The Ken’s subscribers have been nudging us for a podcast since 2016. So, by the time we launched our first podcast, Unofficial Sources, in January this year, we set ourselves a simple primary objective.
There were many reasons why we were circumspect. The Ken has only told business stories in the written form. Longform narratives. Newsletters. Emails. But audio was an entirely unknown animal. The cumulative audio experience inside The Ken was… zero. Not a single one of us had ever worked on, created or even been involved in the audio medium.
Thus, the low bar for our primary goal.
But, we also told ourselves that once the primary goal was achieved, we needed to move on to our next one.
Become one of India’s top 10 business podcasts by the end of 2021
Simply because subscription-driven publications have their quality bar set by their subscribers, not advertisers. And The Ken’s subscriber community has a very high bar.
And over 50% of our subscribers picked a podcast when we asked them, in a survey in 2018, to choose a new product that would make them recommend us to friends. Since then, podcasts have been one of the most requested features from subscribers. We’d get emails regularly from subscribers, old and new, asking us the same thing — Can you do a podcast? We’d love to listen to it.
But what would a “good” podcast look like? Our initial research told us that a) podcast success metrics are rudimentary but b) if we got around 4,000 downloads for every episode we put out, we’d be in the top 1% of podcasts globally, which would almost certainly make us a reasonably successful podcast in India.
We thought it would take us a year to get there.
Instead, in just weeks after we launched, we were ranked the #1 podcast in the business category, and the #3 podcast across all categories in India on Apple Podcasts (nearly half of our subscribers come from the Apple ecosystem).
Then, with every month, our downloads rose. Slowly but steadily.
By the end of May, we’d crossed a significant milestone—100,000 downloads. And we’d done it in four months, with just ten episodes.
With both primary (“don’t suck”) and secondary (“become a top 10 business podcast in India”) goals achieved, we realised it was time for a new goal.
One million listens.
Unofficial Sources is an Indian narrative business podcast. We tell stories about what companies and businesses are doing, through conversations with some of the best journalists in the country, told in a way that’s entertaining, memorable and fun.
Our new goal is to get Unofficial Sources to a million listens and to ramp it up from a fortnightly to a weekly podcast.
Oh, and we’re also working on a second podcast and some more exciting audio products.
Which is why we feel the time is now ripe to hire our first full-time Podcast Producer.
Anyway, we thought we’d tell our story of how we got this far, the mistakes we made, and what we learnt along the way. Some of this includes podcasting tips given to us by others; we’re just compiling it to help anyone interested in making their podcast successful.
Here’s how we did it.
Iterate in the dark… but not for too long
When creating a podcast, one of the first questions that comes up is: What should a podcast sound like? What’s the format? How should it approach the topic? What’s the voice? The tone? Is it friendly? Authoritative? Casual?
This is a fairly common conundrum for any product. Do you iterate openly, or do you iterate silently in the dark? The general answer is that you do both, but the trick is knowing when to switch from iterating in the dark to iterating in the light, openly.
Like most products, we chose to iterate in the dark, at first. We figured out quite early that we wanted to do a narrative podcast telling stories about business in India. We had no experience in audio, but we understood business storytelling, so this seemed like the obvious optio—we just picked what we knew we were good at. Also, we looked up the most popular podcasts in India and Southeast Asia, and figured out that there weren’t any narrative business podcasts out there.
There was a gap. This was an opportunity. And we knew we had the expertise to fill it. If you are starting a podcast, just look up the top charts, and pay attention to the formats—if there’s something missing that you are good at, it’s something you should do.
That’s how we arrived at the format. The next step was to get the voice, tone and how to best execute the format. There are many ways to do a narrative business podcast.
- The Daily by The New York Times does it through a conversation between two people, the host and the reporter
- Business Wars does it using dramatic storytelling which almost sounds like an audio play.
- Planet Money walks the line in between, combining a narrator along with snippets of interviews with experts and reporters.
There were other questions. Would we need one host or two? Which stories do we pick to tell? How would we know if it was working? Should we script it tightly? Or keep it a bit loose to make it sound natural?
Eventually, we broadly stuck to a Planet Money type of format. We got there after an extensive process of attempts followed by elimination, to find our voice. But honestly, this is probably the wrong approach and if we knew what we did today, we wouldn’t recommend it.
But in the process, Olina and Anushka, who’d eventually end up co-hosting the podcast, finally found the right balance.
Our approach was to try everything, listen to how it sounded, ask for feedback and then decide what to do next. And we decided to do all of this internally, inside The Ken (there was a Slack channel dedicated just to giving feedback for various drafts of our episodes which many of our colleagues enthusiastically joined). Our thinking was that at some point, our podcast would become “good enough” (read: not terribly sucky), after which we’d launch it.
This is not a bad approach but it takes a lot of time. We spent nearly five months doing this and recorded countless drafts and pilots, all of which was quite frustrating. If you have a group of people you trust who can give you feedback, do iterate in the dark, but don’t do it for too long. Else, by the end, you start to lose perspective on what’s good and what isn’t.
Which is why, sometimes it’s better to switch quickly to…
Iterate openly and transparently
If you take a look at the length of every episode of Unofficial Sources, here’s what it looks like
Conventional wisdom will tell you that it’s best to be consistent with the format and length at the start, and slowly start experimenting once things are stabilised.
Instead, we chose to do the opposite. Right from the start, we kept trying out a bunch of things and tested reactions and feedback from our listeners. When we started off, our vision was that an episode of Unofficial Sources would have a main narrative segment, about 25 minutes long, followed by a second segment that was more experimental in nature.
Essentially, an episode looked something like this:
Over the first few episodes, we did all kinds of things in the second segment, like when
- In our opening episode, we tried a freewheeling discussion between Rohin, Seema and PGK who attempted to triangulate the number of Indians who would be vaccinated by the end of 2021.
- Then in the next episode, we did another discussion, this time with Nithin and Olina. We tried an explainer format where we talked about Gamestop’s and Amazon’s marketplace policies.
- We also experimented with panel discussions with guests, like Nitin Pai of Takshashila and Rahul Matthan of Trilegal.
- Then we tried to do a long interview, this time with Aprameya Radhakrishna, the CEO of the messaging app Koo where we discussed the origins of Koo and if Koo can ultimately beat the odds and become successful.
And we did all of this in our first six episodes. We still get emails from new listeners pointing out that every episode of Unofficial Sources feels different and experimental. Many of them tell us what they loved, or didn’t about all of them.
But nobody seemed to have a problem because we were experimenting with the podcast in a drastic way, with every single episode.
So if your listeners don’t mind, then why should you?
Get professional help… if you can
There are always going to be things you know little about, and this is usually around the production of the episode itself, and about the editing and music.
Luckily, this is where we got help.
First, we needed to know how to actually go about and produce an episode. What are the best practices and workflows for creating a narrative news podcast from scratch? What makes a podcast engaging? How does the logistics of recording work? Mics, earphones, beginner mistakes and the like. We didn’t want to rediscover the wheel, so we engaged with Chhavi Sachdev of Sonologue, who did a workshop with all of us at The Ken, which was quite engaging (and fun!). This helped us avoid a ton of beginner mistakes.
So if you are starting a podcast, get in touch with Sonologue. They are great. Would recommend.
The second thing we needed help with was the music and sound design of the podcast. Right from the beginning, we knew we needed a punchy, memorable theme, and so we wrote a creative brief that we sent out to some great music producers. In our brief, we called attention to the fact that The Ken is an Asian publication, and wanted the theme music to be associated with five phrases:
- High-production value
When we asked Sameer later how he thought about it, and how he approached the music. Sameer told us that he knew he wanted to work with us because he loved that we knew exactly what we wanted. Of course, he later added, this is not necessarily a good thing, but in our case, it worked out really well. He pointed out that we’d sent him a list of music examples which we really loved, and that really helped. There were many examples on that list, from the theme song of podcasts like The Daily, but the one that caught Sameer’s attention was that we’d mentioned a track by Mogwai — a band he loved as much as we did.
And so he got to scoring, and several versions later, we found the sound of Unofficial Sources.
The theme music has developed to a character of its own. There are variants of it, which we use depending on the theme of the episode. There’s the regular version, one with more strings which we use for some episodes, a darker version as well.
Invest in getting help. If you find the right people, nothing like it.
Use the show notes as an opportunity
Many podcasts do not treat the show notes as anything more than a way to quickly summarise the episode. There are notable exceptions, like Amit Varma’s stellar podcast The Seen and the Unseen, which uses the show notes as a “collection of rabbit holes” for the listener.
Here’s what our show notes typically looked like back in January, for our first episode.
This was great, but over time, we decided to keep the show notes brief, but useful, with four main calls-to-action to the listener, depending on how we think they’d feel after listening to the episode.
Option 1 : For those who loved the episode, and want more -> a link to the story
Option 2 : For those who liked the episode, and are curious about The Ken -> a special offer page
Option 3 : For those who liked the episode and want to be notified about what we do, a link to our Twitter page, our most active social channel
Option 4 : For those who loved or hated the episode, and want to tell you about it, a link for feedback
The show notes are an opportunity, where you can segment your listener and send them where you want to send them. Use it wisely.
Keep an eye on non-metric signals
While it’s a great idea to keep an eye on the downloads that your podcast is doing, listener feedback can be quite revelatory too. Somewhere after the sixth episode, we discontinued our second segment. Soon after, we started getting emails like this:
Listener feedback is quite insightful, so that’s why we have an announcement to make.
We are doubling down on audio.
Until now, we started a podcast as an experiment, and tried to see if we could build something big from it by thinking about it from a first-principles standpoint—even when we had no experience building any audio products. It’s still early days for us, and we are encouraged by the results to try out a many more audio products over the next few months, such as audio-versions of our stories and newsletters, making Unofficial Sources into a weekly podcast. We are also in the initial stages of building a second podcast, which will also be our first paid audio product.
A hundred thousand downloads are cool, but you know what would be even cooler?
A million downloads.
And we cannot get there without some help. If you liked what you read above, and if it’s something you’d like to do as well, that’s great, because we have an exciting announcement.
We are hiring a producer for the audio team at The Ken. We are looking for a smart, ambitious person who would like to work with us to create, produce and build our audio products and audience. Our goal is to create offerings, both free and paid, all with the goal of becoming one of the top audio productions in Asia.
If you know someone, send them this post, and ask them to apply here.