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Castaways: publishers seek audio audience

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The Courier-Mail is captialising on the strong interest in true crime podcasts with the released of Searching for Rachel Antonio this week.

The five-part series documents the 1998 disappearance of a 16-year-old schoolgirl whose body has never been found despite a $250,000 reward.

The podcast joins a weekly news analysis show, The Verdict, and two sports podcasts all launched by The Courier-Mail over the past few months.

Editor Lachlan Heywood said podcasting “brings a new level of storytelling to what our journalists have been doing for 170 years (at The Courier-Mail)”.

A sign that news media companies are building a reputation in this medium is a finalist nomination in the Walkley Awards for The Australian in the radio category. Its podcast, Bowraville, investigates the suspected serial killing of three Aboriginal children who lived on the same street in a country town in northern NSW.

Dan Box, The Australian’s crime reporter who has investigated the story for the past two years, said the nomination was another sign of the direction in which the news media industry was heading.

“The traditional delineations of print, radio and TV, they’re breaking down,” he said. “We’re no longer single media producers, which is great because it’s fantastic to have all these different ways of telling a story.”

Bowraville has amassed hundreds of thousands of downloads.

Half of the downloads came from overseas with the podcast making the iTunes chart in America, Canada and the UK.

Podcast producer Eric George said The Australian’s free podcasts were partly an exercise in audience outreach.

“A lot of the themes Bowraville touches on are pretty universal – fairness and equality, racism and justice  – and the reality is there is a real hunger for true crime as a genre around the world,” he said.

The Australian is also “dipping its toe” into the commercial opportunities for its podcasts, such as pre-roll advertising.


Gaining commercial legitimacy

It’s hard to talk about podcasting without mentioning megahit Serial, a true-crime podcast that has amassed tens of millions of downloads and was an inspiration for Bowraville.

Serial was the turning point in terms of podcasts gaining legitimacy,” Mr George said, referring to its international appeal.

“All this interest around this space has moved it from being a hobbyists kind of medium to something where a lot of high-quality, professional work is happening now.”

Mr George welcomed the competition from Fairfax Media’s The Age, which recently released a six-part podcast entitled Phoebe’s Fall.

“The more people who take podcasts legitimately, the easier it is for all of us to get more projects over the line … It helps to legitimise (podcasts) in the eyes of sponsors as it doesn’t seem like one weird offshoot that someone’s doing in a corner of Australia,” he said.

Phoebe’s Fall averaged 100,000 downloads per episode and explored the tragic death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute.

Its audience is still rising several months after launch: episode one was downloaded 6,000 times this week.

Phoebe’s Fall was sponsored by General Electric, a company which co-produced a podcast with Slate magazine last year.

GE has also collaborated with Fairfax’s commercial content division MADE to produce another podcast, Decoding Genius,

Editorial director of MADE Kate Cox said clients are increasingly wanting to co-produce podcasts.

“We are finding this an impactful, innovative way to disseminate really engaging content,” she said.

The Age’s investigations editor, Michael Bachelard, said the intimacy offered by podcasts was a big draw card for brands.

“It is certainly a commercial proposition and something we’re looking at as a commercial proposition. We’re not in the business of opening up new lines of business that make a loss,” he said.

“Any podcasting that we were wanting to do in the future would serve both (commercial and fourth estate) purposes.”

Phoebe’s Fall was designed as a way for Fairfax staff to develop new skills through the delivery of a major project.

The core team involved had no experience in audio storytelling but learned a lot through the process of collaborative production, said Julie Posetti, co-producer of Pheobe’s Fall  and leader of Fairfax’s digital editorial capability team.

“Our next challenge is to strategically harness the podcast enthusiasm that’s booming in our newsrooms after the success of Phoebe’s Fall and ensure we apply the learning from the series, while continuing to provide the practical training necessary to upskill our journalists,” she said.

Phoebe’s Fall joins two other podcasts released by The Age in the past couple of months: consumer affairs program Hard Bargain and AFL history series, Superdraft 2001.

More podcasts are expected to come out of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newsrooms in 2017.

Mr Bachelard said the analytics from Phoebe’s Fall illustrated how powerful podcasts had become, attracting strong engagement rather than the “scattered attention” common in the online space.

“We know from analytics that if you get someone spending more than two minutes on a text story then you’ve done fabulously well, but we were asking people to spend three hours with us on Phoebe’s Fall and they were. So it’s a remarkable level of attention to the story,” he said.

Mr Bachelard said the foray into podcasting signified the evolution of Fairfax’s journalism. It was a “journey that we’ve been on since the invention of the internet”.

He said: “We are a newspaper company but we’re also a video company and a multimedia company and now an audio company. Ultimately, we’re a journalism company and the way we used to deliver our journalism was in print. So this really is an evolution. We pick the medium that is the most suited to the journalism that we’re doing.”

Fairfax explored a licensing deal with the ABC for Phoebe’s Fall but it did not eventuate.

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