Nat Geo and the power of podcasts

As podcasts continue to pop up at a rapid rate across the media landscape, the second session of the FIPP and VDZ Digital Innovators’ Summit (DIS) featured a masterclass in creating compelling audio content from one of the best in the business.

Amy Briggs, co-host of the wildly popular Overheard at National Geographic broke down every aspect of podcasting for delegates, whether it’s finding the best running time, creating the perfect atmosphere or using a room that doesn’t echo too much. It’s a mixture of ingredients that produces a product that truly connects with audiences during these difficult times.

“Covid-19 is huge part of the why podcasts have done well because people were isolated and, when you listen to hosts interacting with each other, it feels less lonely,” said Briggs. “You feel that you are with friends and listening to them. You feel that there are people out there you are connecting with even though you don’t speak directly to them.

“Listeners also find connections with other people who like whatever the subject of the podcast is. They form all these independent Facebook groups and meet-ups so it spawns a community.”

The audio gives us the chance to tell different kinds of stories that don’t need those visuals.

A podcast explosion

Just how important podcasts became to millions as the pandemic hit is reflected in statistics gathered for the latest edition of FIPP’s annual Innovation in Media World Report. According to co-author and senior director USA at Innovation Media Consulting, John Wilpers, podcasters misidentified where people listened to them at the start of the crisis – reasoning that a lack of commuting time during lockdown would mean a huge drop-off in listeners.

While there was indeed a negative impact in America (where there was a 20 per cent drop), the number of podcast listeners exploded everywhere else.

“By April European podcasts were up by 53 per cent and globally by 42 per cent,” Wilpers revealed. “By July, Spotify found that listeners were listening to twice as much content as they had before the pandemic.

“I think what we discovered that people really just wanted to be kept informed whether it was the news or their interests and they would do it while they were washing dishes, making dinner or just relaxing in the evening. That allowed the whole podcasting industry to do the opposite of what they expected.”

Advertisers stuck with podcasts too. By May, advertising had risen to almost pre-pandemic levels and by September the number of advertisers had grown 42 per cent year-on-year.

“So not only is advertising revenue growing but we also have this thing that looks like it’s going to work – the podcast subscription revenue model where people are willing to pay to listen to a podcast,” added Wilpers.

“What we have found is confirmation that podcasts are fast-growing, they are relatively inexpensive to produce, they are lucrative revenue sources, do a great job driving subscriptions and they are extraordinarily effective, especially if you have a good host.”

Timing is everything

Amy Briggs certainly falls into that category, having built up a loyal following as the co-host of Overheard at National Geographic, a podcast launched two years ago that focuses on the extraordinary travel tales you would hear when having a casual conversation with National Geographic journalists.

“The weekly pitch meetings are so much fun because we get to talk about cool things like the invention of a new pigment or a cartographer who put a line in the wrong place and caused all sorts of foreign policy issues,” said Briggs. “It’s an embarrassment of riches situation.”

Picking the right stories is made easier by the time constraints of the podcast, with a 30-minute limit put in place at the birth of Overheard because it was all the lean production team could handle at the time.

“We couldn’t produce long, epic episodes and 30 minutes felt doable,” said Briggs. “Now the length of each episode is a good limiting factor. There are certain stories that don’t work in 30 minutes. They are too complicated or too long and you are not going to give the listener a rich experience.”

The podcast tries to compliment what the National Geographic magazine and channel are doing, but Overheard is also very much its own entity, telling stories that can’t rely on the jaw-dropping visuals National Geographic are famous for.

“You want to find a dimension of the story that is unique and will work for the medium,” said Briggs. “The audio gives us the chance to tell different kinds of stories that don’t need those visuals.

“For instance, archeology stories are popular, but archeology photos, not so much. The characters are so compelling, though, and what they are discovering is so compelling. It allows you to create the pictures in your head. You can feel you are along for the ride in a different way. The sound can take you there.”

While stories featuring animals and history are always popular, the Overheard team ensures there is always plenty of variety when it comes to content. “You can’t lean too hard into the things that work because then people get fatigued,” Briggs said. “It can’t be all snow leopards all the time.”

The host with the most

The fact that Briggs is also the Executive Editor of National Geographic History Magazine has helped to make her a great podcast presenter.

“As an editor you have to learn how to craft a story that takes your reader with you. In an audio format that is just as important as a written format,” she said. “You have to understand the boundaries and limitations and whether you can do justice to a story. And it’s the same thing with a magazine article.”

One of the biggest things Briggs had to get used to as a presenter was the sound of her own voice. “When you a writing you are hidden and people don’t have access to you personally,” she said. “When they hear your voice that’s a very personal thing. You have to sound natural and adjust your speech patterns. It’s really about how you tell a story to someone and bring them along with you.”

As important as setting the right tone is the team that podcasters have behind them. The Overheard podcasts are largely scripted with the interviews done first, followed by script edits, voiceover recordings, fact checking and sound design, before the podcast is uploaded onto a number of platforms, with Apple being the most popular.

“The host often looks like they are the one doing everything because that’s who you hear but they are backed by producers, editors and writers,” Briggs pointed out. “The podcast wouldn’t exist without them.

“They are responsible for so much of what you hear and what the sound of the podcast is. Yes, I’m speaking but the music, the sound effects, the way the audio is set up – that’s all them. For instance, whenever possible we capture natural ambience on site whether it’s campfire noise or coyotes howling in the distance.

“The team creates a cohesive whole. They don’t get the spotlight, but they are crucial.”

With Briggs working from home during lockdown, she’s been forced to be creative, recording in her closet where her clothes can absorb the sound so there’s no echo. To start off with she recorded all her interviews on her phone before eventually getting her own audio kit with a microphone and headphones.

You need to choose stories and formats that suit who your brand is. Don’t be bound by the fact that you are a print format.

Fitting into the Nat Geo family

According to Briggs, the podcast is “bringing in new blood” to National Geographic.

“There’s an issue of our core subscribers being on the older side so we really needed to go where the younger folks are. It’s about being in a different space where we usually aren’t and that has brought more people to the brand. It shows that we do more than just the yellow magazine you see in your grandparents’ basement.”

Looking towards the future Briggs believes there is going to be more ways to make money through podcasts besides advertising, with Apple looking at a subscription model. She also predicts more and more publications will start putting out podcasts by collaborating with production houses.

For those thinking of starting a podcast, Briggs had an important piece of advice – know who you are but don’t be bound by it.

“One of the things that’s been crucial to Overheard’s success is that it relies heavily on the things woven into the DNA of National Geographic,” she said. “You need to choose stories and formats that suit who your brand is. Don’t be bound by the fact that you are a print format. Move your brand into the audio space in a way that makes sense and your readers will go with you.”


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