Time for UK Podcasting to Grow Up

Since the start of 2018, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in the attitude of brands and companies towards podcasts, which leaves me in no doubt that the UK is entering a new phase in the evolution of the medium.

Like all other audio content producers, my company, Fresh Air, has spent the last few years trying to work out how to make money out of podcasts. We've stared enviously across the Atlantic, and wondered whether our market will follow suit. Now we're starting to see real progress.

The shift is simple but dramatic. Businesses are approaching us about making them a podcast. I’m no longer cold-calling and hoping that I can pitch to a half-interested marketing manager about a new medium with no solid numbers. On the contrary, we’re getting calls every week from marketeers who love podcasts, see the opportunity, and want us to help them capitalise on it. What’s more, we're able to present them with pricing models that work and case studies that prove the concept. That’s why I’ve decided it’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss out on, and that the level of demand requires all my time, my attention, and a serious dose of Fresh Air's ambition.

That’s not to say that the UK market is yet anywhere near the USA in terms of monetising the product. At last week’s British Podcast awards, the vast majority of those attending were essentially home-podcasters, making content speculatively for free, or virtually free, in the hope that one day it might pay out. I chatted with a producer who works on one of the most talked-about British podcasts who still isn’t being paid after over 30 episodes. There’s nothing wrong with a wonderfully rewarding hobby, and we can all point to examples where this has eventually led to a decent income, but usually it doesn’t. The fact that it’s still the dominant model isn't good for the medium or for the rest of us in the industry.

Frankly, it’s time for the UK podcast production market to grow up. Acast is doing a great job at leading the conversations and banging the drum with agencies and brands, but Fresh Air wants to lead the way from the production side in creating ambitious combined creative and media models that produce the very highest quality of content for businesses and brands to get behind.

British producers often find the idea of working for brands a bit “dirty”, as if there’s a inevitable trade-off between finding sponsor money and creating wonderful programmes. That’s patently not true, and we need to have enough confidence to go out and prove it.

Fresh Air is working with the best producers in the country (and recruiting more), putting proposals together for multi-national brands, and unashamedly asking for budgets that allow us to pay those producers properly to create their best possible work.

We’re working with brands who want to target a niche audience. We’ve got one in production aimed at insurance brokers and another for those interested in post-Brexit customs rules. As I said, niche. But for those brands, it’s worth paying proper money to deliver information to those key customers in engaging and useful ways.

At the same time, other brands want a mass audience, or to target a significant section of the population such as small business owners. That’s about creating genuinely entertaining and appealing podcasts that embody the brand values and deliver the messages by association, rather than the business necessarily being the focus of the content. But they get it – that’s where the value is. They want the listener to think “That podcast was great, it enriched my commute, and I’m grateful to the brand for bringing it to me”. If they’ve learnt something along the way, had expert advice, or had their brand awareness raised, then so much the better.

We’re used to that in TV now. High quality dramas are funded by brands, and are no less wonderful for that. We know there’s product placement, but it doesn’t take away from our enjoyment of the content. The brand benefits from the halo effect of half an hour well spent, and now they’re understanding that podcasting can do the same. It’s NOT dirty.

The client might start off with an idea of what they think will work, and our job is to make it better – to add our expertise to their brief and work with them to make content that’s truly worthy of the listener’s time. Development can take weeks or months (normally weeks if we’re honest), but good clients understand that it’s worth getting right. Budgets can start off modest for a studio discussion, but we don’t want to just do those. We want location recordings, days of research, innovative recording techniques, and a high profile presenter armed with a huge social following. All that demands good money, and it’s worth it.

I should say that I don’t think we’ve found the perfect model yet. Right now there’s largely:

  • Make a really good podcast, build an audience, and hope it gets big enough to attract advertising and sponsors;
  • Work with a brand who’ll pay for the production, and hopefully a bit more for promotion on top.

There are two more I want us to crack this year:

  • Come up with a wonderful, never before done, genre-defining idea that costs BIG money, and partner with a huge brand to buy a whole package around it. I want to show that podcasts can create, and get funding for, audio projects on a level of budget and ambition that the BBC and most other commissioners couldn’t dream of doing. (We very nearly pulled this off recently by the way).
  • Something else. Something that truly shakes up the medium, combining great content and media through a sustainable and replicable model that we’ve probably not yet worked out.

So this is where Fresh Air is looking to play, and intending to lead the way. We can be as creative in monetising our content as we are in making it. I don't want to be jealous of podcasters in the States. I want to learnt from them, be inspired by them, and then eventually I want them to be jealous of us. There won’t be just one model, and of course there’s room for everyone, speculative hobbyists included, which is what makes it such fun. However, the shift we’ve seen this year and this window of time presents an opportunity for us as UK audio creators to grow up, get confident, and shape how we want to achieve our goal: To make work we’re proud of, for the money it’s worth.