How Esther Kezia Thorpe built the Media Voices Podcast

Welcome to the latest edition of Creator Collab House. I’m your host, Simon Owens. For those who don’t know me, I write a media industry newsletter you should definitely check out.

Today’s featured creator is Esther Kezia Thorpe, one of the people behind the Media Voices Podcast, which covers the journalism industry. I’ll start by asking her a few basic questions, but my main goal is for you, the audience, to ask her questions of your own. Esther is an expert on the media industry and growing a hit podcast, and she’s happy to jump into the comments section to answer your questions.

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Ok, let’s turn it over to Esther…

What's the origin story of the Media Voices Podcast?

Media Voices started when my co-host Chris Sutcliffe and I were working together at theMediaBriefing - a media and analysis website for the global publishing and media industry. It began as theMediaBriefing Podcast in November 2016 as a way to broaden our coverage beyond just written analysis; we saw it as an opportunity to profile the people behind the businesses we wrote about.

The following summer, theMediaBriefing’s event assets were sold and the editorial side shut down. Chris and I negotiated to keep the podcast, on the condition we rebranded it. The Media Voices Podcast was born, and we brought our other TMB editor-at-large Peter Houston on as a third host.

The format has remained largely unchanged over the past 4+ years, although we’ve refined it. The podcast comes in two parts; firstly, a news round-up where we discuss the week’s most important media stories, followed by an interview with a leading media figure. We use the news round-up as a way to showcase our own expertise in various areas of the industry, and although they ‘date’ the episodes fairly quickly, they have become an interesting time capsule showing how quickly (or not!) things change. We try and choose stories that are helpful in some way to media and publishing business executives, and always ask ourselves why our audience should care when we’re discussing a story.

Our interviews have featured leading executives from major publishers as well as indie start-ups, and we try to balance a range of voices and experiences across both the business and editorial side of publishing. We try usually to edit these interviews down to 20-25 minutes; this can be a challenge but it helps keep our questioning sharp and focused!

What have you found to be some of the most effective growth strategies for getting new subscribers?

The main thing that helps us grow is guests who share the interview with their colleagues and contacts, especially if it’s a particularly high profile guest. From our growth pattern, I think a lot of them stick around and listen to subsequent episodes, which is encouraging.

Aside from that though, we invested a lot of effort last year into growing the wider Media Voices ecosystem other than the podcast, mainly through website traffic and sign ups to our new daily newsletter. An experiment to put written interview highlights into the main podcast post on our website in September made the biggest difference. People were more easily able to share the post with a quote or a stat from the interview which in turn resulted in more people discovering the podcast. Highlights are also great for discoverability - people can skim through and decide if it’s something they want to listen to in full.

We also have full transcripts for all our interviews on the website going back a few years, but we’ve found these bring in a steady trickle of visitors rather than being especially effective in the short term.

Building the audiences in these areas has definitely helped our podcast numbers; we’ve doubled listeners year on year for the past couple of years. Now, we’re looking at the ‘Media Voices’ brand as a collection of products, of which the podcast is the main one, rather than a podcast with a newsletter and website.

Can you walk us through the business model for your podcast?

Many podcasts turn to pre or mid-roll ads for monetisation, but we ruled this out early on as we can sometimes be a bit controversial in the news round-up (!) and didn’t want to feel like we had to modify what we were saying to attract or retain a sponsor.

Instead, we have ‘Conversations’ episodes. These are 40-50 minute episodes dedicated to a topic of the sponsor’s choice. We work with the sponsor to decide on a topic that will be useful and interesting to our audience, as well as a guest that will complement the discussion - this can be a client or other industry figure. We have to be careful that it doesn’t get too pitchy but also satisfies the client, but so far the episodes have gone down really well with both our listeners and sponsors. In fact, our second most listened-to episode ever was actually a Conversations episode on what makes subscriptions successful!

The Conversations episodes go out on our main RSS feed, but on a Wednesday rather than in our regular Monday slot.

Finally, we also have an option for listeners to donate and buy us a ‘virtual coffee’ via Ko-Fi. This is still quite new for us, and we’ve found our listeners to be far more responsive than we expected, which has been really encouraging. We’ve just added the option to support each month rather than just as a one-off, and are quietly testing to see how that goes down.

What are some recent episodes that you're particularly proud of?

I’m going to end up being a bit biased here as the three of us take turns on interviews! I was really proud of a recent special episode we did; a ‘podumentary’ looking at the realities of going solo as a journalist. I started putting it together just after Casey Newton announced he was leaving The Verge to start his own paid newsletter, and was lucky enough to get him to agree to come on as part of it. We also had the perspective of four other fantastic journalists which looked at a number of different angles on going it alone, as well as some of the challenges and harsher realities, especially with finances.

I also loved speaking to Black Ballad’s Tobi Oredein last autumn about their membership scheme. They launched it in 2016 against lots of advice, but it turned out they were actually ahead of the curve. I love stories like that where people went with their gut instinct and it has really paid off.

What are the podcasts that you immediately play when a new episode hits your podcast app?

I actually flit around lots of different podcasts - for the Publisher Podcast Awards, I’ve probably listened to close to 100 podcasts over the past 12 months. There aren’t many I listen to regularly, I tend to binge them for a chunk of time and then not come back for a few months. I’ve got some new favourites from the current batch we’re judging but I’ll keep quiet about those for now…!

The Week Unwrapped is one I enjoy regularly - I like how they choose stories that haven’t had massive coverage, and then explore why it’s still important. There’s always something to learn, and they do a great job of keeping the discussion tight and timely.

There are a number of ‘industry’ podcasts I enjoy - Digiday, Business of Content, Baekdal Plus, podcast - but I tend to dip in and out of these depending on the guests.

Want to ask Esther questions of your own?

Go ahead and leave your questions in the comments section and she’ll dive in and answer them.

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