Podcasts Boost Audience for RTÉ Radio Docs

Technology finds untapped audience for its content online
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DUBLIN — Documentary on One, the radio documentary website of Ireland’s public broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), boasted 1.03 million page views and more than 1.5 million podcast downloads in 2011.

The number of radio documentaries that listeners downloaded from the site accounted for 14 percent of all podcasts downloaded from RTÉ in 2011, the most popular network in this country of 4 million. And that percentage is growing — since Jan. 1 of this year, they now account for 16 percent of all podcasts downloaded from RTÉ.

To put this podcast percent share in context, Documentary on One’s on-air programs only make up 1.1 percent of RTÉ broadcast content, with a correspondingly smaller audience. Meanwhile, the network’s Morning Ireland website only achieved 930,000 page views in 2011 despite being the website for the largest radio show in Ireland.

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Documentary on One’s home page

“There is a true hunger for compelling radio documentaries among online listeners,” said Liam O’Brien, series producer for Documentary on One. “And it is not just in Ireland: A third of our downloads are international, with the U.S. accounting for 11 percent and the U.K. 10 percent.”

World audience

The five-person Documentary on One unit is renowned for its documentaries. Since 2008, it has won 52 national and international awards. Twenty-one were awarded to them in 2011 alone.

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A typical documentary home page.

Many of its programs are rebroadcast internationally on ABC in Australia, BBC in the U.K., CBC in Canada, NPR in the U.S. and RNZ in New Zealand. “All of our documentaries are offered to any radio station worldwide for free broadcast,” said O’Brien, “but only on the grounds that all our online details are given each and every time a documentary is aired, and that our content is correctly credited.”

Even with this exposure, the Documentary on One team sensed that there was an untapped audience for its content online. So it established the on-demand podcast website in July 2009.

Today, “Our website is the largest archive in the world for radio documentaries,” said O’Brien. “We currently offer over 900 radio documentaries, which stretch as far back as 1954. We continue to produce new content and upload from our archives and so later this year, we will offer more than 1,000 documentaries.”

O’Brien adds that they have also just released a new Documentary on One mobile app for iPhone and Android smartphones so listeners can have immediate free access to RTÉ radio documentaries from anywhere in the world.

Documentary on One’s website is promoted by word of mouth, particularly through social media. The fact that this happens so often explains why so many people visit its podcast page. The question is, why?

The answer is compelling content; aided by an easy-to-navigate website that list documentaries by category —Culture, Life, Health, Timeless, etc. — plus “Most Popular” and “Recommended’ link sections (and an online user’s guide to help newbies find what they want).

Compelling content

For instance, on the page for the Most Popular documentary “Little Molly O’Neill — A Survivor’s Story,” the text reads, “In a graveyard in Wexford is a family headstone ... one date stands out among the others — Christmas Eve 1922, when a mother, Alice O’Neill, and her seven children all died on the same day. They all died in a fire that was to haunt a community and shape a family for generations. The fire left only one survivor from the family — an eight year old girl ‘little Molly’ — to carry on the family’s history.”

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The splash screen for Documentary on One's Mobile app.

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The doc library, as seen inside the mobile app.

This documentary explores events leading up to the fire, when someone pulled up potatoes from the fields and tried to damage farm equipment, and asks the question: Was this tragic, community-scarring fire deliberately set? The page also includes historical photos and links to the documentary makers, to whet the reader’s curiosity. Downloading “Little Molly O’Neill — A Survivor’s Story” requires just a single click on a large onscreen button.

The success of the Documentary on One website has proven the continuing appeal of well-produced radio content, said O’Brien, even in the Internet age. “In fact, our success in attracting new listeners — typically not the same people we reach on FM — speaks to the hunger people have for such content,” he said. “If anything, being able to access it on the Web has fortified this genre, not diminished it.”

Such success has reinforced RTÉ’s ongoing commitment to radio documentary production, at a time when money is tight. “Since 50 percent of our operating revenues come from public license fees, it is vitally important for us to be able to demonstrate our worth,” O’Brien said. “Attracting more than 1 million page views annually, and generating 14 to 16 percent of all RTÉ podcast downloads, goes a long way to proving this point.”

James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

The RTÉ Documentary on One can be contacted via email at documentaries@rte.ie.

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