Finding the tricky balance between editorial and advertising

Up early to get the 8.31 Eurostar to Brussels because I was off to make an episode for friends of The Cycling Podcast. For those who don’t know, the Friends of the Podcast episodes are behind a paywall and are available only to our subscribers and, if all goes well, this project should be released at the end of the month, just before the Giro d’Italia.

The Friends of the Podcast episodes are a mix of things – in-depth explorations of a subject, documentary-style pieces, exclusive interviews, recordings of live events (which sometimes include things we perhaps wouldn’t want to release to our much larger free-to-air audience), and other odds and ends that we haven’t had room for in the regular show. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to take an idea and see what direction it takes me in and the episodes of mine I think turned out the best were Ventoux: Heat, Wind and Fear from the 2016 collection and last year’s Lionel of Flanders series. Hopefully this one will go well too, although you can never be sure.

We charge £15 for a guaranteed 11 episodes (although we aim to over-deliver on that – the hope being that people will notice that each episode is theirs for much less than a pound). In terms of value, we hope people see that we charge for a year’s content the equivalent of about a week’s worth of coffees from a high street chain, or the cost of a couple of magazines, or a trip to the cinema.

Although we offer episodes in exchange for that £15, the revenue generated pays for so much more than just the specials. Without that income, we’d not be able to produce weekly episodes that are free to listen to, or our free coverage of the three grand tours. We are very grateful to our major sponsors – Rapha and Science In Sport – too, because we rely just as much on that income. The fact is, no single source of funding comes close to covering the costs of producing The Cycling Podcast. I was going to qualify that by referencing the modern, fractured media landscape but the more I thought about it the more I realised that no single source of income has ever sustained the media on its own. The bottom line is that without the financial support of sponsors, advertisers and listeners we would not be able to produce hundreds of hours of free shows over the course of the year.

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A few days ago, I saw a review of The Cycling Podcast on iTunes which was criticising the amount of advertising in the shows of late and it made me want to address the issue of funding and the fine balance between editorial and advertising.

Generally, my attitude to reviews is that people can say more or less what they like about my work because everyone is entitled to an opinion. But unless they had access to my head space while I was making whatever it was, they cannot know which factors influenced the creative process. All that matters to the reader, or listener, is what is on the page, or in the episode – and rightly so. They’re not interested that an interview I’d planned fell down at the last minute or that an idea I’d had led down a cul-de-sac and had to be scrapped. They’re not interested in the financial or time constraints – and why should they be? All that matters is whether they thought it was any good and they (you) are are free to judge because I have put it in the public domain to be read or heard. I am not saying I don’t care what people think of my work because I do, often deeply, but once something is done, it’s done. I can’t go back and change it, and explaining or justifying why something is the way it is usually constitutes a waste of energy that could go towards the next thing. So I tend not to pay too much attention to reviews that critique the work.

Criticism of our business model is different to me, particularly when it seems little thought has gone into a comment. It makes me question whether we have communicated clearly enough why something has been available to listen to for free in the first place.

I am aware it may sound defensive writing this, and also that I may be drawing the issue of advertising to the attention of people who had not previously been bothered by it, but I spend so much time thinking (and worrying) about how we fund the podcast that I wanted to tackle it.

There’s no right of reply on iTunes, but I felt it was worth reiterating that just because something is free to consume does not mean it has been free to produce.

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I understand there is an issue of perception here. People may assume that we have the backing and support of a large media company. We don’t. The Cycling Podcast is owned solely by Richard, Daniel and me. Every penny we have spent we have raised one way or other. That is both a tremendous strength and a weakness. The strength is that we have the editorial and strategic freedom to develop as we want; the weakness being we have to fund everything we do somehow. In the early days that often came out of our own pockets. I covered my own expenses at Paris-Nice in 2014 and 2015 because I wanted to produce content for The Cycling Podcast but knew the company could not afford to cover it. I know Richard and Daniel have made similar contributions or sacrifices over the years too. People may wonder about our association with the Telegraph, but that is a mutually-beneficial media partnership and has never included a financial arrangement.

We have been very fortunate to attract two medium-term sponsors – Rapha and Science In Sport – and the strength of these associations is that they are brands likely to be of very strong interest to most of our listeners, because they are associated with cycling.

This year, we have added one additional advertising slot to our regular free-to-air episodes, and the brands being promoted have not been related to cycling.

The reason for this additional slot is straightforward. Early last year the company that hosts all our audio told us that they would soon have to start charging for that storage space and server capacity. Since we started in June 2013, they had hosted us for free but we knew that could not last for ever.

If you think about it, every episode is in excess of 40MB and during the grand tours there can be hundreds of thousands of downloads a week, sometimes rising above a million. In five years, I cannot remember a single glitch when we have been offline because, I assume, Audioboom has servers and back-up servers and servers that back-up the back-up servers to ensure that reliability. I am not a technical wizard but it strikes me that’s some serious server capacity and it costs them money.

We entered into negotiations that went on for the best part of a year and in the end they offered us a choice – either we pay a five-figure annual subscription fee or we make one ‘live read’ slot of approximately two minutes’ duration available in each episode. The advertising would be sold on a revenue-share basis. The choice – pay out a large sum or money, or generate some revenue – was, on the face of it, not a difficult one to make, but it was not something we took lightly either because we wanted to make sure that we struck the right balance.

That has led to us advertising beer, a current affairs magazine, razors and mattresses so far, and it has given me something to wrestle with because, until now, I’ve managed to sail through my career in journalism without having to handle the grubby advertising dollars myself.

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I think back to when I worked for a newspaper. The journalists pretended to themselves that the paper’s 30 pence cover price was paying for all their work. It wasn’t, of course. It was the pages and pages of classified ads, the property and motoring sections filled with adverts for estate agents and motor dealers. We looked down our noses slightly at the freesheet – the sister paper which shared our office space – because we thought our editorial was pure in a way theirs was not. Ludicrous, really. The demarcation of editorial and advertising was as clear in their paper as it was in ours.

However, back in those days there was an iron curtain between the editorial and advertising departments themselves. I can remember an ad rep coming into the newsroom to ask me what I was planning to write about a second-hand car dealership, which happened to be a big advertiser, and he was more or less marched back to his side of the ‘wall’ by the news editor and told it was none of his business.

Whenever there was friction between editorial and advertising staff they’d tell us they paid our wages and we’d tell them they’d not get their bonuses if it wasn’t for the quality editorial their adverts appeared among.

The iron curtain was dishonest really because the relationship between editorial and advertising was symbiotic. Although we were independent of one another we were also entirely dependent on the other.

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  Don't let anyone tell you that life on the road is all glamour...

Don't let anyone tell you that life on the road is all glamour...

On the journey to Brussels, I started thinking about what my episode would cost to produce… The trip would involve a two-night stay in Belgium, so there was a taxi to the train station and a train to London; a return trip on the Eurostar (with departure times chosen for maximum cost efficiency, hence the red-eye start), a couple of coffees on the way, a hire car (the smallest car that was available with unlimited mileage), lunches, evening meals, fuel for the hire car, a budget Ibis in Ghent and a cheap B&B in the Flemish countryside, a return train from St Pancras and a taxi back home. Then there were other costs such as batteries for my recording equipment, a fee for some translation we would need doing and a producer to edit the whole episode, possibly also a fee to allow us to use some music. And, lastly, a fee for me for making it.

Without getting too deeply into the figures, I calculated that it would cost the fat end of 100 Friends of the Podcast subscriptions (remembering we have to deduct VAT and transaction fees from the £15, plus pay for our servers and paywall, because they are hosted separately from Audioboom, before we could put what was left into the editorial piggybank) to make this one episode.

Of course, there is no advertising in the Friends of the Podcast episodes, but I use it as an example because the content we produce for the regular episodes costs money too. It is not cheap to travel to the grand tours and while I may post pictures of beautiful vistas and lovely meals on Twitter and Instagram I can assure you that we work to a strict budget knowing that if we exceed it we are only eating into the pool of money we can use to pay ourselves. Every time I blow the budget on three delicious courses, I am literally biting the hand that feeds me.

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It has been encouraging that companies have wanted to advertise in The Cycling Podcast because they know we have a large, smart audience who might like to buy their things. But it would be wrong to think that we have no say in the advertising we carry, because we have the final say on everything. We can say no, if we wish but, so far, have not had reason to do so.

Each time a new proposal is made, we speak to someone from the company to get an idea of the message they want to get across. We also want to ensure they know about us, what we stand for, and what we will and won’t do, so the lines are clear.

In terms of delivering the messages, we are always treading a fine line but we certainly can’t be accused of pretending advertising is editorial. We are also clear about why we appreciate the support of all the companies who have sponsored or advertised with us – because their backing keeps the podcast going.

In terms of how the adverts have been received by the listeners, we’ve had a handful of comments, and I usually make the assumption that if someone is voicing an opinion there will be others who feel the same.

The number of ad slots has increased from two per episode to three this year. However, the average running time of our episodes has also crept up, so it’s not like the adverts are taking up time that could have been used for editorial. The ads are not replacing anything. And, taken as a percentage of our overall output, I don’t feel it’s an unreasonable amount of time to spare.

After all, you wouldn’t want old Napalm to have to cut down to only two courses, would you?