NBC News and MSNBC are spending more to make podcasts.
On Monday, NBC News is announcing the first of several hires this year for its digital audio and podcasts group, which was formed in November 2018. That group, just two people at present, could grow up to 10 people by the end of the year, according to Steve Lickteig, the executive producer of audio and podcasts for NBC News and MSNBC.
The group will not only help NBC News and MSNBC TV and digital producers develop podcasts around existing shows, but dream up standalone podcast shows tackling daily news and deeply reported narrative non-fiction.
A group of four will serve as a kind of in-house advisory team to existing NBC News and MSNBC TV and digital operations; a separate group of up to six will focus on producing and conceiving original shows. The centerpiece of the second group’s efforts next year will be a podcast focused on the 2020 election.
That show will start out weekly before eventually becoming a daily show as the election season builds momentum. The long-term goal is to turn the momentum and habit the publisher builds with the election show into the foundation of a daily news show, an increasingly competitive category that’s attracted news publishers including The New York Times, Vox, Slate and the Washington Post.
“Every election, the network goes in so hard,” Lickteig said. “We see a possibility to push [a daily election news podcast] past the thing we started it for.”
While NBC News and MSNBC have had podcasts for years, until recently they were mostly audio-only versions of the broadcasters’ linear TV shows, including “Meet the Press” and “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
Over the past couple of years, individual shows have started branching out. In 2017, Meet the Press created an interview podcast, “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast” to commemorate the show’s 70th anniversary. Last May, MSNBC show host Chris Hayes launched a weekly interview-style show, “Why Is This Happening?” And last fall, The Rachel Maddow Show produced “Bag Man,” a seven-part narrative non-fiction podcast about former Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Those experiments drove encouraging results, Lickteig said. “Bag Man” piled up over 10 million downloads within two months of its launch. “Why Is This Happening?” has already begun selling tickets to live tapings of its show, and a small tour is in the works for this year. Combined, the shows gather around 23 million downloads per month.
Now, Lickteig said he sees more opportunities for podcasts built around the broadcasters’ existing shows and personalities. Shortly after starting in his role in November 2018, Lickteig said he took meetings with more than 30 decision-makers in and around NBC News and MSNBC to figure out how to fit audio into their workflows.
“I didn’t want our podcast unit to be seen as this quirky little thing over in the corner,” Lickteig said. “I did all the things I needed to do to figure out how podcasts can be done without being a burden.”
As podcasting continues to grow as a medium, news and politics have ranked as the most popular content category at the start of the past two years, according to Velvet Beard, vp of analytics at the podcast analytics firm Podtrac.
News broadcasters raise their games during election cycles to capitalize on both audience interest and the deluge of political advertising dollars that flood into TV and digital channels. Historically, very little of that money has found its way into podcasting, but there are signs that that could change in 2020: During the 2018 election season, a number of advocacy groups and nonprofits began inquiring about podcast ad buys, said Glenn Rubenstein, the founder of podcast media agency Adopter Media.
Meanwhile, the economic upside of the shows Lickteig’s group helps produce could be limited by NBC’s policy barring its talent from doing host-read ads. While host-read podcast ads reliably command CPMs in the range of $25, the standard rate for pre-recorded ads read either by show producers or created by third parties is a $5 CPM.
“Brands want that alliance with the [talent’s] personality,” Rubenstein said.