Rebranding and Regaining Control: Reveal
Go to the website of the Center of Investigative Reporting (CIR) and a window quickly pops up, redirecting the visitor to the center’s “new home”—revealnews.org—where you can find CIR’s reports, radio show, and podcast. What was once the Center of Investigative Reporting has today been rebranded as Reveal, a new identity with a podcast at its heart and center.
Christa Scharfenberg, Reveal’s managing director, explained the unusual shift. The Center of Investigative Reporting began life in 1977 as a not-for-profit that produced in-depth, investigative reporting and depended on a network of news outlets for distribution. Newspapers and television stations would pay the center an annual “subscription” fee in exchange for access to CIR’s reports. Over time CIR found that newspapers had less and less of a budget to pay for investigative journalism—for subscriptions and one-off stories, too. What’s more, there was a more systemic problem with the business model: CIR didn’t own a relationship with its audience.86
CIR began to brainstorm options for content it could create and distribute itself that would allow for complete editorial control and direct engagement with its audience. Video was an option but an expensive one. Audio, on the other hand, seemed more viable.87
The center put together a pilot for PRX, which had recently received funding to develop new shows. In the process, Scharfenberg told me, they realized the podcast “could transform CIR away from its reliance on other media organizations. We were controlling our own destiny, owning our own show on various platforms. We rebranded ourselves as Reveal […] and transformed our organization.”88
Despite its newfound focus on the podcast, Reveal ensures content is accessible to its audience in various formats and across all platforms. For example, one big investigation could lend itself to a television spot, a radio show, podcast, online article, and a multi-media piece. The podcast, however, remains central: “On the podcast, there’s more room to talk about elements of the investigation, since the times aren’t as tight. Plus, we get that direct audience relationship. [The podcast] might become the most important thing we do,” said Scharfenberg.89
Of course, the podcast never would have happened without the initial investment from (and subsequent relationship with) PRX. Scharfenberg told me that the network has been “totally invaluable,” saying, “We benefit from all of the learning that they’ve done already. They do the underwriting, they’re able to package Reveal with other podcasts that they represent. They’re willing to get companies to take a risk on this.”90
Reveal is not just risky for advertisers in terms of its nascent numbers, but also because, Scharfenberg said, not many companies are interested in sponsoring hard-hitting investigative journalism. On the flip side, Reveal must be very careful in both its selection of sponsors and its creation of ad copy if it is to maintain its credibility and journalistic integrity. The team has decided to avoid host-reads in order to maintain a strict line between editorial and advertising.91
Beyond advertising, PRX helps the young show to “get seen and differentiate” itself in its quest for audience growth.92 This September, the show was cross-promoted on popular PRX (and Radiotopia) shows Criminal and 99% Invisible. That same month, it was featured in iTunes, bumping it to the “Top 5 News and Politics” charts. Reveal “went from just under 75,000 iTunes downloads in August to over 220,000 in September.”93
Scharfenberg has also developed a relationship with the editorial staff at Stitcher (the most popular podcast app on Android). A feature in the company’s newsletter elevated Reveal from 10,000 Stitcher listeners a week to 70,000. The show also runs campaigns to encourage listeners to rate and review the show on iTunes, which is the only way that podcasters know they can impact their iTunes ranking.94 “Looking at all podcasting platforms combined (iTunes, Stitcher, and dozens of smaller ones),” Scharfenberg told me in an email, “we’re seeing really great growth: approximately 125,000 downloads and streams in June, 350,000 in July and in August, and 470,000 in September.”95
Reveal only began to hit sufficient download numbers to attract underwriters and generate revenue from sponsorship this fall. However, Scharfenberg remains hopeful that the numbers will continue to grow and the podcast will ultimately make CIR’s business model more sustainable. Not surprisingly for an investigative reporting team (whose work is extremely time-intensive and often not profitable), the work has been reliant on individual and foundation support (to the point where about 90 percent of CIR’s funding is philanthropic). One of the biggest motivations behind launching Reveal was for CIR to diversify its revenue streams.97 Scharfenberg explained:
Having the show and having a consistent presence with audiences is a real opportunity to develop new sources of revenue. […] As a nonprofit, we can make a membership model, something we couldn’t get off the ground when we worked with other news organizations. Now that we have control of our audience, we can.98
Podcasts can allow you to own a relationship with your audience and engage with listeners directly.
Podcasts can provide another platform for reaching consumers, one which can be used in conjunction with other media formats.
Podcasts can offer a way to diversify revenue streams, including direct support from audiences.
Radio broadcasting and podcasting are not mutually exclusive; both can be used to earn revenue and reach audiences.
Audience growth remains a significant challenge, one which networks can help shows to overcome.
Journalists must exercise caution when choosing sponsors in order to maintain credibility.