2022 was an eventful year in politics, to say the least. Not only was the world still reeling from a global pandemic, it also saw the outbreak of war in Ukraine, a resulting global energy crisis, and in the UK, a revolving door of senior government figures.
Little wonder, then, that many consumers turned to news podcasts to understand what was happening in the political climate, fronted by dependable and experienced hosts such as Goalhanger’s The Rest is Politics, with former political figures Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, and The News Agents from Global and Persephonica, with veteran journalists Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel, and Lewis Goodall.
Both podcasts have continued to go head-to-head for first place in the UK’s top podcast charts since their launch in 2022, gaining immense popularity during a time of political uncertainty in the country - but 2023 has been another difficult year for the UK, and people are still dealing with the aftermath of last year’s political upheaval, including an ongoing cost of living crisis and an inflation rate up by 7.9% as of June 2023.
Podcast production companies are adapting to the changes in the economic environment, however, and have recognised their potential to become a go-to trusted source of financial news and updates for listeners. Earlier this year, the production companies behind both of these two gigantic current affairs podcasts announced the launch of separate economic podcasts within a week of each other.
“The fact that everyone's mortgage and the cost of their weekly shop is shooting up while the wages are staying the same or going down definitely factored into our thinking with [the podcast],” said Goalhanger managing director and co-founder Jack Davenport in a previous episode of PodPod. “It's just right at the top of people's minds at the moment, so in that sense it is really timely.”
Meeting the audience’s needs
Economics podcasts are not a new phenomenon by any stretch, and many have successfully found an audience to tune in for weekly financial advice. This includes shows from established publications such as The Economist’s Money Talks, Money Clinic with Claer Barret from the FT, and Merryn Talks Money from Bloomberg. However, there’s also a robust community of independent economics podcasts like The Martin Lewis Podcast, hosted by the financial journalist, broadcaster and founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, as well as The David McWilliams Podcast.
According to McWilliams - an Irish economist, writer, and journalist whose weekly podcast has been running since 2019 and has garnered huge success for its ability to make economics easy to understand - the reason traditional media can’t compete with podcasts is because it “isn’t working hard enough to understand what the audience wants”. Audiences are informed and engaged with the news already, he says, but they’re looking for hosts that will help them tie this information together and make connections.
“The normal old way was to give the audience a blend of news. However, today audiences want specific expertise, so for example, they go to trusted economists for economics,” says McWilliams. “Traditional media can’t compete with that requirement.”
This is one of the main reasons why shows like The Rest is Politics and The News Agents have been so successful, as shown by Global’s study from last year on the growth of news podcasts, where 41% of listeners answered that they prefer the hosts to be “experts in their field”.
Both Goalhanger and persephonica’s upcoming economics podcasts will be following this expert-led formula, with The Rest is Money set to be fronted by ITV News political editor Robert Peston and Channel 4 presenter Steph McGovern, and Persephonica’s still-unnamed economics podcast hosted by former chancellor George Osborne and former shadow chancellor Ed Balls.
Natwest Group marketing lead James Wallis also adds that as a marketer in the banking space, he finds that economics and money-related podcasts do “a brilliant job” of bringing people further information and details going beyond the headlines, from covering things like mortgages going up to explaining how inflation works.
“Against a backdrop of Covid and Brexit, people are more engaged with the news than ever before, and the economy is clearly a big news story that is affecting us all,” says Wallis.
“If we take contextual and cultural relevance as the currency for building brands, then it’s super important that you acknowledge it as an issue which is likely to be affecting your customers. Providing you talk about it authentically and in a way that works for you and your brand, then it can only be a positive thing. Ignore it at your peril.”
Having the right hosts
According to journalist and digital media strategist Nic Newman, rather than being a separate genre, economic podcasts are more an extension of the popular news podcasts genre. Both have the same goal: explaining complex stories to an audience that may find it difficult to process this information in existing news formats. Some companies have also branched out into curating branded podcasts in the economics space, with examples such as Barclays’ The Flip Side, but Newman sees particular growth in more entertainment and personality-led podcasts.
For instance, The Rest is Politics,The News Agents, and BBC Sounds’ NewsCast are all tied for most popular news podcast in the UK, according to Reuters’ Digital News Report 2023, and they’re all considered “extended chat” news podcasts, which is one of the four key podcast groups identified within the genre, alongside round-ups, deep dives, and narrative documentaries.
This reinforces Davenport’s belief that it’s important for the co-hosts of these kinds of podcasts to have good chemistry and be able to bounce off of each other in order to provide a source of entertainment for listeners.
“It just felt like a space in the market for something chat-formatted and with the warmth of tone that brings people back on a week to week basis,” says Davenport. “I think when you start from the relationship and you build out from there, that's the one thing we try to keep consistent across all our pods.”
A gap in the market
While the number of economic podcasts continues to grow, McWilliams believes that “the sky’s the limit” in terms of potential saturation, saying: “I think we are only just at the beginning”.However, as Newman notes, more and more commercial publishers are getting in on the act, which makes it harder for a podcast to compete.
“Alongside the BBC investing more on podcasts, it's a real challenge to grow audiences in the first place and then to keep those audiences,” explains Newman; “I think it is an increasing challenge for many publishers.”
He believes that the market has arguably become oversaturated already, but adds that although there are a huge number of political podcasts already out there, there is a gap for popular finance podcasts - and with the cost of living crisis, people are paying more attention. This provides an opportunity for publishers that are finding it difficult to compete against pre-existing news and politics podcasts to expand into a different niche.
McWilliams, for example, says that his podcast gets the most spikes in listeners when “global shakeups” happen such as Brexit, the US elections and updates on the Ukraine war, as more people seek to make sense of them. He says that he often gets very positive and enthusiastic responses, particularly when discussing topics on the cost of living and current affairs.
Newman says that with economic podcasts, the challenge will be determining which audience they are trying to target. Different podcasts are going to meet different audience needs; whether that’s deep-dives like The Martin Lewis Podcast, aimed at people who are already interested in the subject, or those that are aiming to introduce these concepts to ordinary listeners through personality-led entertainment.
“Economics is a very hard sell generally, when people find it quite tricky to understand a lot of the concepts,” says Newman. “I think the big challenge for them is - are they going for that sort of group of people who are highly educated and really interested in every aspect of international economics - or are they trying to make economics and finance understandable to ordinary people?”