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What I learnt from doing 40 podcasts in 40 weeks

The first episode of the Unofficial Partner podcast went live on April 4th last year. It was a one to one conversation between me and Paul Hawksbee, the long time king of afternoon sport radio as one half of The Hawksbee and Jacobs Show on Talksport. We talked about Paul’s career as a BAFTA Award winning comedy writer and producer for Harry Hill and Fantasy Football with Baddiel and Skinner among quite a few other things. 

Since then, Sean Singleton and I have recorded and published a sports business podcast every week, and will continue to do so throughout 2020. This is what I’ve learnt.

Podcasts are a different type of conversation

Long form podcast interviews fall in to a gap between the type of rambling conversation you can have with a journalistic source and the performance you get from people when they’re sitting on a stage in front of their peers at a conference or industry event. 

Often, the absolute priority of most guests is to get off stage having not made a dick of themselves and/or created a news story that she will have to explain when she gets back to the office. This is restrictive, because it means their answers are coming from a position of fear rather than honesty or genuine curiosity. 

The famous guest paradox

There’s an assumption that the more well known a guest the greater the audience. But quite often the more famous a person is the less you get from them. I think this is because they have by definition, done loads of media interviews and are accomplished at presenting a version of themselves. They have a big store of anecdotes and points of view that have been road tested and are largely impenetrable to questioning, making for a boring conversation. 

Btw, this facade of polished confidence is one of the many reasons why media training is ‘a bad thing’. Its objective is to close down real conversation in favour of prepared talking points and key messages, all of which makes it tedious for the listener. For evidence of this claim, turn on the radio and listen to any politician, sports star or CEO. I genuinely believe Donald Trump was elected president because of media training - in that he sounds like he’s never been trained, which American voters mistake for authenticity.

The engagement thing

Everyone asks about the numbers. How many? Who’s listening? Data. This is inevitable - and our numbers are outstanding btw - but the focus on audience metrics misses a lot of the point. The real difference between a podcast as a marketing medium and alternatives - print, digital, event etc - is engagement. I’ve been writing stuff and appearing at events for a long time, but the feedback I get from the podcast is different to that of my other output. There’s a warmth there. People feel like they know me better now, because I’ve been in their ear, in their heads, for an hour a week. This is harder to quantify with the data analysis and far more valuable than some scammed up Twitter impression bullshit. 

(Side note: The private nature of the relationship makes it harder to make a podcast go viral. Social clips and transcripts are useful to help spread the word. Most AI derived transcripts are still crap however). 

Early signals

An underrated virtue: Podcasts are a good way of sensing demand or interest in a particular topic or idea. You can do a podcast on say, influencer marketing or the business of esports etc and fairly quickly you can gauge if there’s an audience for it. 

This is why most documentaries and comedy series are now road tested as podcasts first, before you have to spend tens of thousands on making pilots. The same goes for marketing ideas. What’s the campaign idea you have that you’re going to pin this year’s budget on? Are you sure it’s interesting enough to bear that responsibility? Do a pod or two and you’ll quickly be reassured, or disappointed. Either way, your decision will be a better one. 

Pods have a long tail

Conferences come and go. They are a day in the sun, or not, depending on how it goes. All that work, all that preparation and you go out on stage in front of a half empty room, full of agency account managers in on a freebie. Podcasts hang around for weeks, months, years, and so offer enduring value over time. Once they find us, new listeners go on to explore our back catalogue, so the total audience grows week by week. The first pod we did with Paul Hawksbee of Talksport is still collecting downloads nearly a year after we recorded it. 

Sound quality is important

The tech side of podcasts is boring but important. Before we launched Unofficial Partner we decided we wanted to go to where our guests were, which means recording in a variety of locations, some conducive to perfect audio quality, some not.

Rather than farm out the production to a third party, we wanted to learn how to do it ourselves. This is the core of our business and it's vital that we know how everything works. So we did the reading, watched YouTube how-tos and took advice on getting the rights mic and kit. But it was a steep learning curve. The room, the sound environment and the equipment: all of this is critical to what it sounds like at the other end. In the rush to get going we made mistakes. This was a hard but valuable lesson, one we’ve acted on to correct. When we do work with clients we employ a professional sound recordist and sometimes rent a studio. Our more recent podcasts sound much better. ‘Radio quality’ was how one commenter put it, which felt like the best compliment we'd ever got.

The Trojan horse is becoming the horse

We launched Unofficial Partner as a Trojan horse. Me and Sean are consultants, selling editorial and publishing expertise. So it made sense to have a publishing front end to the business: to walk the talk, show don’t tell (other cliches are available on request). 

Podcasting was a bit of white space in the crowded market for sports business content that stretches across traditional editorial, email newslines, conferences, events and awards. That’s before you get started on the good (and sometimes crap) industry comment and opinion that’s available across social media and corporate owned channels.

And of course, there are some really good people doing great sportsbiz podcasts out there, which we take as sign that there’s a market for what we do. The more that podcasts become the normal way that the sports business gets information, the better it is for all, particularly if like us, audio is at the centre of what we do.

Some people are stupid

One way they signal this fact is when they say, “There are so many podcasts now, I just don’t have the time to listen to them’. My answer to this point is along the lines of: “There’s a lot of books on Amazon, please don’t feel obliged to read them all, you fucking tool”.

Different formats are coming

One to one interviews and round table conversations are the easiest form of podcasting, so is where everyone starts. Episodic stories, branded collaborations, greater use of direct listener response...the form is almost limitless and that sense of learning something new is very intoxicating. Next week we're doing a live one in Paris at Global Sports Week.

We’re at the end of the beginning

Streaming has changed how we get information. That’s not going to stop, and it’s going to broaden how we all view the job of communication, from the big, shiny mass market franchises through to niche B2B pods, branded content and internal comms. 

This is how the clever investor types at Andreessen Horowitz put it:

In the world of podcasting, the flywheel is spinning: new technologies including AirPods, connected cars, and smart speakers have made it much easier for consumers to listen to audio content, which in turn creates more revenue and financial opportunity for creators, which further encourages high-quality audio content to flow into the space.

I’m also very fond of these graphs, also from Andreessen Horowitz. 

Do you have an audio strategy?

What does your business sound like? How does your brand's expensive new sponsorship reach people who want to listen in the car or on the tube or via Alexa in the kitchen? Is there an audio component built in to your rights holder partnerships? Could that worthy thought leadership white paper be given new life as a podcast series?  

These and many other questions will get asked more and more throughout 2020. We can help you answer them.

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