Expanding Into Digital Audio? Watch Out For the Pod-Holes

Mark Johnson (left) and and Mike Dougherty recording the VT Digger podcast.

VTDigger was keen to launch a branded podcast. With help from an INNovation Fund grant, the audio project went live in 2016. It had an experienced host, new equipment, even a local sponsor. What could go wrong? As it happens, a lot. Here are the lessons VTDigger learned during the podcast’s first year – lessons that make its editor upbeat as the project turns two.

As journalists adapt to the digital mobile media age, podcasts — short, downloadable audio programs that listeners access on the go — have emerged as a promising way to remain connected with audiences.

But when VTDigger, a nonprofit, independent online news organization covering Vermont, contemplated the launch of its own podcast a few years back, it was intrigued by podcasting’s promise for a very local reason.

Geography in the Green Mountain State plays havoc with radio and cell phone reception — even along popular travel corridors. As a result, Vermonters have been avid fans of podcasting, downloading them to their smartphones at home and listening to them as they run errands, commute to work or head out for a hike.

VTDigger figured a branded podcast could be a win for both its newsroom and its business department, increasing its reach into its target in-state audience while raising its appeal with underwriters eager to connect with hard-to-reach local consumers.

“This project,” VTDigger wrote in its INNovation Grant request, “has a low level of risk and a high probability of success.”

That prediction proved a tad optimistic.

Success Story

VTDigger is one of the nonprofit news industry’s success stories. Its hard-hitting coverage of Vermont attracts an online audience of 200,000 unique readers a month — not shabby considering the state only has about 600,000 residents. Those eyeballs have attracted a diversified group of funders who help support VTDigger’s 17 employees, 13 of them journalists, and its annual budget of $1.3 million.

Having demonstrated that daily journalism about Vermont could thrive on a digital-only platform, VTDigger was ready to expand its coverage to include a branded podcast.

With $35,000 in seed funding from INN and $5,000 in underwriting from the sponsor, VTDigger went to work. It invested in new digital audio recorders and remodeled a closet, transforming it into a small sound-proof studio. (It had already hired an experienced over-the-air radio veteran as a reporter in its newsroom who could host the podcast.)

The goal was to produced a series of weekly podcasts covering issues during the five-month Vermont legislative session, the 2016 campaigns for Vermont’s governor and lieutenant governor and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

VTDigger quickly discovered, however, that rolling out a successful political podcast is hard — even if you’re not in the middle of a monumental year in state and national politics.

We made every mistake you can think of,” says VTDigger Editor Anne Galloway.

Missing Piece

Chief among the mistakes: Underestimating the technical challenges the venture entailed and failing to bring on a full-time staffer to produce the podcast.

That thrust production responsibilities into the lap of podcast’s host, who also wrote on politics for the website and had his hands full covering a state legislative session featuring an array of lightning rod issues, including a carbon emissions tax and marijuana legalization.

The results were predictable and not what VTDigger had hoped for:

  • The podcast was rarely if ever a weekly affair, making it hard for listeners to count on the program and incorporate it into their lives and making it a tough sell to sponsors;
  • Radio stations that VTDigger had reporting partnerships with weren’t interested in deepening those relationships by assisting with the podcast’s technical production or by purchasing the podcast for transmission;
  • The local business that put up $5,000 turned out to be the only one willing to underwrite the sporadic program.

Lessons Learned

Production and underwriting hiccups aside, the audio offering proved a hit with VTDigger’s audience.

During its debut year, the podcast was downloaded 107,797 times. Overall website traffic grew and some of the biggest spikes in page views happened on days when VTDigger featured podcast episodes inside breaking news stories.

Having identified the production problem, Galloway and her team solved it, hiring a StoryCorp veteran with the needed technical chops. He is now producing the podcast, which will help ensure it drops weekly as promised.

Advertisers will follow, Galloway says, because VTDigger revamped its underwriting approach and added staff on the business side to boost underwriting. The goal? To sign up 30 sponsors at the $20,000-a-year level whose sponsorship will support all VTDigger’s digital offerings, including the podcast.

“You have to approach a podcast … with an incredible amount of focus and discipline,” Galloway says. “Multimedia products need the same level of production quality and consistency that the online print products do.

“But that’s why I’m confident. We now have the experience, the tools and technical skills and the people — mostly the people — that we need to go forward and pull it off properly.”

This case study was produced as part of the Innovation Fund grant program run by the Institute for Nonprofit News and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund. It may be reprinted, republished and copied with these credits.