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April 11, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
Audience & Social

Why news outlets are putting their podcasts on YouTube

ESPN, NPR, and Slate are experimenting with watchable podcasts.

It has recently come to my attention that some people prefer to watch podcasts. In my house, podcasts are for multitasking, like walking the dogs or doing the dishes — but it turns out I’m in the minority, according to Morning Consult data.

The research firm found that more podcast listeners in the U.S. prefer to watch podcasts on YouTube than listen to audio-only versions.

A different study found watchable podcasts attract more podcasting newbies — those discovering podcasts for the first time — and that people listening to podcasts on YouTube are more likely to be younger (18 to 34 years old) than regular listeners elsewhere. (Cumulus Media, which conducted the survey, took care to ensure that none of the survey’s 604 respondents worked in fields that would presumably be disproportionately full of podcast listeners, like media, advertising, marketing, podcasting, or public relations.) Some podcast viewers report actively watching the videos to catch facial expressions while others minimize the video to listen in the background while doing something else.

YouTube starts to generate ad revenue for creators sooner than many other social platforms. And these video podcasts don’t necessarily have to be pretty or a heavy lift in the production department. Plenty of podcasts are uploaded with less-than-crisp videos showing hosts and guests in Zoom-like boxes. Others feature a static image and maybe a sound wave animation, if you’re lucky.

YouTube has published resources on bringing journalism to the platform, but those guides tend to be written for individual journalists — er, “news creators” — rather than news publishers. The platform recently rolled out a dedicated “Podcasts” tab and upgraded featured podcasts to include shows from The New York Times and NPR. Several news organizations stressed to me that YouTube appears, to them, to still be refining its podcast strategy, and said they’re waiting to see what shakes out before jumping on with their own content.

“We’re committed to supporting the future of journalism, and that means continuing to create opportunities for the industry to harness the latest technology and techniques for growth on YouTube,” Elena Hernandez, a YouTube spokesperson, said in an email. “Whether it’s long form video, Shorts [more on those below], or podcasts, we’re always working to improve the experience and support multiple formats for news creators.”

Here’s more from three news publishers on choosing to bring podcasts to YouTube.

A year ago, ESPN was streaming just two podcasts on YouTube, said Mike Foss, ESPN’s vice president of digital production. Now it has 28 podcasts on the platform and four YouTube-only shows. (Howdy Partners, which covers the NBA, is one example of what ESPN dubs “vodcasts.”)

What changed? Foss said it was a two-part process. The first was driven by the platform itself. YouTube introduced YouTube Shorts, vertical videos under 60 seconds meant to be the platform’s answer to TikTok, in 2021. ESPN has been able to turn funny (or heartwarming, but mostly funny) highlights into Shorts and was rewarded with a major bump in traffic. (ESPN declined to be more specific about traffic figures.)

The second came as ESPN began experimenting with longer videos, starting with pregame streams that last around 30 minutes for every “priority” ABC or ESPN event. The retention rate for those longer streams was “really high,” Foss said, so “the natural progression for us was to begin to do this at scale and with more regularity with podcasts.”

“What we saw pretty quickly was that podcasts — 30 minutes, 40 minutes, even hour-long shows — had high retention rates,” Foss said. “The result has been a really healthy, happy ecosystem where we have short-form clips that are driving scale with YouTube Shorts. And we have longer form content, including podcasts, that are driving retention and total time spent.”

“I don’t think we could have predicted that it would work so linearly,” Foss added. “But we’re happy that it did.”

Instead of creating separate YouTube channels for each podcast, ESPN has mostly grouped them under topics — the NBA, soccer, and MMA channels are three of the most popular — that users can subscribe to. That leaves just one “Subscribe” button for basketball fans to hit for Shorts, highlights, and podcasts about the NBA, for example, and boosts that healthy content ecosystem that Foss described.

The viewership on YouTube represents a “new audience” for ESPN and individual podcasts, Foss said. None of the hosts have pushed back on going from audio-only to video so far.

“We’re seeing this is not cannibalistic to audio,” Foss said. “No one’s audio numbers have dropped as a result of them being available on YouTube. It’s maintained and grown so I think everybody recognizes the opportunity to grow their footprint.”

Now, ESPN isn’t your average news organization or podcast publisher. It’s a sprawling media conglomerate with extensive television, radio, and digital assets. Can smaller newsrooms expect similar results?

“I think the thing that separates ESPN from any other place is the scale we have,” Foss said. “But I think people will be surprised just how attainable a certain level of production quality is — whether it’s one podcast or 27. The tools to record these at a high level and produce at a high level — both audio and visually — have only gotten easier and more accessible since the pandemic.”

Ultimately, Foss said, the company has been rewarded with more viewers as it’s upped the amount of work dedicated to the platform.

“The analytics on the YouTube side, as they relate to other social sites, are pretty granular. You can get some really rich insights into the types of folks who are consuming your content from an audience level, from a subject level, from age, gender, country, and even city. You can really see in real time — and then over the course of days, weeks, months, years — what’s resonating with your audience and refine accordingly,” Foss said. “I would say [YouTube] is one of the platforms that the more time that you invest in studying your own analytics, and invest with folks just spending time with the platform, the more you get rewarded, and the more you’re able to build and grow and scale.”

Slate garnered 190 million downloads across a suite of podcasts including Political Gabfest, Slow Burn, and Amicus in 2022. The digital news org relies on podcasts for roughly half of its revenue and sells subscriptions that include bonus podcast content.

Just last month, Slate announced it would partner with YouTube to bring its shows — including extensive archives — to YouTube. (A program called Headliner will allow the company to automate much of the process, a spokesperson noted.)

YouTube has more than 2.6 billion active users per month. The video platform enjoys a remarkably global audience, with more than half of internet users worldwide visiting YouTube at least once a month. Those numbers, ultimately, convinced Slate.

“Discoverability has become one of the biggest challenges across the podcast industry, and we see this as a real opportunity to build scale and reach a new, untapped audience on YouTube, which has become the world’s most-used podcast platform,” Slate president and chief revenue officer Charlie Kammerer said. “We’re excited to make our diverse collection of podcasts available to YouTube’s global audience, and to experiment with new formats and content ideas on the platform.”

Some of those experiments will include testing which Slate shows lend themselves to a visual medium and trying to envision what the next generation of a “video podcast” looks like. Slate also plans to use the videos on their site and experiment with Shorts to create “behind the scenes” content to promote the channel.

NPR currently uploads about 65 episodes from 25 active podcasts per week onto YouTube. The audio heavyweight hosts its podcasts on a dedicated YouTube channel with roughly 34,500 subscribers, plus additional channels for Planet Money, Fresh Air, NPR Daily News, NPR Entertainment, and Alt.Latino.

NPR has found — surprise surprise! — that podcasts with more visual elements tend to do better than those with limited or very static graphics. (Compare visuals in an interview with fashion’s Dapper Dan with more generic sound waves and text captions employed elsewhere.)

YouTube is relatively new for NPR. “We haven’t even been doing this for a year and, in internet years, that’s like 15 years, but it doesn’t feel like much,” noted NPR’s vice president for visuals and music strategy, Keith Jenkins. It took some rethinking about the definition of “podcast” to get everyone on board.

“Some of us came down on the side that the term ‘podcast’ was kind of like Kleenex. When you say Kleenex, people know that you’re talking about a tissue. But, you know, there are different types of tissues, not just Kleenex,” Jenkins said. “For a lot of folks, podcasts are YouTube videos formatted like Joe Rogan or Howard Stern with people sitting at a mic talking to each other.”

Like ESPN, NPR says it has not seen YouTube eat into its performance on other platforms. “We approached this through multiple lenses,” said Joel Sucherman, NPR’s vice president for audio platform strategy. “The first is reach and revenue. Can we build enough new audience to justify the editorial investment and also generate revenue on YouTube without cannibalizing the audio podcast audience and revenue we get from audio podcasts?”

Other lenses to help determine whether putting effort into YouTube is worth the lift for NPR included research and development (NPR wants to feel like it’s learning about best practices for things like thumbnails, metadata, and discoverability) and reaching new audiences.

“We want to make sure we are reaching new audiences, and not recycling existing audiences,” Sucherman said. “Do we have evidence, if we are reaching new audiences, that they are younger, more diverse? And that these are ultimately public radio listeners [and] viewers of the future for us? Our mission is to reach as many Americans as possible with high-quality, fact-based journalism and information, however they choose to tune in.”

NPR, which recently laid off 10% of staff and cancelled podcasts amid a budget shortfall, leans toward producing content that can become a YouTube Short and a TikTok and appear on Instagram. “We use every part of the buffalo,” Sucherman noted.

The NPR team was frank about YouTube’s place in its overall social hierarchy. Audience teams have been more focused on Instagram and TikTok, where news about Ukraine and short-form videos from NPR Music have been doing especially well lately.

“We’re just trying to get a sense of what the audience might like, and not necessarily trying to build an audience around this content right now,” Jenkins said. “Our audience-building efforts are really taking place on Instagram, where we have a very robust NPR presence with our news content, as well as NPR Music.”

“We don’t do this in isolation. We do this as part of our overall podcast strategy and part of our overall content strategy. We’ve got levers that we’re pulling and pushing and this is one of them,” Jenkins added. “We are open to seeing it build over time — and we’re also open to changing course, depending on what makes the most sense.”

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     April 11, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
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