Are podcasts the future of the publishing industry?

With circulations and ad revenues far from their peak, podcasting may offer a lifeline for magazines

The narrative surrounding print magazines over the last decade or two has frequently been one of decline. According to ABC figures, magazine circulations in the UK have fallen from a peak of 1.78 billion in 2008 to just 565 million in 2021. Even in the digital sphere, ad revenues continue to fall short of expectations, with some publishers reporting that 2023 Q1 ad revenue is up to 25% lower than forecast, according to Digiday

News publications have also reported that rising costs and slowing subscriptions revenue remain among their top concerns for this year, according to a report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in January. In order to combat this, more than 70% said they would be investing more in podcasting in order to diversify their revenue models – and it’s easy to see why.

“Podcasts as a medium allow publishers to tell an in-depth story on a one-to-one basis with their audience,” says Ben Youatt, head of podcasting for Immediate Media, publisher of shows such as History Extra and the Olive Magazine podcast. “Because of this, podcasting has a natural appeal to the magazine publishing industry. It can be used to arm our editorial teams with an entirely new and fresh set of tools to create exciting, engaging stories that our users want to know about.”

One magazine brand that jumped on the podcast trend comparatively early is Bauer Media Group’s Empire Magazine. The British Podcast Award-winning Empire Film Podcast has been a key part of the publication’s shift towards a multi-channel membership strategy based on deeper audience engagement.

“We don't talk about subscribers,” says co-host James Dyer. “We talk about members. It's all about membership with the brand… You've got casual people who might just read the magazine, and then you get the more engaged Empire fans, and they are the ones more likely to engage with us across multiple platforms.”

This sentiment was echoed by The Guardian’s head of audio Nicole Jackson, who explains that for The Guardian’s readers, podcasts provide “a completely different way of consuming news”, allowing the brand’s audience to access its content at completely different times to when they would be reading the paper or viewing content online. ‘Slow news’ publisher Tortoise has also pivoted hard to audio, and now boasts audience growth of 90% in just a year thanks to the success of its Slow Newscast and smash-hit investigative shows like Sweet Bobby.

While Tortoise runs ads on its shows through its hosting partner Acast, the publisher also uses them as a marketing tool to drive subscriptions to its wider brand, as does current affairs magazine The Week, with its podcast The Week Unwrapped forming a key part of its subscriptions marketing efforts.

This highlights the value that podcasts can bring as a media extension in terms of what they can add to a brand’s identity – and perhaps points to a reflection of print magazines in the way in which they connect with an audience. 

“Podcasts are not only an agile, online content solution, but because of the nature of the format, they allow publishers to craft creative and exciting new ways to build that closeness and intimacy with your audience,” Youatt adds, “and generate stories that feel more human and more alive by making good use of the medium.”

Many magazines have launched podcasts as a way to engage with their existing audiences – but the reverse is also possible. Den of Geek founder Simon Brew started the Film Stories podcast and website back in June 2018, and has since parlayed the success of his podcast into two monthly magazines – Film Stories and Film Stories Junior. For Brew, a longtime proponent of the value of print magazines, the Film Stories print editions and podcast are very closely aligned, acting as a cohesive whole rather than two separate entities.

“It's like most things,” he says. “If you come up with something that ties to the core of what you're trying to do, it enriches the lot… Give people as many avenues as possible to access what you're doing and they choose their favourite and, hopefully, you're engaging enough to keep them.”

“When I launched Film Stories, I just kind of thought, well, if I give this like five or six different touchpoints then it just needs one of them to take off, and then everything else, in theory, can go along with it. In an ideal world, you would take whichever touchpoint has the highest audience, transfer that to something else and 100% of the audience will come across. I've not quite cracked that yet. But there's certainly crossover.” 

In many ways, podcasts provide the same experience as a print magazine – communicating valuable information with a niche audience – and in an increasingly digital media landscape, more and more publishers are now looking to podcasts as a complementary, rather than competitive, channel.

“I think podcasting will become a bigger and bigger part of all of our publishers’ goals as we continue to grow our portfolio of brands and as audiences continue to become more digitally focused,” Immediate’s Youatt says. “Podcasts allow brands to create cost-effective content that also has one of the most impactful and trusted relationships with its audience. By being able to scale our content production model at Immediate, we have been able to serve dozens of brands and help them reach new engaged users through the medium of audio.”