The number seven is said to be a mystical number and in podcasting terms, has proved significant for the people behind The Smart 7, which has hit five million downloads as it celebrates its first birthday.
The podcast delivers seven stories in seven minutes at 7am. It has become one of Spotify’s Top 3 News Podcasts with over 10,000 followers on Spotify and consistently sits in the Top 10 for all of the platform’s podcasts and the Top 20 of Apple’s Daily News Podcast chart.
The Smart 7 was launched one year ago today by broadcaster and founder of noughties celebrity news website Holy Moly, Jamie East and Liam Thompson, a highly experienced radio programmer, audio creator and media consultant.
Jamie and Liam, whose company Daft Doris Productions makes the podcast, came up with the idea during the first lockdown. Talking to the likes of Apple, Spotify and Amazon, Jamie says that he got a sense that “daily and short” were the way that things were heading.
“Podcasting is reaching a relatively small part of the UK,” says Jamie, “A lot of that, I think, is that people are assuming that podcasts go on forever and I got a sense from the platforms that they were more interested in bite sized and regular episodes.”
Having previously worked together at Virgin Radio, the pair looked at their idea in terms of what works well in radio, asking what were the opportunities and where could they fit into people’s lives?
Liam explains: “That’s where we started to refine it down to the radio thing where everything has to have a hook to it, so the seven things at 7am felt like something that would kind of stick in everyone’s head. And also from listening patterns, we know that kind of breakfast listening starts at 7am and rises through the morning. So, the notion of a really well put together breakfast radio bulletin that you could take with you or listen to when it suited you, started to feel like something that had a bit of legs.”
Getting people to listen to a new podcast that launches rather than the one they already listen to, is the mountain to climb says Jamie, and like radio, it’s incredibly difficult. Their plan was not to get listeners to switch, but to become the podcast you listen to on the way to the train station or the bus stop, and then you can go about your regular podcasting day.
Feedback from listeners seems to point to them listening at the same time each day as part of their routine. “There’s a powerful thing in radio, which is habit,” says Liam, “If you can build those habits with people, particularly around breakfast radio, some of that can be applied here as well.”
Because The Smart 7 was launched while the pandemic is occurring it hasn’t had a proper run when people weren’t locked down in some form, but Liam says they know they have a loyal, solid audience and that 7am, 8am and 9am are their biggest hours. Although they are very happy with listening numbers now, they’re looking forward to seeing if they pick up as the lockdown is eased.
Why would someone get their news from a podcast rather than listening to it on the radio? Liam thinks podcasts should be thought of as non-linear radio, he says: “I think there’s a traditional view in radio that podcasts will take their audience, or that ‘we do our news at the top of the hour, why wouldn’t people just wait until the top of the hour?’
“Nothing else waits until the top of the hour and linear radio is one of the great white elephants of broadcasting and if you start to think of podcasts as non-linear radio where you can get the elements on demand. You don’t have to wait until the top of the hour to get a news bulletin. The world starts to shift to break up into the content elements, then the world for podcasts becomes much broader and the audience becomes broader.”
From nothing to five million downloads in a year is a remarkable achievement for The Smart 7, how did they do it?
Jamie says: “There’s no great secret, it’s regularity, consistency and having a good idea in the first place. That’s the nucleus in most of the successes I’ve been involved in.
“Use radio as an analogy for that as well – there’s no real secret to a fantastic breakfast show – it’s good content with a great host, delivered consistently and regularly.”
Jamie’s previous broadcasting work has no doubt helped with getting publicity for The Smart 7. He says that probably gave them a bit of a head start and his social media profile too, although he points out that this should mean some of his other podcasts would be as successful as this but not all of them are.
Liam points to an Oxford University study from last year which looked at the daily podcast news space and found it is the fastest growing space in terms of podcasting. He says daily news podcasting attracts about 10% of downloads even though it’s only 1% of the overall podcast category.
Putting the daily podcast together involves being a part of the established news cycle where daily newspapers are put together by 8pm or 9pm in the evening, then breakfast TV takes over in the morning and government ministers do their rounds of interviews.
It’s a 5.15am start every morning, pulling audio together and compiling the bulletin ready to upload for 7am. Jamie says they’ve now got it down to a fine art, but the first episode was not fun to make at all, but now being over 300 episodes in, there would be something wrong if they hadn’t mastered it.
The success of The Smart 7 has led to extending it into a “7” brand, “Right from the off, it was always our plan to be able to create verticals within that,” says Jamie, “It’s a strong concept that doesn’t always have to be tied to news,” he adds.
The Sport 7 was launched about seven months ago and is doing very well, The Science 7 has just launched and The Smart 7 (Ireland Edition), Jamie says, is them “dipping their toes into the localising waters” and they’re really pleased with how it’s been received.
“We’ve now got a model on a production level and a branding level, so rolling out many of them is relatively straightforward,” he adds.
The Sweat 7 – seven minutes of seven different exercises, is in the planning stages but there’s no launch date for it yet. It will be written and hosted by former T4 presenter Georgie Okell, who is now a personal fitness trainer and marathon runner.
After a successful 12 months of 7s, where do the guys see themselves in the next 12 months? Jamie is certain that the network will have expanded with at least four or five more titles. He says: “The trick is to not do too much with it. With The Smart 7 we know that it works really well, we know that people like it but we haven’t had a crack at it with normal life.
“There will be some sense of normality, whatever shape that takes in terms of people returning to work or commuting, so we’re excited to see what The Smart 7 looks like with normality, because if this is the worst of base level, then bring it on!”
The Smart 7 is available daily at 7am, serving up the biggest 7 news stories in 7 minutes. Listen here.