Inspired by the wildly successful podcast Serial, Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing editor Bert Roughton thought a podcast could by a dynamic way to engage new audiences with the publication’s journalism. He always knew there was potential, but he never thought that Breakdown, the paper’s podcast that focuses on “breakdowns” in the Atlanta justice system, would catch on so quickly and appeal to people not only in Atlanta, but across the country and around the world.
Now in its second season, Breakdown is set to cross the two million listens mark in the iTunes store. When new episodes were being released on a weekly basis this spring, the podcast was frequently ranked in the top ten on the iTunes chart.
On the incredible success of Breakdown, Bill Rankin, legal affairs reporter with the Atlanta newspaper and the voice behind the podcast, said, “It’s amazing to me. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined it.”
After season one wrapped, the results were promising, but not groundbreaking.
Roughton said, “Within the confines of our website, it had a good audience. It was performing the way a solid package would on a Sunday, but it wasn’t changing lives. But we still wanted to experiment with this format, so we switched from a subject that was dug out of old Georgia judicial files to a case that was more topical to see what the reaction would be. We knew from years of reporting on this story that there was more to it than meets the eye. Season two has a different pace, a different sense of urgency.”
The second season focuses on the widely publicized Justin Ross Harris case. In June 2014, 22-month old Cooper Harris died after his father, Justin Ross Harris, left him in the back seat of his car in the Atlanta summer heat. Although at first it appeared to be a tragic accident, when details emerged about Ross Harris’ extramarital affairs, many began to question if this was truly an innocent mistake.
Rankin explained that even before they began recording, the newspaper’s digital properties experienced astronomically high click-through rates on any stories pertaining to Ross Harris’ trial – so he knew the interest was there.
Both Roughton and Rankin were pleasantly surprised that once they began releasing new episodes, listeners were going back and downloading older ones. Podcasts have a tendency to snowball, they noted, so the two seasons are supporting each other. There are three times as many listeners of the first season than there were before they started season two, which is encouraging to the pair.
“The ultimate goal is to build as big of an audience as you can,” said Roughton. “At the beginning, we were thinking that audience would be largely our readership in metro Atlanta. But we’ve learned that you want to cast a wide net, because it not only extends the story but it extends the business opportunities. We are very big in London for whatever reason. I think they like us because they like southern weirdness.”
When measuring the success of the podcast, Roughton notes that the number of listens – not listeners or subscribers – is actually the key metric to developing a loyal audience. Listeners who come back to the podcast again and again to hear new episodes are more likely to then visit the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s website, engage with other content and build a relationship with the news outlet itself.
“If the basic podcast is performing in front of a big audience, then that audience will begin serving all our platforms really well,” Roughton explained.
When a podcast has big audience numbers in iTunes, advertising opportunities begin to present themselves. Both Roughton and Rankin would love for the podcast to not only sustain the cost of the journalism, but to generate revenue for the newspaper. They are in discussions with several podcast brokers, who buy the rights to a podcast and then sell advertising within it, generating dollars for both the broker and the publisher.
Although potential revenue generation is an important motivator, Roughton says that he is most interested in continuing the podcast because he is always looking for new, innovative ways to tell stories. He noted that traditional journalists have to make this a priority. If they don’t, he fears that longform journalism could disappear and our news cycle would be dominated by 15-second soundbites, which will not sustain our country’s thirst for information.
“At the start of season one, we had to learn about production, about technology, about promoting the podcast,” said Roughton. “We had no idea how it would be received or how to think about it in the context of what we normally do, but it seemed to me that it was worth the risk to just try it. I know now that it was worth all of the expense, the hassle, the tormenting Bill and everything else because we have something that we can learn from and build on.”
In the end, the pair can’t wait to see what is next for the Breakdown podcast. They encourage other newspapers to find the right story, invest in the audio and equipment and give it a try. Both cite their willingness to experiment and their openness to creativity as reasons for Breakdown’s success. Underscoring the layered nature of podcasts – the narration, the sound bites, the music – Roughton and Rankin enjoy the richness of the medium and say that making Breakdown is the most fun project they have ever worked on.
Members of the News Media Alliance staff have contributed to this post.