How daily podcast The Smart 7 hit 5 million downloads in its first year

Jamie East was able to leverage his personal brand to scale up his audience.

If you work in the media, then you’re probably aware of The Daily, the massively successful podcast produced by The New York Times. It now receives over 4 million downloads a day and generates eight figures in revenue for the newspaper.

But is it possible to replicate The Daily’s success without institutional support? That’s the question Jamie East set out to answer. A year ago, he and a few colleagues launched The Smart 7, a seven minute podcast that’s published each weekday at 7 a.m. Its relatively simple format and consistency made it easy for listeners to build it into their daily habits, and within its first year it hit 5 million downloads.

I recently interviewed Jamie about why he struck off into indie podcasting when he already had a successful career in traditional broadcasting, and he explained how he plans to build an entire network of niche daily podcasts.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Jamie built his brand

While Jamie is relatively new to building an indie podcast company, he has had an eclectic career in broadcasting and media. In the early 2000s, he founded a celebrity gossip site called Holy Moly. “Whilst Perez Hilton and TMZ were doing big numbers, we were probably doing the equivalent of those numbers in the UK, probably about 6 million uniques a month, which was pretty good for 2002 and 2003.” Eventually, he decided to sell Holy Moly to a larger media company. “As the site grew, it became quite difficult to monetize because we published pretty legally sensitive content. It attracted the attention of investors, and one of those investors was Endemol Shine, which is one of the biggest  independent production companies in the UK. I sold them a 50% stake and reinvested that into the company.”

This happened to be around the time of the UK relaunch of the reality TV show Big Brother, which Endemol Shine owned. “I guess I was at the right place at the right time. They had just bought the website, and I was on camera for the website doing snarky, funny red carpet interviews.” He was able to parlay these appearances into a gig hosting a Big Brother spinoff show, and from there he landed more and more TV and radio hosting jobs, including a Game of Thrones after show that appeared on Sky Atlantic. 

Launching a podcast company

Even though Jamie already had a successful career in traditional broadcast media, he and a friend started discussing the idea of launching a daily news podcast. “The valuable lesson that I learned from creating Holy Moly was don't make yourself intrinsic to the success of what it is you're making, because that was what happened with Holy Moly, and it became impossible for me to extract myself from the brand and from the business without fundamentally damaging the brand and the business. So when I started thinking about this with Liam, my business partner, I decided that it’s got to be something that eventually I can hand over the reins to someone else. It was really important that it didn't have my name on it.”

Eventually they settled on the idea for The Smart 7, a daily podcast that’s seven minutes long and sent out at 7 am. “It offers something that people can listen to on their way to the train station or on their way to the bus stop, or whilst they're making the kids breakfast before they go about their daily regular habits.” Unfortunately, it launched just after the onset of pandemic lockdowns that virtually ended commutes for most people. “It kept growing. Some weeks, the growth was very small, some weeks there are big bumps. And then some of the platforms started taking note of what we were doing.” Spotify began promoting The Smart 7 in its Daily Drive playlist, which provided a huge boost in audience. “We've gained organic growth off the back of that, which has been really good to see.”

Delivering a 7 am broadcast means you have to start pulling together materials the night before. “By 10 pm, we've got probably about 75% of tomorrow's episode already nailed in terms of what it’s going to be about. We have a sense of what audio clips we’re going to use and we've got a rough script.” The team wakes up early the next morning and finalizes the script, making sure to incorporate any news that broke overnight.

Monetization

In its first year, The Smart 7 generated over 5 million downloads, and it now monetizes primarily through advertising. “There's no opinion on The Smart 7. We might offer a bit of a raised eyebrow every now and then, or make a slightly sarcastic comment, but there's no real opinion. So it doesn't alienate any audience. So from an advertiser's point of view, we appeal to every demo , whether you're Republican, Democrat, Tory, Labor, whether you're 65 or 16. So we can incorporate a lot of educational and governmental advertising and we reach a large number of people. So therefore your McDonald's and your big brands want to get in on it as well.”

Rather than selling ads directly, Jamie decided to partner with the podcast ad network Acast. “Selling direct ads is such a double-edged sword, because yes, it's appealing because you've got no one else taking a cut, but you've got to have such a high volume of listeners to make it worthwhile and to make your podcast actually sellable. Acast does a great job because they're selling ads for probably 50% of the biggest podcasts in the world, so they can do deals with huge brands. There's safety in numbers. Back in the day with Holy Moly I tried hiring my own salespeople, and in the end, agencies just make it a lot easier and a lot better until you're at a tipping point scale where it just makes more sense just to have three or four people selling full time for you.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.