The number of weekly podcast listeners has doubled in the last five years, with 11% of all adults in the UK now tuning in every 7 days. This is music to the ears of Chris Impey, one of the key players behind The Economist’s new podcast, The Intelligence.
As the Managing Editor of National Prison Radio and Senior Producer at The Economist, Chris’s fascinating relationship with radio has seen him recently write his own book: The House of the Hill, the history of Brixton Prison, is set to be published by Tangerine Press in May 2019.
In this week’s #KnapChat, Chris Impey walks us through his wonderful career in radio, or what he calls, “the original social medium”.
KW: How has the world of radio changed since the rise of digital media such as social networking?
Chris: Radio is the original social medium! But social media has allowed radio stations to interact with audiences more comprehensively.
KW: Why do you believe the popularity of podcasts has surged, and continues to surge, so drastically? And why would you recommend listening to them?
Chris: There are podcasts about everything. I’ve just finished listening to one about the making of Jaws – one of my favourite films. They offer entertainment and information in a convenient format, and you can listen to them anywhere.
KW: The Economist has clearly invested in podcasting, what do they expect to get from it?
Chris: The Economist turned 175 years old last year. But age is no guarantee of longevity. The newspaper has proved an ability to diversify – podcasting is the latest example of that. It allows us to bring our journalism to a different audience and deepen our engagement with current subscribers.
KW: What do you think will be the next big innovation in the world of broadcasting?
Chris: There is ongoing development of voice-activated software which is being touted as the next big thing in news and podcasting – allowing people to find the stories they’re most interested in and to skip through them. The BBC has a voice-activated service coming out soon.
KW: As a radio producer, how do you ensure your programmes build and nurture relationships with listeners? How do you maintain audience loyalty and ensure they feel engaged?
Chris: As with any good product, it’s about setting a high standard and maintaining it. Aside from that, trust is the most valuable commodity any podcaster or radio station has.
KW: What do you believe are the key ingredients to digital storytelling?
Chris: The principles of storytelling don’t really differ whether it’s a story told in a podcast or around a campfire. Someone once said to me that good stories only happen to the people who can tell them.
For me, the best radio stories always include first-person testimony.
KW: Why is radio so important in a prison environment? How does prison radio differ from your work on Radio 4? How do you tailor your content and tone to such a niche audience?
Chris: Information is very difficult to come by in prison: people spend up to 23 hours a day locked up and many struggle to read and write. Radio proved to be the best way of spreading that information – which is the most valuable of resources inside.
The National Prison Radio audience was much more diverse than that of Radio 4. We had men, women, children, pensioners listening, not to mention a wide variety of social backgrounds. It meant we broadcast everything from rock to classical; keeping such a diverse audience happy was one of my biggest challenges in radio.
KW: How did you grow National Prison Radio to the hugely influential force it is today?
Chris: From the start, we wanted to make sure the radio station had extremely high production values – it had to be a service people chose to listen to. It meant we were able to build a large and loyal audience. That, in turn, allowed us to draw in advertisers and other funding which helped us to grow the station.
KW: What particular technological/digital innovation or invention has had the biggest impact on what you do/how you live your life. And why?
Chris: The smartphone. I couldn’t be without it for podcasts – but the quality of the mic means it’s also an excellent recording device – certainly a lot easier to use than the mini-disc machines I used at the start of my career.
KW: What has been the most important thing in your career that, without it, you wouldn’t be where you are today?
Chris: After university, I did a course in teaching English as a foreign language then booked a one-way plane ticket to Chile. But on a whim, I sent a speculative letter and CV to BBC Radio Lincolnshire asking for some work experience. I’d always wanted to work in radio, but hadn’t ever pursued the idea.
Maggie Curtis, the assistant editor, asked me in for a chat and within a few weeks I had cancelled my flight and was covering stories across the county as a paid freelancer. It was an unexpected opportunity which proved the fillip for my entire career.
If it hadn’t been for Maggie, I don’t know what I would be doing, although I would now be able to speak Spanish.
The way in which we share and receive information is constantly changing, and it is up to distributors to adapt with the times, something The Economist is certainly used to, having turned 175 years old last year. But as Chris Impey says, “age is no guarantee of longevity”.
With technology advancing faster than ever before, the ability to diversify has never been more important, but that should not impact the trust you have built up with your readers, listeners or viewers over the years. Remember, “the principles of storytelling don’t differ in relation to format”, as Chris so wisely put it.
So… how will you tell your story?