Hollywood’s embrace of podcasting has been hard to miss, with a growing number of television series tearing their plotlines from the pages of podcasts. It’s happening in local markets too. TV operator Tegna – which also owns radio stations in San Diego and Columbus, OH – is making a bigger audio play in the podcast medium. The company last spring launched Vault Studios, its first-ever digital content studio with an inaugural effort geared toward developing podcasts.
“It’s thinking about how to leverage our assets in new ways, given all the innovation happening in digital and the ways people are consuming content,” said Adam Ostrow, Tegna’s Chief Digital Officer. “For us, we saw the convergence of trends. Obviously podcasting has been growing quite a bit over the past few years.” For a company best-known for its 51 television stations in 43 U.S. cities, Ostrow said podcasting allows Tegna to take advantage of its strengths, such as strong teams of story-tellers in local markets and a way to promote those efforts. “We’re not moving into a space that’s completely foreign,” he said.
Tegna released its first podcast last spring when it published Bomber. It tells the story of how law enforcement hunted down the 2018 Austin serial bomber and brought 19 days of terror to a sudden, cataclysmic end. Tegna followed up with True Crime Chronicles, a weekly podcast that showcases a story from a different Tegna market each week. And this month Minneapolis-St. Paul’s KARE-TV began publishing the 88 Days podcast. It focuses on the 2018 murder of couple in a small Wisconsin town and the 88-day disappearance of their daughter, Jayme Closs. Next up is a podcast called Bardstown that digs into five unsolved murders in and around a small Kentucky town. It was produced with Tegna’s Louisville station WHAS-TV.
“Of the most popular categories in podcasting in terms of what people are listening to is true-crime,” said Ostrow. “So when we thought about what Tegna does well and where we have just an unlimited archive of content across our stations, the thinking was can we tap into our true-crime archive – with relatively recent stories, and also stories in some cases going back decades – and create original true crime programming starting as podcasts.” The company feels validated in that decision, he said, after scanning the list of top Apple Podcasts and realizing that about a third of the shows in the top 50 are true-crime based. And from the television side, they’ve seen networks like Discovery ID secure an audience by delivering a lineup of shows that, while each unique, still have true-crime fingerprints all over them. “It’s a genre that in some respects is having a moment but has always been a popular genre in mass consumption,” Ostrow said. “With podcasting and streaming, we’re just discovering there’s a real rabid fan base for it.”
Tegna isn’t releasing download figures for the podcasts it has published to date but Ostrow said that the shows have typically had “hundreds of thousands” of listens. And he said 88 Days is “doing phenomenally well” as it peaked at No. 4 among shows in the true-crime category and at No. 7 among all podcasts.
Ostrow said Tegna is taking a slow and methodical rollout of its podcast, predicting Vault Studios will only release six or seven shows by year-end. There’s also a high likelihood they’ll stick with the true-crime genre in the near-term.
Will Johnson, Executive Producer for Podcasts at Tegna, explained the decision to stay in the true-crime genre has not been because they don’t have a lot of ideas to select from. They have received hundreds of story ideas from local stations, many from the local reporters who covered the crimes initially, and now see podcasting as a way to go deeper on a story that has stuck with them through the years.
“At no level has it been a hard sell with the popularly of where podcasts are right now,” said Johnson. “The people in this company are covering cases on a daily basis, sometimes for weeks on end, and they’d like to bring these stories to life in a new and different way.”
No Advertising Yet
One of the most surprising decisions by Tegna so far has been to resist taking its podcasts into the advertising market – even as the monetization effort solidifies with each download. But Ostrow said they’re focused on creating shows and building an audience before they knock on marketers’ doors. “Podcast advertising is growing significantly and we’re just in the early stages of establishing scale. But that’s certainly the goal,” he said, adding, “Relatively soon we’ll start to look at monetization.” Even though the true-crime podcasts have come out of local TV markets, Ostrow said he sees the content appealing to a national audience. So when the advertising push does begin, he expects they’ll pitch national advertisers rather than a scenario where local sales reps are including podcasts in their packages.
Beyond traditional advertising, the interest in Hollywood hasn’t escaped Tenga CEO Dave Lougee. On a conference call with analysts this month, Lougee said a growing number of digital television and video services means a lot more demand for new content, especially reality-based programming. And that opens a door for Tegna to recoup some of its podcast investment. “We’re sitting on that library of IP content,” said Lougee, who is said to be a big podcast fan. Lougee also told analysts that Tegna itself could use the stories it is uncovering to create a video production business that could produce and then sell those shows. “We're planning to take advantage of is the fact that you're going to have a nuclear war for scripted programming between Netflix, Disney's new service, and AT&T's new direct-to-consumer service,” he predicted.
Not unlike radio and other media companies that have added a podcasting business, Tegna is using its local TV stations to promote the podcasts. And those efforts have demonstrated that pairing the big reach of a traditional media station with a niche medium like true-crime podcasts can work well together.
Earlier this year, True Crime Chronicles released an episode that focused on the notorious Icebox Murders in Houston. At the same time, Tegna’s KHOU-TV anchor-reporter Grace White, who had been following the case for many years, shared her memories on the station’s newscasts, online and in social media. The result was the episode was the most listened-to show that True Crime Chronicles has released to date.
“In that case we had a known personality in the Houston market talking about a case that is important to that area and everyone knows about it and she also talked about the episode,” said Johnson. “It was a great combination of things coming together.”