Jessica Stahl was recently named the Washington Post’s Director of Audio after serving as the organisation’s deputy editor for audience, where she focused on community-building and digital-first storytelling.
In her new role, she is overseeing the Post’s audio operation, which encompasses a number of popular podcasts, programming for smart speakers as well as other audio-first projects.
Ahead of her appearance at the World News Media Congress, 6-8 June in Estoril, Portugal, where she’ll discuss the Washington Post’s audio strategy in more detail, Stahl answered a few questions about her new position and the organisation’s experiments in audio storytelling.
WAN-IFRA: You were recently named Director of Audio at the Washington Post. What does your new role entail?
Jessica Stahl: I oversee The Post’s audio operation, which encompasses our podcasts, programming for smart speakers and other audio-first projects.
A main focus for me is ensuring that all the right infrastructure and support is in place to facilitate high-quality projects and ambitious experiments in audio storytelling. Some days that means developing new promotion strategies, sometimes it’s advocating for the use of new technologies, sometimes it’s picking out a piece of music so the producer can focus on something else.
How important is audio in the overall content strategy of the Washington Post?
Audio is is still a very new platform for us, so we’re very excited about continuing to learn how it can enhance and complement everything we do. The Post has always embraced the idea of meeting users where they are and in the mediums they prefer, and I see audio as an extension of that strategy.
The rise of smart speakers and other new ways to access and experience audio has the potential to create a complete revolution in how information is delivered, and we want to make sure we’re experimenting in those spaces and quickly implementing what we learn about how people want to interact with us there.
We also see the value in audio knowing that podcasts are driven by listener loyalty. People form relationships with podcast hosts and shows, and that kind of engagement is very different from how people find and consume a digital article, for example.
The Washington Post was among the first news organisations to produce audio for voice assistants. What are some of the challenges and lessons you can share associated with producing content for these new platforms?
These platforms are still in their early stages and they will continue to grow and evolve, probably very quickly, which means all our lessons will keep getting outdated – which is a good thing.
One particular challenge is how difficult it can be to help users understand how to navigate through an audio-only interface and discover content. Offering a menu with a lot of options, for example, isn’t the best user experience because people won’t sit and listen through all of them. Apps have to really be easy-to-access and habit-forming to be adopted by users.
As a result, we’ve focused a lot of our attention on experimenting with briefings, and have gained insight on the time of day people listen, the production values they expect, and the preferred length.
What type of content works best for audio at the Washington Post?
I am really proud of the range in types of content for our audio products – short and long; daily, weekly and mini-series; politics, sports, history, culture.
The consistent thread across all of our podcasts is that they help users understand something about our world and enlighten them about something they may not have known before.
Is there growing audience engagement with all things audio?
There are certainly growing audiences for audio. We’ve seen the share of Americans who listen to podcasts increase over the past few years, and that will likely continue to increase as the definition of audio expands beyond radio and podcasts to other use cases.
It’s exciting to see the rise of Facebook groups and newsletters around podcasting in general and around specific shows. It shows the appetite people have to engage with their favourite hosts and programs, and we’re far from reaching the full potential of our ability to bring our most passionate listeners into our sphere and make them feel part of what we’re doing.
There is still a major opportunity to grow the audience of on-demand audio, and for all of us to educate potential listeners and find new delivery methods that make it easier for more people to engage with the medium.
For publishers who have not yet engaged audio – what type of content should they experiment with?
Publishers have to assess their own strengths, brand and capabilities to determine if audio is right for them and, if so, what type of content makes sense.
There are a lot of amazing things happening in audio right now, so in some ways it’s never been a better time to experiment in that space. However, the ecosystem is also extremely crowded and creating good audio is labour-intensive, so you have to have a firm understanding of your objectives. Take risks and experiment, but do it smartly.