‘Who wouldn’t be excited about a growing team?’ ARN’s Corey Layton on his new recruit, Stephanie Coombes

Stephanie Coombes (right) on location

If Stephanie Coombes, ARN’s new podcast content and partnerships director, had all the money in the world and total control of the company’s expanding podcast offering, what podcast would she make?

When I ask the question of her new boss, head of commercial audio and podcasts, Corey Layton, he laughs at the unexpected “curveball” question, before plugging one of the iHeartPodcast Network’s new offerings, Curveball from Kelly Riordan. Then he talks about how much he’s loved working with radio star Christian O’Connell on his new Stuff of Legends podcast, as well as watching the host adapt between the mediums. He also concedes there is far more space in the Australian audio landscape for fictional podcasts, which have proven to be successful overseas.

“I’d love to scratch that itch,” he says.

Coombes, just two weeks into the job, answers the question a bit more directly, with slightly less company spin.

If she had all the money in the world, or “a million billion dollars” as she puts it – not something many journalists or indeed media organisations have – she’d love to do a proper in-depth investigative podcast, using the skills of Walkley Award-winning journalists to make an in-depth documentary series.

Coombes (right), as it happens, recently won a Kennedy Award for her work with 10 Speaks on its 10 News First Person podcast for the New Year’s Inferno episode

Take away the hypothetical money though, and it would be a podcast about car racing and cars “because I’m a bit of a motor enthusiast”.

Later in my chat with the duo, Layton jovially sidesteps a question from Coombes about whether he’d put ARN’s weight behind her podcast idea, and says what ARN is looking for when commissioning new titles or adding them to its stable, is appeal.

“Is it something that will be appealing to our broadcast audience that sit within [our radio and audio] brands? And also something that commercially is of appeal. And if we can tick those two boxes in being able to build an audience and ensure the brand part of it, that’s what we’re looking for,” Layton says.

Despite that second “commercial appeal” box, there are multiple big media bosses downplaying the revenue implications of podcasting.

Outgoing Nine boss Hugh Marks labelled digital audio “immaterial” to its business operations. And ARN’s own chief content officer Duncan Campbell stressed that while the industry likes “new, shiny toys” there is a danger they can become too distracting and too all-consuming. He wants to remind his business that the vast majority of their revenue still comes from radio.

“There’s always the risk I think with this business that people lose focus on the things that really drive ratings, and I think, again, that’s part of my role here is to make sure that we don’t lose focus and get distracted by new, shiny toys. We like new, shiny toys, but we can’t get too distracted by them, particularly when 95% of our revenue comes from linear radio, AM/FM networks,” Campbell previously told Radio Today.

“But, the business is energised by the fact that we’re pursuing a digital future more aggressively than we ever have. And when the plans roll out for iHeart and expanding our podcasting network even further, then that’s exciting as well. But you have to balance it all out to make sure that the revenue pipeline isn’t compromised in terms of the AM/FM network.”

Layton, however, thinks there’s no reason to dismiss the revenue, even if at the moment the contribution is small.

Layton believes ARN stands apart in the audio space 

“I think this year has said otherwise,” he says in response to a question about podcasting’s insignificance in terms of revenue. “What we are seeing from a revenue perspective in regards to podcasts, is it is rapidly growing. Absolutely radio is where the lion’s share of revenue comes from and I don’t see that changing any time soon. But as far as incremental revenue and growth to other types of content [is concerned], we are seeing it in bucket loads,” he says.

Plus if the appointment of Coombes proves anything, it’s that ARN is investing and recruiting in the sector.

“Who wouldn’t be excited about a growing team?,” he says.

“I think the podcast space is just continuing to grow and evolve week after week. And what’s great for me is we are just getting behind that continued growth, and by having someone like Steph who can really focus on elements of our podcast offering and continue to grow what we do for audience and brands – it’s exactly the path that I was hoping we were on, and we are very much in it.”

For her part, Coombes is excited to build on the “solid base” Layton and his existing team have created.

Coombes on stage accepting her Kennedy Award

“There’s a big, healthy appetite for really, really good audio. And I think that we’re very capable of doing that,” she says.

“I have so much faith in the people that I’m working with,” she adds. “I really honestly in my heart of hearts believe I’m working with absolute leaders in the industry.

“Podcasting is still really young and these are the people I want to be working with. I have nothing but faith in this organisation, and really my impression is that I’m really excited, really excited to be part of the company.”

So, she’s definitely ticked the box of spruiking the team and the wider company’s credentials and potentials, but what else will she be measured on? How will Layton define Coombes’, and his own, success over the coming year?

“Look, I think for me, it’s just continued growth about our offering. It’s being able to be part of listeners’ lives for different rabbit holes that they want to head down and be able to continue to cater for them in lots of realms and genres, and ensure that brands can be part of that to make sure it works for everyone that we want to talk to.”

And ARN, he says, is uniquely positioned to do it – even though every audio company claims to be at the forefront.

Consumers searching for podcasts, he says, can be trapped by the Netflix effect. Scrolling endlessly, or perhaps mindlessly, through never-ending content offerings. Sometimes they can’t make a decision. Other times they stave off the analysis paralysis and make a decision, but it’s a bad one.

“I think podcasts are very similar [to Netflix], where there is just so much content, a lot of it incredible, some of it not. And I think where we stand apart is telling our number one broadcast audience and helping show them what the great podcasts are that they should be listening to at any one time,” he says. “Plus, I just think our team is passionate about the audio space, and we’re all about defining audio. And I think we’re able to bring together radio, streaming and podcasts under one roof. And I absolutely think that’s the key difference that we have.”

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