Hats off to Mark Ramsey for making hivio 2015 a content rich audio festival. Sure, like most radio industry conferences/symposiums, there were standard presentations supported with PowerPoint slides with lots of data. However, what makes hivio unique is the one-on-one sit downs with featured guests leading to relevant, insightful and thought-provoking takeaways for all those in attendance. (Be sure to check out our initial blog post where we shared what we heard from Mark Ramsey on the Power of Radio)
Mark's first guest was Scott Baker who believes we are currently in the "Golden Age of Audio". Scott's current role is Editor-in-Chief of TheBlaze, an independent all-encompassing media organization probably best associated with its founder - conservative pundit Glenn Beck. TheBlaze as described by Mark is an "innovative genre busting hugely successful platform for news information and entertainment" distributed through multiple platforms including a website, TV network, radio network, blog and store. When TheBlaze launched five years ago, its mission according to Scott was to become the "zeitgeist" for the centre to right, telling stories through various platforms that would drive the discussion.
Scott's interest in the media started during his college days while working on political campaigns. Following graduation, he worked in broadcast journalism for various outlets including the Voice of America, CBS News and ABC's affiliate in Pittsburgh as primary news anchor. Then about 10 years ago he made the leap into digital that eventually evolved into co-founding Breitbart.tv. When the TheBlaze launched, to their surprise, it received two million page views on its first day and has been growing ever since. Scott attributes its success to the fact that their contributors ARE the audience, developing material that they would consume and by never using the approach of us and the audience.
A theme that was alluded to more than once at hivio 2015 is that content providers in the audio space tend to think of their distribution channels in silos - over-the-air radio, digital, podcasting, etc. lacking horizontal thinking. TheBlaze never pigeon-holed themselves into that thinking and although Glenn Beck always envisioned his radio show would be at the forefront, all the other platforms would surround it. Scott explained that it was in the company's DNA to expand from the original website property and encompass TV elements, audio components, print components, live events etc. – seeing it as one "warp and woof". I had never heard this expression before and although in context I kinda got the gist, I immediately reached for my smart phone to confirm that it was an expression used since the 1500s referring to the threads in woven fabric that run lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (woof) and by extension the "underlying structure on which something is built; a base or foundation."
At this point in the conversation Scott first declared that we're currently in the golden age of audio outlining that he listens to more spoken word audio content than ever before; consuming content through his iPad as he gets ready for work, flipping between conventional and satellite radio when he drives in his car and loads up on podcasts before getting onto a plane. With more than four million podcast downloads a month from TheBlaze.com, he's obviously not alone in his consumption habits. Later on Scott's passion for spoken word audio programming came through again when he declared that personally over the past year the medium that has had the greatest impact in all aspects of his life shaping him as a writer, broadcaster, manager, person and father is audio programming that he has listened to. His words got me re-excited about the genre and over the past month I've downloaded and listened to more podcasts than over the last three years.
Scott elaborated that TheBlaze lives in the conservative space, whether it is political, faith etc. and is able to say what stories need to be told and determine what truths are not being revealed. Their 24/7 television network is distributed through dozens of cable and satellite operators across the country as well as available to OTT subscribers. Much of that viewership is driven from the digital content side by a small tight news team that asks "what really matters and what are the stories that are going to drive the discussion?"
The digital space is extremely competitive and one issue talked about was 'clickbait'. Scott mentioned that to attract the widest audience to your content, the headline or the title of the segment or show gives the content its "fighting chance". A lively headline that entices the audience and satisfies them afterwards is a good thing. Scott reminds his writers and producers all the time that their audience owes them nothing and if they wouldn't read the article or watch the show themselves, then it's not worth promoting. In the conservative space, there are a lot of worthy competitors but as well there are many non-worthy competitors that have contempt towards the audience. Those competitors have multiple sites with the sole mission to attract as many clicks as possible - just throwing up words trying to increase page views. But people know – they understand the nuance – the pretenders will be outed very quickly.
Citing Facebook as an example, Scott outlined that it's important that a company identifies their mission and approaches it by knowing why they exist and what are their core 'distinctives'. That way they can pivot and change their focus when required without changing their strategic anchor and who they are as a company. At TheBlaze, skepticism and curiosity is a high value that they see as a service to their audience when de-bunking and fact checking news stories of the day. Scott went on to state that since in digital news there are low barriers of entry and a high rate of innovation, a company must be prepared to pivot at a moment's notice. "Nimbleness and alacrity are absolutely essential." You could be skeptical and curious and fast but at the same time be sloppy or just bad. "Those levels of virtuosity of execution – those things don't change for us." Everything else, all of what's happening with mobile, podcasts, on-line, OTT, cable etc. – all of those things are part of that mix.
Mark sought advice on behalf of those wondering where this space is heading and how to best invest their time and resources. Scott emphasized that having a unique perspective and having something to say to "shepherd and cultivate" those ideas. TheBlaze has a wide range of very talented people they can bring to the table which gives them a competitive edge. When Scott first started his live webcast he wanted to do it long form, unscripted, make it video and audio etc. He then looped it so people didn't start it at the beginning but joined it in progress. "They just wanted it on, they like the show, they liked the banter and they liked the analysis." If it is serious information, Scott is going to listen to it beginning to end. "Give me a reason to listen to your podcast. There has to be a benefit, there has to be a story, there has to be a narrative."
It was indeed inspiring to hear Scott's passion for spoken word audio programming and through technology just about any content is available to consume anytime. I'll agree with Scott that we are indeed living in the "Golden Age of Audio".