Radio was supposed to have died out more than half a century ago with the advent of color TV. But with an estimated 2 million podcasts, more than a third of which are currently active, it appears that the audio format is going through a resurgence, attracting young and old listeners alike. So how do you make a good podcast and can your newsroom monetize it? Those were the main topics of discussion during the “How Podcasts are Transforming Journalism: The Story of the Bulgarian Crypto-Queen and Podcasting as a Revenue Stream” panel of the “New Horizons in Journalism” conference, organized by the World Press Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria on 24-25 September. The event is sponsored by America for Bulgaria Foundation and it is in partnership with the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria.
Evident from its name, the panel largely revolved around the story of the hit BBC podcast “The Missing Cryptoqueen” that has been played over 5 million times only on the BBC Sounds platform. The beginning of the successful audio story is in Bulgaria in 2015, when Capital weekly finance journalist Nickolay Stoyanov notices a couple of suspicious real estate purchases. “I first got interested in the story because of the woman Ruja Ignatova herself. She appeared out of nowhere, nobody knew who she was, and then she bought a huge landmark building in Sofia, paying 4,2 million euro in cash to pay for it. Then she got another building, the home of a former mayor, for 5 million. And we asked ourselves – where does she got money to buy such things?” His experience with writing about Ponzi schemes helped him see the red flags with OneCoin, the “cryptocurrency” invented by Ignatova, and he began publishing stories, exposing the problems with the financial scheme one by one.
What the 20-odd separate stories on Ignatova’s business published by Capital weekly were missing was a backbone to connect them. In 2019, BBC journalist and writer specializing in cryptocurrency Jamie Bartlett realized that this otherwise very technical and niche topic can be retold from the perspective of a growing international scam. “The minute I went to the BBC commission saying we have a story about cryptocurrency, but in reality it is about a Ponzi scheme run by a woman who disappeared, they immediately approved it. So, through the story of seeking this woman we told the story of how cryptocurrencies worked, how Ponzi schemes work etc,” Bartlett told the audience. It was not easy to convince the BBC to make an open-ended story, which also had to introduce complicated sub-topics like blockchain technology to the audience, but the result was worth the effort. “The [podcast] format gives you so much opportunity to turn problems into features. Nobody would normally publish 7-8 hours of recording, maybe The New Yorker would run some stories like this every once in a while. But it freed us up to enter into these interesting sub-plots, to use this freely available historic footage from YouTube available for free and make the story so much more compelling.”
“The Missing Cryptoqueen” showed that podcasts can indeed attract international audiences and great attention, but can they also enhance a newsroom’s revenue? According to South African journalist and media consultant Camilla Bath the mission is hard, but not impossible. “Getting an investigative podcast funded is extremely hard. But there are other news stories that can be branded or sponsored by outside corporate entities and produced in-house. Flagship podcasts can be hidden behind a paywall and drive subscriptions for the entire platform up, like Slate in the USA,” she commented. And there is no reason not to try, Bath added: it has never been easier or cheaper to make podcasts, there are no clear rules governing the genre, which makes it the “Wild West of news media.” “No other platform different from audio and specifically podcasts gives the opportunity to bring people behind the scenes of reporting. As a listener you are called upon to co-create images in your head, and this connection helps you build trust with the reporter,” she concluded.