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Philippa Starns and Emma Dunne

Philippa Starns and Emma Dunne

· Time to read: ~10 min

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

Philippa is Audio Manager, UK and Emma is Senior Manager, Aquisitions at Spafax — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

JC: What is Spafax?

PS: There’s quite a few different strands to Spafax. For in-flight entertainment, we tend to work with around 25 to 30 airlines. Some airlines take the whole package we offer, some take bits of it: we do the movies, TV, audio, inflight magazines; we have a magazine department, a sales department selling the advertising that you see before a movie onboard. So we’ve got everything on offer, which different airlines take different bits of, literally all around the world.

JC: So do you have any sense of how many people in total would see some of the content or listen to some of the content that you put into into airlines?

PS: The airlines all have their own different ways of monitoring their data, and how many people are watching or listening. We’ve created tools which they can use as well, which measures data for them. Most airlines are very precious about their data, very private about it and don’t reveal it, but there are various ways that they can measure it, so they do have quite a good idea.

JC: I wonder how many passengers you reach in a typical year?

PS: Well, a major airline can reach 60 million global passengers a year. Obviously they might not all watch or listen, but that’s the amount travelling on one of the major airlines. So we’re talking those sorts of figures for the big players. So there’s an enormous opportunity to reach an awful lot of people.

The main thing is it’s literally a captive audience and an international audience - a whole new media platform for reaching an audience that wouldn’t normally find your content. That includes a lot of ABC1s who are often very hard to reach. It is a new opportunity to reach different people.

JC: What sort of things are airlines looking for? Are they just looking for the big stars or are they looking for a bit of a mix?

ED: A bit of both. You want universally appealing content, but you also want niche content. You want to give the audience something that they expect and familiar with on the ground, but then also to be something alternative that will set the airline apart in its IFE offering from its competitors.

PS: Absolutely. Some people want to cross the Atlantic and just listen to Adele; and some people are always looking for something new. Some people want comfort or familiarity - when people fly they’re often nervous or emotional. You’ve often just said goodbye to somebody you’re not going to see for a long time, or you’re about to see somebody you’ve not seen for a long time. And lots of people - possibly most people - travel alone. So, some people just want something that will make them feel more comfortable - and that will be something they know and love. Lots of other people see it as a great opportunity to discover new things. Chris Martin, the Coldplay singer, he’s said he loves travelling because he loves to check out the audience, see what’s onboard and see if there’s something there he hasn’t heard of or doesn’t know. So even people like that get a bit fed up of their own content!

We’re all so busy. Sometimes you don’t have time to download loads of new stuff. We all think if we’re going on long haul, we’ll download lots of things, but then more often than not, we run out of time. So if you’re very familiar already with everything you’ve got on your own devices, it’s a fantastic opportunity to see what’s onboard and discover something new.

JC: I’m seeing more podcasts in airline IFE systems now. Are airlines specifically looking for specific types of shows or genres?

ED: I would say that no subject is off limits, but it really needs to complement the airline’s brand and culture in terms of passenger demographics. We also look for evergreen content, if we can. From discussions to onboarding, we have a three month lead time - so it really needs to stand the test of time.

We’re not just looking for the big players, we’re looking for content that complements the inflight experience. A lot of people want to unplug or disconnect from work and social media when they travel, so podcasts can be something that, you can have on in the background while you unplug. You might be looking through a magazine or looking out of the window, eating, resting. It’s something that complements the experience as well.

PS: In some ways that we have a very tall order with our job, in that we ideally provide something for everybody. Everybody flies: every age group, every sex, every nationality, every religion - everybody flies. So ideally, each passenger would find something they’re interested in. That’s great, because it means we’re looking at everything. We are just as interested in the niche stuff as as the the big the all the obvious content.

JC: Emma, you were talking about it being a three month lead from a discussion to getting it onto onto an airplane. How often do things actually update in an airline’s in-flight entertainment system?

ED: So traditionally, most airlines update monthly - but it really depends on the airline. Some of the smaller airlines will update bi-monthly, or every quarter: it depends on budgets, and how much content they’ve got on board. There are some airlines that update daily news and sports updates and things like that, but we traditionally work month on month basis. We’re constantly working on the next cycle, sometimes two cycles at a time.

PS: Certainly, pre-COVID, most airlines probably were monthly. Obviously, everything changed in COVID, but most of them are back to normal. The evergreen thing is important because obviously lots of podcasts are topical: so quite a lot of the time, we ask for evergreen content.

JC: IFE systems aren’t as simple as iPhones, so are there special technical things you need from creators?

PS: Obviously in some ways the beauty of podcasts is anybody can create a podcast anywhere in their bedroom at home, but we have to have certain technical standards. One of the beauties of podcasting is its simplicity - so we would just ask for an MP3 at 320 kilobits per second. We ask for an image, a high-res JPEG image and a very brief synopsis - the metadata is very restricted on board.

ED: And for video, it’s very similar: quality of production is first and then file format. HD is rather big for the airlines, if you think how many box sets and movies that big airlines like to take - so SD is our preferred format. We have a facility in the US, we call it The Hub, and they do all the encoding and checking - and from there the files are then sent to the airlines. We upload it onto the aircraft themselves, so that’s part of the reason for the three month lead time as well - that technical process can sometimes take the majority of the time. So we have to work backwards from there. But yeah, we have fantastic guys over in the US that do a lot of that work for us.

JC: Obviously there’s all kinds of genres. There’s audio drama as well as interview podcasts, and comedy and everything else. Do people binge more than one episode at a time of a show?

PS: What people say about audio onboard sometimes is that it’s the perfect in-between activity. Obviously the movies are probably the most popular content on board. If you’re flying back and forth to Australia like you do, do you really want to watch back to back movies all the way? I probably wouldn’t want to watch more than a couple; and then I want to do other things in between. So listening to a podcast is like putting the eye mask on, closing your eyes, sitting back, and it drowns out everything else around you.

The other thing, obviously, is editorial guidelines. Most airlines don’t want any mention of civilian plane crashes or terrorism or anything like that; and most airlines don’t like mentions of other airlines. They try to steer clear of really strong opinions about the obvious things, religious and politics. Surprisingly some of the airlines do allow swearing, but not adult content. There’s a few fairly obvious guidelines to follow.

JC: As podcasts are becoming more visual - YouTube jumping into the podcast world and everything else - do you do the airlines want more visual content?

ED: Yes, definitely. It’s certainly a trend we are seeing on airlines, and there’s a demand for it. The evolution from podcast to vodcast certainly feels that void. I think that short form content, snackable content - traditionally TV content on board - has been half an hour or an hour, or sometimes even your feature length documentaries. But as content changes on the ground, we are seeing high demands for that on board as well and in flight.

JC: From a stats point of view, do you report? Are you able to report back to somebody that is giving you content, how many views it got or how many listens it got?

PS: Most airlines don’t disclose their data; but we certainly can give creators an idea if it’s being listened to and if it’s got a healthy listenership. Most creators obviously are interested and want to know and we can give them an indication.

JC: Do you manage the content deals on an airline-by-airline basis? Or can you supply the same content to lots of different airlines at the same time?

ED: It’s a bit of both. It really depends on what the content is, and finding the best fit. We have various business models that we work with. They can be straightforward licensing, but there’s also partnerships with brand channels, media sales options and advertising. We can also include bartering for market space. It really is about finding who wants the content, and what the content is - and making it financially beneficial for both parties.

JC: I was going to ask how the business works: do you buy a podcast from creators, or is it the other way round - content creators coming to you wanting more eyeballs on the stuff that they make?

PS: Both. Airlines do get offered an awful lot of gratis free of charge content. Once a podcast has been made, in some ways it’s sitting on the shelf gathering dust. For many people, certainly when they’re starting out, they’re hoping maybe to monetise, but the main thing is that they want to get heard, they want their show to be listened to. So we do get offered an awful lot of content free of charge. But every airline’s different, every budget is different, every strategy is different. If it’s something an airline really wants, and obviously if there’s a celebrity name involved, then they will negotiate a licence. So it is on a case by case basis, depending on what it is, who it is and which airline it is.

People see it as a wonderful way for exposure, for marketing, for publicity. Instead of spending money on marketing and advertising their podcast, if they can get it on an airline, it’s almost free exposure, free advertising in a way.

JC: Do you accept pitches from podcasters?

PS: Yes. We get people approaching us all the time. They’ll either write to the airline and the airline will forward the email to us, or they’ll approach us directly. But also, we’re constantly looking at what’s out there. If we see something that we think is a a great fit for a particular airline, then we’ll reach out to them.

JC: Is there a preferred way that you would want a podcaster to get in touch?

PS: Approach the airline that they would like to be on. If the airline likes the sound of it, they will forward it to us and then we’ll take it from there. This happens quite often - when people have been flying, they’re often asked to fill something in either by email once they’ve landed or even on the aeroplane, and they can even approach the airline that way.

But we also have a website,, and there’s loads of information on there too.

JC: Thank you for your time!

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