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Darby Dorras

Darby Dorras

· Time to read: ~9 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Darby Dorras is Director of Content at Listen — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

Sam Sethi spoke to Darby on May 10 for the Podnews Weekly Review.

SS: Who is Listen, first of all?

DD: We are one of the UK’s biggest and leading audio production companies. We still make a ton of radio and that’s kind of a longstanding bit of the business - we’ve been there for a very long time, but obviously podcasting is what we moved into and that became the largest growth area of the business.

I suppose the best way to carve up our podcast output is into three buckets really. We make a huge amount of commissioned content for the big commissioners - like Titting About with French and Saunders for Audible, and a ton of stuff for them; or 28ish Days Later last year was a brilliant commission about the menstrual cycle with India Rakusen for BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds. Our next bucket, if you like, is for branded content. We make an absolute ton of branded podcasts direct with brands and agencies, and that’s a really important part of the business. Then the final bucket is our originals. We launched our first Listen Original towards the end of last year, which perhaps we’ll come on to, which is a program called Unboxed with Jordan Schwarzenberger.

That’s to summarise the content we do - a huge variety of genre and format. We also make Love Island - The Morning After, the official ITV podcast; we make Built to Thrive with Doctor Chatterjee, which is a daily wellness podcast for Amazon Music and Wondery - a real breadth of content across entertainment and narrative.

SS: How does somebody approach Listen with an idea, and what do you look for when you are commissioning?

DD: I’m always open to hearing ideas, and I’m very available on all the obvious social platforms and via email. Always open to approaches: they’re kind of constant, to be honest with you, which is a good thing. But I would encourage other producers out there to have conversations with our CEO or any of the exec team.

I think that we’re really tough on ideas, to try and shape them into something that is viable now in the podcast market as it stands. It’s wildly different to where it was three, four or five years ago. I think we all know that there are sort of success stories that happened then, that probably wouldn’t happen in the same way now. But we’re really open to those conversations, and they’re the fun of the job, which is having those conversations with people, journalists and freelancers and all sorts of other kind of entities that bring us ideas or bring us a kernel of something.

But it’s a slow process. In all honesty, I think probably it’s slower now than it ever has been: because everyone’s tough on ideas and commissions. People are going a bit slower and going bigger, I would say.

SS: How do you measure success? Is it downloads, is it revenue generated, is it recommissioning?

DD: I think what’s different about us is those buckets I was talking through - we’ve got so many bits to Listen. That gives us flexibility to be able to pivot when the market’s doing something, or not doing something.

For us, we’ve got to be commercially viable. But it’s also about the optics, isn’t it? It’s about spotting a podcast that we might want to make because we think that it’s creatively ambitious which might not be the most commercially viable.

On the flip side, we might look at something and go, That’s not exactly the most exciting thing that we’re going to make, but we’re going to make it because actually that’s an important part of the business and it will help fund other parts of the company and the team.

So I think that it’s a hard question to answer, to be honest with you. I think success means lots of different things. I think we look at all of those options depending on what it is and who’s funding it. If it’s an original that we’re self-funding, we’re looking at that in a different way. All of those things are probably not new for most people - I think that’s the process you’d expect. Is it right for us? Should we be doing it for any or all of those reasons?

SS: You talk about originals. That’s something that you’ve recently got into. You’ve got Unboxed, which is a big hit. Take us through it.

DD: We launched this towards the end of last year and it’s with the brilliant Jordan Schwartzenburger, who is the manager of The Sidemen who are the biggest YouTubers in Europe. Jordan is the face of the creator economy - certainly in the UK - and what he doesn’t know about it isn’t worth knowing. So we have created a podcast with him called Unboxed, which takes you inside the creator economy. It’s Jordan, sitting down with brilliant kind of content creators and people who are in the content business, talking about their process, successes, failures, their mindset and really kind of starting to understand the process of being a content creator.

I think that what the show has is two audiences. The larger audience is that massive proportion of young people who really want to be content creators, and that’s a massive aspiration for them. Why Jordan wanted to create Unboxed was to create a resource for those people - the creator economy is still a young green industry, and that’s his passion. Secondary to that, it’s probably people like you and me, Sam, and other people in the content business who can pick up loads of interesting tips, tricks and lessons and insights. I think that we get a lot of people come through who have been in the industry a long time.

I think that’s what we do at Listen - what we think about podcasts now is building podcast brands, creating something that that lives its life in all the kind of different spaces that the audience are living. Unboxed has a really clear social strategy. It’s got a YouTube strategy, it’s got a TikTok strategy, and we were mindful of all of that long before the launch - this isn’t about “let’s launch an audio podcast and then think about how we grow it across social”, it’s “let’s think about all of those things before we get anywhere near launch to really build a brand and a resource”.

We’re not in the game to be creating stuff that we’re not immensely proud of doing. We’re really proud of what we’ve built there, and it’s growing and it’s got a got an excited audience who are engaged.

SS: You’ve touched on YouTube and TikTok. What are your thoughts on YouTube now getting into the podcasting world? Do you find a difference in the audiences that come to you there?

DD: It’s a really interesting time. I think that it’s just an evolution of podcasting and where it’s been and where it’s going. I think there’s that conversation that everyone’s having at the moment about what is a podcast, reassessing what it really means to be a podcast and you know, the conversation around the RSS and the conversation around YouTube. I don’t think there’s really a clear answer yet on that.

I think that YouTube are clearly really important in the game. They’re a different demographic to, let’s say, Apple Podcasts or other DSPs, so it’s a huge opportunity really, I think that’s how we see it.

The role of video in something like Unboxed, where we’re releasing full length video episodes on YouTube and also native in Spotify as well, is entirely different to a video strategy that we might apply for a narrative box set mini series. It’s going to be wildly different. I think it’s about knowing really the role of video in podcasting, understanding the product that you’re creating and the brand and how people are going to engage with it, and where they’re going to engage with it.

Unboxed is a great example, where it’s going to be a huge proportion of young content creators or aspiring content creators, and they’re all really used to to consuming a huge amount of content through YouTube.

SS: In terms of your monetization, is it advertising driven then? Or subscription driven?

DD: It’s advertising driven and we’ve had some great sponsors already with Unboxed from the get-go, which is really exciting. But, yeah, subscription as well.

I think that subscription continues to be a really important growth area of the industry. But it’s about creating proper value for the audience - proper additional content, as opposed to just carving off a bit of the kind of stuff that hit the cutting room floor, and shoving it behind a paywall. Again, it comes back to kind of deep understanding of your audience and what do they actually want, - and why they are there in the first place.

SS: How do you see IP in podcasting?

DD: We’re quite rational about it. We work with so many different clients, commissions, originals, talent in so many different ways. We are very mindful of all the priorities for all of those different entities. I think that’s a sensible approach to IP, to be flexible enough.

If you get into a relationship with something, there are wins over IP, but there are wins in other ways as well. Short term wins and long term wins. I think there are certainly commissioners out there who are saying “we’ll commission something from you, but we’ll take 100% of the IP, thanks very much, and that’s not negotiable”. But you’ve got to view what else is going on with someone who’s just approaching it very differently. I think that IP focus is a really interesting ongoing and evolving conversation. I’m conscious of looking at any individual case study and thinking, yeah, where might this get us and what role is IP playing within that in the long term.

SS: Last but not least, congratulations as well. One of your staff just won a “Face to Watch” award. What was that?

DD: Yes, the brilliant Georgia. She only joined us last summer. She’s fantastic. She’s doing all sorts for us. She’s done the recent series of Love Island’s The Morning After, and she has got into a really exciting narrative production pre-production at the moment. She’s fantastic. Really pleased to see her in there, and she deserves it. And there’s been a long thread of celebration, as you can imagine, on the the internal listen emails and Slack. We’ll get some champagne later!

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