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How The New York Times is using visuals to boost podcast discovery and grow listenership

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To grow podcast listenership and help people discover new shows this year, The New York Times is experimenting with creating images and video on platforms like YouTube and its own audio app, according to Nina Lassam, vp of business and head of audience growth, audio at The New York Times.

Onstage Wednesday at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado, Lassam addressed podcasters’ long-running challenge of finding new listeners. The Times’ strategy is to promote its podcasts through audio ads on popular shows within its network (which often feature personal anecdotes from journalists and other Times employees), as well as market shows on The Times’ core news app and use more visual assets like images and video on Apple, Spotify and YouTube.

“It’s such a mature landscape now. We’ve all been staring at the same tiles for so long,” she said.

The Times is testing podcast episode-specific art on audio platforms and the Times’ own audio app, so that instead of using the same logo for every new episode of “The Daily,” it can use graphics and photography relevant to that episode’s topic to see if that brings in new listeners, for example. 

“It’s great just to have something more visually interesting to look at. But it’s also something we know from the news app. Having a really interesting photograph is going to be more compelling for an article, so it’s wonderful to be able to try that in the audio space as well,” Lassam said.

The Times is also working on adding more video into its audio app, similar to how short animation clips appear in the core news app, she added.

Last October, The Times began posting fully-filmed episodes (recorded in new studios in San Francisco and New York) of two of its podcasts, “Hard Fork” and “Popcast” on YouTube, arguably one of the biggest podcast platforms in the U.S.

And while this has helped to find new listeners, according to Lassam, the growth is inconsistent — and may take awhile.

“We’ve been told – and we’re definitely seeing it ourselves – that you really need to invest 18 months, 24 months before you really start to see that level of audience that you would be really, really excited about. So we’re very, very early days,” Lassam said, adding that YouTube has not given guidance as to why it could take so long to see real results.

But the opportunity for viral hits on YouTube is worth the investment, she said.

“Unlike what you see on Apple and Spotify, on YouTube the viral moments thing is much more real [due to their] algorithm… So you’ll see some episodes do extraordinarily well. And then you’ll create a new floor for your audience, and then it’ll be consistent for a while. So there’s a lot more variability in the audience size per episode than what you tend to see in Apple and Spotify,” Lassam said.

Audio app goals

The New York Times audio app, which launched for news and bundle subscribers last year, allows journalists and columnists to experiment with audio formats that wouldn’t necessarily be a good fit for platforms like Apple, Spotify and RSS feeds, according to Lassam. 

“It’s more of a [way to] press play on the front page of The New York Times experience,” with audio programming in the app moving from the day’s headlines, to short, five-minute clips of journalists giving an update on a major topic of the day to “The Daily” and and to a journalist reading a longer-form article, Lassam explained.

Last year, over 600 Times journalists contributed to audio, as a result of the app and its different formats, according to Lassam. The app had over a million downloads from June to the end of December, she added.

The next steps for the audio app is to promote the product (as well as new podcast shows, such as “The Interview,” launching next month) in The Times’ core news app, and add audio clips similar to the way video and graphics appear across the news app, Lasam said.

Growing listenership

Lassam confirmed that The Times has had “continuous” growth in listenership, but declined to share by how much. (The Times’ flagship show “The Daily” has been downloaded about 4 billion times since its launch in 2017, according to Lassam.)

The “consistent” listenership growth has been achieved thanks to three initiatives, according to Lassam: journalists and columnists market their own shows to readers, a focus on weekly shows and regularly producing new programming.

Other podcast networks and publishers have previously spoken to Digiday about the challenges associated with finding an audience for limited-run series.

“We were finding that it does take a little bit more time to build up the type of audience numbers that we’re excited about. And so having a consistent weekly show that takes less breaks has been more effective of late than a seasonal show. Serial, of course, being a major exception to that… It’s something that we think about a little bit more than we used to,” Lassam said. “We’re seeing that there’s just more demand for something that people can really build a habit around,” she added.

Serial Productions — the company behind the popular podcast show “Serial” that The New York Times acquired in 2020 — produces two or three mini-series every year. Season four of “Serial” dropped its first two episodes on Thursday.

“Continuing to add to our programming suite is another way that we’re guaranteeing that audience numbers continue to go up,” Lassam said.

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