For the last year or so, there’s been an ongoing debate between podcast purists, who argue that podcasts are by definition audio-only, and those who see podcasting as more of a multiformat content category which can also include visual elements. This fight is one that the purists appear to be losing, however, as video podcasting is becoming embraced not just by tech platforms like YouTube and Spotify, but also by podcast creators.
More and more podcasters are turning to video as a way to improve their reach, leveraging the audiences on TikTok and YouTube to get their content in front of more people. Joe Rogan, Steven Bartlett and Alexandra Cooper have all used this approach to great success, and the power of video to boost podcast discoverability has not gone unnoticed by those yet to achieve a comparable level of listeners.
For Helena Wadia and Mathilda Mallinson, creators of the British Podcast Award-winning Media Storm podcast - now in its third season - finding a way to incorporate video content into their output has been high on their priority list for some time.
“We've been frustrated, throughout particularly the second season when we wanted to build on the growth of the first season - because we felt we hit a bit of a ceiling without having a video strategy,” says Mallinson. “Helena really started to see the limitations of our growth via social platforms without high-quality video content.”
“I think - in some ways unfortunately - podcasting is also a visual market now, as well as an audio one,” Wadia adds. “I would love it if Media Storm and many other podcasts could sustain themselves through just the podcast itself, but unfortunately, we don't really live in a world like that anymore. And I think one of our biggest challenges has been that the sort of flashy reels that you see always come up on your Instagram or on your TikTok, they're often from people whose podcasts don't talk about things that are serious as Media Storm.”
Media Storm was started by Mallinson and Wadia in 2021, in an effort to give a louder voice to minority groups which are often the subject of news reporting without having a platform within it. The podcast was created with support and funding from The House Of The Guilty Feminist - the production company-come-podcast network established by Guilty Feministhost Deborah Frances-White - but the resources they had access to didn’t support the creation of professional-grade video content.
Securing funding for a video strategy was their main goal for 2022. Funding for independent podcasts can come from a range of sources, but the most common tend to be either advertising and brand partnerships - which Mallinson and Wadia rejected, stating they didn’t want to “just blindly drive traffic and drive clicks” - or direct reader revenue through subscriptions offerings.
Subscription platforms like Patreon have proven to be a popular proposition for podcasters who don’t have the scale to support advertising, but Media Storm decided against relying primarily on this route, with Mallinson describing the idea of having to produce bonus content for subscribers as “very stressful”. They also felt that, due to the size of their audience, listener revenue would be unlikely to meet their needs for financing a video strategy.
“Because of the scale of the podcast that we are,” Mallinson says, “we didn't think it would be particularly effective to just be asking our listeners to donate to us. Yes, that could be really helpful - but it wouldn't be enough to really get us to where we wanted to be in terms of the strategy that we wanted to implement.”
Eventually, they landed on the idea of soliciting funding from philanthropic foundations, and secured a grant of $50,000 from an initial backer, with a further $50,000 in the form of a ‘challenge grant’ - meaning that this backer will match any additional funding up to that threshold.
“This is not something we've done before,” Mallinson says, “but we gather It's very comforting for one donor, if there's another donor involved. And so you're much more likely to be able to raise that money if you have that challenge grant.”
The grant has enabled Mallinson and Wadia to hire out a flexible, multi-camera studio space - London Broadcast Studios in Edgeware - as well as enabling them to hire a freelance video editor, who they refer to as “the Reel King”. Mallinson and Wadia are both trained video journalists (and in fact met the Reel King while working on the Evening Standard’s video desk), but having the resources to pay for freelance support has been a game changer for the Media Storm creators.
“Because we were both working other part-time jobs, the time taken to edit together videos with multiple angles and everything; it just wasn't within our capacity,” Mallinson says.
“This grant has then allowed us to leave our part-time jobs,” Wadia explains, “and allowed us to put more time back into what we're so passionate about; not just Media Storm as a podcast, but also media reform, and working towards that longer goal.”
There are other expenses associated with running the podcast, including Mallinson and Wadia’s salaries (based on the London living wage). Media Storm has also been incorporated as a company, which means adding legal fees, corporation tax and National Insurance contributions on top of all that.
“We both left full-time jobs in the mainstream media to create Media Storm,” Wadia notes, “and in doing that, we were put in tricky financial situations because the freelance journalist world - like many other creative or artistic industries - it's a nightmare to try and self-sustain, to pay your rent, et cetera.”
The third season of Media Storm is scheduled to run until the end of October, and Mallinson says that the initial $50,000 grant could cover them until then - although she notes that “it would be a stretch”. The team are hoping to use their video content to aid with fundraising via increased exposure - and it seems to be working.
“It's a little soon to tell,” Wadia admits, “but I would say that, just from anecdotal evidence, I have had a lot more people that I'd met with say, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw you did an episode on this’, and being able to actually name the topic.”
“A key thing about a video strategy is consistency, so that people are able to recognise the location, the colours, the whole vibe of the reel… almost without even having to look at the username.”
One of the challenges they’ve faced with social video, however, is the conservative approach taken by companies like Meta and TikTok towards content moderation. Fearful of incurring advertisers’ wrath, these platforms aggressively filter any potentially controversial content, leading to users euphemistically self-censoring with terms like “seggs” or “unalive”.
“We have to be careful to put a little star in between the word when we’re talking about suicide,” Wadia says. “But it seems kind of counterproductive because it feels like there's something wrong with that word, when actually, what we're trying to do is talk openly about these kinds of subjects… the platforms just hate it. They don't let you do it, and it's incredibly frustrating for a podcast like Media Storm.”
As well as exploring short-form video content, the Media Storm creators are also looking at longer videos, based on their in-studio interviews with guests. Mallinson says these will be chopped up into multiple segments and released separately via the podcast’s YouTube channel, in order to maintain a consistent level of output.
Mallinson hopes that the addition of regular video content will help the podcast’s continued expansion, and says that although the grants have been essential for supporting the podcast’s sustained growth, they eventually want to get to the point where they’re able to use alternative revenue streams to become self-sustaining.
“We don't want to always be dependent on philanthropy - although we think it might take us a couple of years to get there - and so you still need to really focus on growth, because at the end of the day, that's where your financial sustainability is going to come from.”