Almost twenty years after its birth on the iPods, podcasting perfectly reflects the spirit of our times and has become part of the daily media consumption of many of us: 37% of Americans (age 12+) listen to at least one podcast each month; here in Germany, 26 million people listen to podcasts or audiobooks every month, and over 10 million people listen to podcasts every week (more data here, on the State of Podcasting in Germany). Despite the scepticism of some marketers, money is flowing in advertising.

To meet the Zeitgeist, you need the right constellation of circumstances: with podcasting, everything speaks now in favour of the spoken word – technology, tools and platforms.

But one thing was still missing until a couple of years ago: the growing frustration against the platforms owning the attention economy, the willingness to own our attention back and to find the time to focus more, to read more and – yes – to listen more, instead of jumping from headline to headline, from meme to meme in the world of infinite scrolling.

As for many other things, the pandemic has acted since the last 16 months as a propeller for our need to pay attention and spend our time meaningfully. While many predicted the collapse of podcast listening during the first global lockdown, the opposite happened: people used podcasting both to be informed, to relax and to fight against anxiety.

It worked. In times of unprecedented crisis, we turned to the experts – the scientists, the virologists, the physicians, but also the science journalists and the data analysts – all those that could enlighten, explain and provide guidance.

For some of these experts, podcasting – together with other “anti-social” media such as newsletters and digital long reads – became the means to fight the pandemic by educating the world.

Forget for a moment the noise of controversy fuelled by the less serious media. Forget for a moment the social media cacophony. The good news here is that quality information prevailed on the “pandemic of disinformation”.

Expertise is winning the war against ignorance, no matter what many people say. I would not be here to write this post, you might not be here and reading this post if the opposite happened. In this information war, some podcasts played a special role.

In February 2020, the American television channel CNN launched the podcast “Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction”, a daily ten-minute news update on the pandemic. Within a week, one million listeners had downloaded it and it shot up to third place in Apple’s rankings. Still in the USA, the twelve-year-old medical podcast “This week in virology” also experienced a surprise: suddenly, from a small scientific community podcast, it became a mass phenomenon.

But the most impressive example of a podcast used to educate and inform about the Coronavirus comes from Germany: the “Coronavirus Update“, produced by NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk, the macro-regional, state-owned channel covering the northern Länder of Germany) and with Christian Drosten, Head of the Institute of Virology at the Charité in Berlin, as its leading expert explaining, episode after episode, how he assesses the situation in the pandemic.

Launched on the 26th February 2021 and now (beginning of June 2021) at its 95th episode, the “Coronavirus Update” podcast series has been downloaded over 100 million times, on average, 1 million each episode.

That audience made it the second most listened podcast in Germany in 2020 and one of the most listened across the German-speaking countries. When I say “listen”, I mean that each episode, with a duration between 40 mins and 1:40 mins (!), has been listened to by the majority of users almost entirely.

Also, it has become a “social” object: shared, discussed, commented and used by the media as a reference source – the podcast is released under a Creative Commons License by-NC-nd 3.0, therefore made for circulating.

Where can you find the “Coronavirus Update”? Current distribution.

The NDR Info “Coronavirus Update” offers a fresh episode every Tuesday from around 5 p.m. – to be found at www.ndr.de/coronaupdate, in the ARD Audiothek and wherever podcasts are available.

An article with a summary of the most important statements appears on NDR.de. NDR broadcasts a shortened version of the podcast on Tuesdays at 6.05 p.m. on NDR Info radio.

How the podcast was born: pivoting the idea and adjusting on the course.

The NDR Audio Lab “Think Audio”, a team dedicated to developing new audio formats for linear and digital channels, launched the podcast on the 26th February 2020 with the initial idea to provide only a quick update on the development of the Pandemic every day. But even the first episode lasted much longer than planned: a whole 37 minutes. An eternity in the radio world.

The title of the first longer-than-expected podcast was: “We can slow down the spread”. You might remember: at that time, it was all about “flattening the curve” and smart visualizations helped to pass the message that the only way to avoid reliving the tragedy of the Spanish flu in the years 1918 to 1920 was to contain the spread of the virus. The alternative approach of “Zero Covid” (a la New Zealand) was not even thematised.

After the first episode, the idea was still to get back to a shorter format, but the editor, Korinna Henning, realised that it made no sense to keep it too short: “If you’re not just broadcasting for virological nerds, you have to explain a few more things. But at the same time, we also want to deliver added value, not just say what a virus is compared to a bacterium. And for that, it needs the length.”

Pivoting the format was the best decision taken and the one that made the podcast not just an audio bulletin, but a true reference for everybody: people working in the medical sector, laypeople, and other media, too. It could become that because on the other side of the interviewer’s microphone there was a very special guest: Prof. Dr Christian Drosten, the “Virologist of the Nation”, that from his Lab at the Charite University Hospital of Berlin has been one of the first to warn about Corona and to explain a what the consequences would be if the virus spreads unhindered.

The perfect medium for an expert that enjoys explaining in plain language.

Not everybody likes to go on TV. Not everybody should do it. The story of how virologists, epidemiologists and medical personnel have been portrayed, interviewed and “used” on TV is a mixed picture, sometimes confusing. Already known in the global scientific community for having been one of the discoverers of the SARS virus, Christian Drosten quickly agreed when NDR asked if he could imagine collaborating on a podcast.

“It was a practical consideration at that time,” explains the head of virology at the Berlin Charité. “Because I simply had so many enquiries from the media – always on the same topic and some of them were the same questions in wording. I realized: I can’t give the same interview to four or five TV or radio stations in the morning before work.” The podcast seemed like a good way out: “From then on, I only had to answer a question once, everyone could listen to the answer later in peace and I could do something else for the rest of the day (source of the verbatim: Interview released to the NZZ).

The longer it went, the more successful: why?

The short update turned into a long one. After a first period when new episodes appear more times a week, the podcast format landed on being a weekly issue, longer than one hour, and recorded as an interview focused on two, three themes per episode, that allowed having in-depth conversations about:

  • The evolution of the pandemic: what was happening behind the numbers?
  • Latest researches released and their meaning for prevention and cure
  • Dismantling fake news and disinformation

Always quiet, unagitated – a matter of words and also the tone of voice – the podcast addressed also the debate about “how to do Lockdown”, a quite hard debate here in Germany between December and April when Federal and Local Government were taking different positions and opened a true constitutional conflict on who could take which decision. For the records, Christian Drosten was one voice supporting the call for a hard lockdown in the winter.

However, the podcast never entered the political debate: the goal to which the podcast stuck was explanatory and enlightening.

As the podcast became longer and full of recent information, the preparation time became more intensive. In September 2020, virologist Sandra Ciesek, Head of the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Hospital Frankfurt and Professor of Medical Virology at the Goethe University joined the “Coronavirus Update” team, alternating since then with Drosten every second episode and dealing especially with the state of research worldwide.

Sandra Ciesek

Interesting enough, Sandra Ciesek was already one of the podcast’s listeners: “For us virologists, the episodes with Christian Drosten were a great help. They offered a quick orientation so that we could better plan our daily work in the fight against the coronavirus”, so Ciesek in one recent interview. Another proof of the power of this podcast to speak at the same time to the scientific community and all of us.

Now and tomorrow. What can we learn from this publishing story?

Successful and awarded. Across Europe, there is not media congress or professional event that does not feature the “Coronavirus Update” podcast as a true case history. The podcast won several prizes, and Christian Drosten also his second Bundesverdienstkreuz, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (his first time was in 2005, for identifying the original SARS coronavirus).

What matters here, and the reason for which I write about it is that this podcast has some lessons for both journalists and creators. About the format:

  • A good thorough conversation, when hitting a need for understanding, can find its perfect home in a podcast.
  • Evolving, but stable: the same interviewer, the same interviewee, when the match fits, create habits and you do not need to know what will be the topics of the next episode. You know how the two will talk, and that is enough.
  • We often see a podcast as a “standalone” product or as a by-product of something produced for other media (repurposing radio shows or tv shows).
  • Here the opposite happens: longer versions are distributed, shorter versions are available too, and the content is summarised into short and long articles – curated and edited, not simply released as transcription, and there are good reasons for that. Editing the conversation and transforming it into a mid or long-read you can add sources, references, links and additional explanations.
  • So, the production effort pays off allowing a truly omnichannel distribution that starts from the podcast.

Podcasts for science and public matters.

The pandemic might go away, God willing. But the systemic crisis, global and complex, where not only the Governments need to act but also each of us as an individual, well… those crises will be our future. It is about the Climate Crisis, but not only.

When you call for individuals to change their behaviour, you need to explain and convince them. The role of explanatory, scientific and data-driven journalism will grow. So, the role of scientists: many of them have shown better ability to address the broader public and translate complexity into digestible messages than many institutions and Public Bodies.

Scientists and experts have become creators, and this is at the end of the thread that connects passions, publishing and public communication. Beyond the NDR “Coronavirus update”, there is a world of podcasts where experts do their best to share their knowledge and empower others to act upon it.

The NDR “Coronavirus update” was born as an experiment by a small journalistic innovation lab located under the arms of a regional public TV station. Ending the podcast now is not an option: with the new vaccines, additional questions arise. And the pandemic is a global matter that has not yet end in sight until we break it around the world and develop not only vaccines but effective therapies.

As a listener, I still need guidance. Even more than before: quiet guidance, not heated debates. As a media professional, I think that the “Coronavirus update” will pave the way for a new wave of scientific communication, able to reach a broader audience much more than before. At least for this, we can be grateful for the pandemic.

WHERE TO FIND THE “CORONAVIRUS UPDATE”:

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