Why Monocle is betting big on digital radio

Podcasting has never been more popular than it is today, bolstered in part by breakthrough hits like “Serial.” Now, publishers everywhere are attempting to capitalize on the medium’s momentum. But few so far have made quite the audio investment that Monocle magazine has.

Founded in 2007 in London as a lifestyle magazine covering global affairs, business and high culture for the affluent, Monocle’s print edition sells over 70,000 copies per issue across English-speaking markets. It has chosen a rather different tack when it comes to digital. Rather than engaging in the high-metabolism Web-publishing game or attempting to monetize via display, it locks its magazine content behind a paywall. Instead, its biggest digital investment is in digital radio.

“Audio has been huge for us. It’s a very personal medium in a tone that works well with our mission. We’re able to address topics with the warmth, levity and lightness of touch that we do with our print magazines,” said Tom Edwards, Monocle’s executive producer. “We’re also finding it’s a great way for people to discover the brand online.”

In 2011, the magazine launched Monocle 24, a round-the-clock Internet radio station designed to bring its editorial sensibility to life on air. Weekly shows like “The Urbanist,” “The Menu,” “The Foreign Desk” and “The Globalist” are produced live and subsequently syndicated through its iTunes, SoundCloud, Web and app channels. “The Briefing” is a daily program that runs down the day’s top news. The audio team consists of 18 full-time staff, double the number it started out with, as well as 16 regular contributors. The company claims to have 550,000 listeners per month across its channels, though those are self-reported figures.

Now, Monocle is in the process of moving to full 24-hour programming and winding down a deal with ABC Australia to broadcast in twilight hours. And a key driver behind this expansion is its growing native ad business.

Rolex, UBS, GE, Korean Air, Pictet, Lexus and Krug are among Monocle’s biggest advertisers, and some are heavily involved in its audio programming. With custom ad products like Monocle’s “program exclusive sponsorships,” brands collaborate with editors on show themes. As such, the line between advertising and editorial can get blurry. “The Bulletin with UBS,” for example, has solely used UBS staffers as guests on the show. No other investment banks have been heard from so far. But Monocle argues it doesn’t necessarily exclude people from its sponsored shows.

Here’s the latest episode at the time of publishing:

“I have never had the need to use any other banks, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t do so in the future,” said Edwards. “Thus far, we have blended UBS voices with external contributors who have different experience across academia, the policy side and investing. We’ve had hedge fund managers contribute to the show, government analysts, etc. The sponsorship doesn’t limit or dictate our editorial decisions.”

For now, marketers appear optimistic about the Monocle approach. “They are making a smart move in betting on cross-channel,” said Bart Burggraaf, partner at full-service financial marketing agency MediaGroup London.

“Monocle is a very interesting publishing brand that advertisers love to be associated with because of the high end audience — and for those types of publications, it’s most important to garner a sticky audience regardless of the channel, rather than generate empty pageviews to increase earnings.”