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In The Thick is a podcast about politics, race, and culture, from a POC perspective. Co-hosted by award-winning journalists Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela, the show tells listeners what they’re missing from the mainstream news — tackling the conversations few others are willing to take on.
Part of the Futuro Media Group, the podcast began life in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election. It joined the Acast Creator Network in December 2019, and Acast helped grow listens by 18% in the first six months — and 42% in the first year.
We spoke to Julio about the podcast’s journey so far, and its first 18 months with Acast.
“We decided, you know what, we have a studio, we have a national award-winning show with Latino USA, maybe it’s time to create a new original podcast on politics,” said Julio. “And we’ll invite guests of colour, and do it all ourselves.
“It was kind of scary but we just rolled with it. We went to political conventions, it was the time of Trump, and we were putting an angle out there that others weren’t thinking of. We’d tapped into a very loyal audience that loved it whenever we came out with a new episode.
“We took it on the road, did live shows in Chicago and New York, and — even post-election, with Trump becoming president — we were a place where people could come to terms with everything that was going on. But I wouldn’t call ourselves a ‘resistance’ show, because we were still very critical of the Democrats in terms of housing and education, especially within the Latino community.
“Our audience represents a changing America, but I’m also fascinated by all the European listeners we get. We get tweets about In The Thick in German — I think that’s cool. There’s something universal about the show.”
By the end of 2019, the team began looking at how a dedicated podcasting partner might help them grow.
Julio said: “We really made that strategic decision ahead of the 2020 election cycle, because we knew it was going to be a big year for us. It was a ride or die strategy, really, so it made a lot of sense to find a partner.
“When we started out in 2016, making a podcast was new territory. We used a basic distribution company, and it served us well for what we needed at the time — to start a podcast and get it out there.
“We were about to begin to pitch when we got a call from Vernon (a Content Manager at Acast), who said ‘I’m a big fan of your show, and I’ve been entrusted to find podcasts that represent underrepresented voices’. It checked so many boxes.
“We also didn’t have to turn over our IP, so we still own our content. It’s our voice, we decide what we do and what we say. It was a perfect match, at the perfect time.
“We signed for an initial year and the contract said, if Acast could grow our audience 30%, we’d renew for another. But we smashed that pretty quickly.
“Acast has become our audience analytics, and our sales and marketing department. We could’ve done that at Futuro, but why create something new when someone else knows how to do it so well?”
With In The Thick handing over hosting, distribution, and especially monetization for the first time, working with Acast was a new experience for the team.
“After we joined, by the second or third week everything had been taken care of,” said Julio. “It’s been pretty smooth ever since.
“Everyone on our team knows how to upload the audio, how to publish, how to set mid-rolls. It really helps when you know the technology is reliable. We publish two shows a week, one on a Friday evening, and we’re able to get it out without fail — we want to go home for the weekend!
“There have been some really interesting challenges, especially with ads. For the first three years of In The Thick we’d never done mid-roll, for example — we’d just baked ads in. We didn’t have the bandwidth or the chops to do anything more. We’d focused on editorial, not monetisation.
“When we came to Acast and they told us about Dynamic Ad Insertion, we realised we could take our entire back catalog and monetize it — and, even though it was pretty labor-intensive to go back and set all the mid-roll markers, Acast worked with us to get that done.
“What I loved about that was, even when it came to technological issues, Acast was giving us personal attention. That almost never happens. Already at that point we could see how much the team cared for us, and how they really wanted to deliver and make us part of the network.”
That human connection and personal touch was something Julio and his team have continued to value about their relationship with Acast.
He said: “There was a real belief from Acast in what we were doing. We’re one of those podcasts where we have a lot of fans within Acast itself, and I think that shows. We’re in our fifth year and we’re now one of the all-time most popular political shows on Apple Podcasts.
“Having real people who are like ‘hi, I love your show, and I’m charged with increasing your reach’ shows Acast cares about us and listens to us — and that’s half the battle. It’s also much easier for sales teams to sell us to an advertiser when they know what the show is about and have passion for it.
“In this space, which is incredibly crowded and competitive, everyone is still trying to figure it out, so that personal touch goes a long way in staying competitive. We want someone that will fight for us, and that is completely the case with Acast.
“Those companies that really look at the creators and understand their origins are the ones that will still be standing down the road. You can say what you want about technology, but it’s still humans behind it, and there will always be a place for human interaction.
“It can be tough, but if you take care of your creators they become your biggest evangelists. We co-produce the TransLash podcast through Futuro Studios, and when they were looking for a partner they called us up and said ‘what do you think about Acast?’ We said we love them, they’ve been really supportive, and they’re going to pay attention to you.”
It’s impossible to talk about 2020 without mentioning Covid-19, but even a global pandemic couldn’t slow In The Thick’s growth.
“We had our best year ever in 2020, even though it was a pandemic,” said Julio. “Acast delivered on everything they said they would in 2020 and, if there’s anything I know about business, it’s all about trust and collaboration, and giving your word — so we renewed in 2021 for another two years.
“Nobody saw Covid-19 coming, and people say ‘oh, podcasting must be down’, but we increased our audience in the middle of it all. People might not be commuting as much, but they’re still listening to our show. To me, that shows we made the right decision in working with Acast, and it gives us a level of comfort that we can just get on with creating the podcast.”
Since joining the Acast Creator Network, In The Thick has received widespread acclaim, and was named Diversity and Inclusion Podcast of the Year by Adweek in 2020.
“The Adweek award was a big deal,” said Julio. “If you think about all the podcasts that came out in 2020, they’re all fantastic shows, but we came out on top — and that’s because Acast believed in us and nominated us for the award.
“Those are the kind of things that we don’t necessarily have the time to do ourselves, but that Acast takes care of. We’re also consistently on other high-profile lists of podcasts to listen to, and being up there with the ‘classic’ political shows is all you can possibly want.
“That’s also helped us with attracting guests. We had someone from the New York Times on last year and that was a big moment, speaking to a more traditional media organisation about the ‘whiteness’ of media.”
With the 2020 election result tied up and the new President having been in office for four months already, what’s next for In The Thick?
“The great thing about American politics is that, a bit like the Olympics or the World Cup, there’s a new contest every four years,” said Julio.
“Acast has expanded our audience and raised our downloads, and people now see us as part of the political podcast ecosystem. We’re out there, but how do we continue that momentum? And how do we do so in a way that matches our mission?
“We really like Acast as a partner. They’ve helped us build our strategy for what comes next, where we go with In The Thick, and I’m very optimistic about it. People will always want to be informed, entertained, and challenged, and audio is such an accessible format.
“Podcasting is not going away, and neither are we.”
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