to Dennis, the editor Alan Rusbridger, further encouraged by his daughter, eventually proposed The Guardian make its own podcasts in house. Dennis auditioned to host the first of these projects, which was to be a daily news show.

“I got the gig, and I was really just tasked with developing it on my own,” he said. “They found me a desk — there was no studio, it was in the process of being built in a stock cupboard or something — and I had to figure out what The Guardian’s daily news podcast might sound like. No other papers that we were aware of were doing anything like that.”

The format ended up being about 20 minutes, involving Dennis having “conversations with The Guardian’s reporters and writers about things that The Guardian had published.” He also interviewed guests who were in the news. He and his producer saw the purpose of Newsdesk/Guardian Daily as adding value to the publication’s other output and bringing in new readers. “If you didn’t read The Guardian or know anything about it, you should be able to listen to that podcast and get an idea of the stories we thought were important,” he said. “We certainly tried to reflect The Guardian’s values.”

Talking to Dennis, I had the impression that he was pretty much left alone to figure out the proto-daily news podcast. It ended up garnering around 26,000 listeners each day — which, for a mid-2000s British podcast, is pretty strong. But the ad sales team at The Guardian was unable to find an effective way to make money off the show, and Dennis found himself hampered by various technological hurdles. There would occasionally be breaking news developments that instantly rendered Newsdesk/Guardian Daily moot, as he wouldn’t be able to derive enough resources to re-record an emergency podcast or respond in any adequate way.

Without any marketing budget and with a poor internet presence, the podcast struggled to grow, although the existing listeners remained loyal. By 2010, Dennis said, “the enthusiasm internally at The Guardian had gone for it. They were convinced that there was something wrong with it. They tried various things, and it didn’t really feel like there was much left of me in it really by the time it finished.” Guardian Daily received a surprise stay of execution while it covered the aftermath of 2010’s inconclusive general election, but was eventually put to pasture in July of that year.

Dennis is surprised that it took so long for The Guardian to resurrect the idea of a daily podcast, especially given the direction podcasting has taken since 2010. “They bloody well should be doing a daily news podcast,” he said. “That’s why they brought it back — it’s absolutely the obvious thing that The Guardian should be doing.” He also suggested that a desire to follow in the footsteps of The New York Times’ The Daily could be behind the new launch, but stressed that it absolutely made sense for The Guardian as a news organization to put news at the heart of their podcasting operation, too.

While I’m sure that Hornak and his team will be wanting to start afresh with their new project, I think it’s fair to say that Dennis’ efforts back in 2006 had blazed a fair bit of trail for them. Yes, the production quality for Newsdesk/Guardian Daily wasn’t always top notch, and a few more narratively-reported segments wouldn’t have gone amiss. But the seeds for an informative, fast-moving show with a distinctive viewpoint that drew on The Guardian staff’s expertise was planted then and there.

This is an excerpt from this week’s Hot Pod newsletter, which you can see in full here.

POSTED     Sept. 18, 2018, 11:43 a.m.
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