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Feb. 12, 2019, 9:45 a.m.

In Liverpool, a football podcast has grown into a real media company — based mostly on listener payment, not advertising

Plus: Slow Burn heads to TV, MeUndies prove podcast advertising works, and Morning Edition changes its tune.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 195, published February 12, 2019.

That’s an (Anfield) wrap [by Caroline Crampton]. Hot Pod readers probably know that I’m based in the U.K., but I’m not sure it’s entirely clear that I don’t live in London. I moved away in the summer of 2017 after nearly a decade in the English capital, and nowadays I’m based in northwest England near Liverpool. That decision had nothing to do with podcasting, but since I moved here, I’ve become aware that one of the most interesting independent podcast companies happens to work out of central Liverpool — and that its success is intimately connected to its location.

That company is The Anfield Wrap, which publishes a collection of mostly football (soccer, if you must) podcasts. It employs 11 people, has around 80,000 listeners for its weekly free shows, and has sold out live tours all over the world. Its revenues are partly ad-driven with the help of Audioboom, but the bulk of it is driven by listener subscriptions. They have over 10,000 people paying £5 a month (about $6.50) for access to extra podcast content beyond the twice-weekly ad-supported shows, and have plans to expand their subscriber-only offering further in the near future with extra video and written content.

The Anfield Wrap is distinct from other direct-support podcast operations in a few ways. Part of it is scale — deriving so much of their revenue from subscribers paying for content in a niche feels more consistent with that Chinese educational model I wrote about a few months ago — and part of it has to do with tech, because the team runs their own backend and delivers the subscriber-only shows via an Amazon server rather than relying on any third-party service (which generally takes a cut of revenues).

I visited The Anfield Wrap’s dockside offices in central Liverpool recently to find out more. Their studio, offices, and meeting rooms are all based in the corner of a new glass building in the downtown Mann Island area, a location that Neil Atkinson — who co-founded the show and heads up the day-to-day operation — says is absolutely crucial to how they work.

“We see ourselves as telling the story of supporting Liverpool Football Club from the heart of city,” he said. “If you want to find out what’s happening at Liverpool Football Club, then you’re better off going to [the club]. They’ll do that for you. What we’re about is linking that into the city. What we want is the idea that wherever you are in the world, you feel as though you’re present in the room where the recording is taking place.”

The Anfield Wrap was founded in August 2011, when fans Gareth Roberts and Andy Heaton decided to start a Liverpool FC fan website with its own podcast, asking Atkinson to host. There were already Liverpool fan podcasts during this time, he says, but they were often recorded later in the week after matches or over Skype. The TAW crew decided to work differently: “The key thing about the podcast was that it would be recorded in Liverpool city center, in person, on Monday morning,” Atkinson said. The show soon tapped into the existing sense of fan collectivism that had grown up in the years directly preceding the launch, when there were legal issues surrounding the club’s ownership. “One of the things that came out of the issue of the ownership was that fan groups were formed and fan friendships across spectrums sort of developed as part of that,” he said.

They quickly increased their roster of contributors, often having up to 10 people recording a roundtable on Monday mornings. The next year, Atkinson and fellow TAW regular John Gibbons were asked to host a live weekly show on local Liverpool radio station City Talk, which they still do seven years on. Live tours to Ireland, Scotland, the U.S., and elsewhere followed. The podcast grew steadily, but other ventures like an online fan magazine didn’t fare quite as well. In the meantime, Atkinson had been laid off from his day job as a journalist and also done some work in film. Eventually, by early 2015, the founding shareholders decided to run The Anfield Wrap as a podcast business and see what happened.

“I just sort of thought: Why don’t we give [the listeners] more podcasts? That’s what they want, that’s what they like,” Atkinson said. “We started to do effectively a variation on where the model is now, doing about an additional 10–12 podcasts a week [for subscribers] as well as the two free ones.” Everything was free for the first two months, and then the paywall went up.

They reached 5,000 subscribers in the first three or four months, Atkinson said, which was “encouraging,” especially since not all of the paid-for content was football related — they also produce comedy, politics, music, and history shows, with occasional high-production-value documentary work mixed in. “We don’t just do stuff about Liverpool Football Club — we do stuff which is done by Liverpool supporters from Liverpool.” The core schedule follows the football season — “what people want is coverage of the games” — but they like to experiment on the side too. The team has now grown to 11 people, with full-time staff covering ads, marketing, social media, scheduling, production, and so on.

The next step for The Anfield Wrap is its own app, which will house all of their paywalled audio content plus extra videos and articles. It’s due to launch in the next few months. “I want it to be the primary place you come to get all of our content,” Atkinson said, although he confirmed they won’t be pulling their feeds from other platforms, so subscribers will still be able to get the show in their app of choice if they so desire. “We just want them to listen, to enjoy, to feel that they’re part of something. We’re not in this to try to manage people’s activity or behavior.”

The app will provide a convenient hub for everything they put out, a place where they can interact directly with their customers. (Support can be tricky when it’s an issue with a third-party app, Atkinson said.) It will also allow them to try out physical advertising, such as billboards and posters on match days, where they can appeal to new listeners with a direct call to action. “We literally know where 55,000 possible consumers are — when you think about that from a marketing point of view, how many people have the luxury of that?”

Football shows are a big part of U.K. podcast culture, and there are other independent production teams making them. But I don’t know of anything else quite like The Anfield Wrap, focusing on the culture surrounding one particular place and team and where listeners provide the primary revenue stream. The team has expanded just to keep making the core product — they aren’t taking in production work for other places or making branded content. Having started in 2011, they got into podcasting relatively early, and they’ve quietly kept building their business as trends have waxed and waned elsewhere. If there are to be turbulent times ahead, theirs could be a model to emulate.

Direct power. [Editor’s note: You can also see this section here.] As the Swedish dust from last week’s Spotify acquisition-palooza continues to settle, there’s no time to wait. Slate, the veteran digital media company and purveyor of fine podcasts, announced this morning that it’s beginning to roll out something called Supporting Cast, a new technology service meant to help podcast publishers set up paid subscription layers or membership programs.

As the Swedish dust from last week’s Spotify acquisition-palooza settles, there’s little time to wait. Slate, the veteran digital media company and purveyor of fine podcasts, announced this morning that rolling out something called Supporting Cast, a new technology service meant to help podcast publishers set up paid subscription layers or membership programs.

For some Slate superfans, what Supporting Cast aims to provide should sound familiar. The service was built off Slate’s experience creating and managing Slate Plus, its long-running membership program that provides paid users with additional content. (Which, by the way, has now grown to about 50,000 members.) That extra material includes exclusive podcast episodes, which has turned out to be a potent offering — former editor-in-chief Julia Turner once told me that there is “a ton of overlap” between Slate podcast listeners and Slate Plus members — but it is something that they have traditionally distributed with some difficulty.

“It is a pain in the ass for us, and more importantly, it’s a pain in the ass for users,” Gabriel Roth, Slate’s editorial director, told Digiday in a piece last summer on those complexities (complexifier?) of distributing exclusive audio. “What we have, essentially, is a customer service challenge.”

That customer service challenge, it should be noted, primarily revolves around the awkward requirements of jerry-rigged paid podcast distribution solutions, which generally demands users to consume episodes through a whole other podcast app, as a downloaded mp3 file for consumption off iTunes, or even as a desktop-listening experience. “We think people want to continue using their existing podcast players,” David Stern, Slate’s vice president of product and business development, tells me. “Listeners develop strong habits around their podcast apps, and are unlikely to use a second or third app just to get access to bonus content or ad-free versions of one or two shows.”

To that end, Slate designed Supporting Cast to provide an onboarding experience that lets audiences listen to exclusive content within their preferred app. It does so by automatically facilitating the addition of premium feeds into a number of widely-used apps: Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Downcast, Pocket Casts, and Podcast Addict. (Stern estimates that this specific collection of apps covers a majority of the market. Then again, Apple Podcasts alone probably does that.) Users of more obscure apps can still manually upload feeds. Notable exclusions, however, include Stitcher and Google Podcasts, though that may change over time. Also: Spotify, which is a closed platform.

Supporting Cast steps into the open with two launch partners in tow: Critical Frequency, the podcast network founded by journalist Amy Westervelt, and 5by5, the nine-year-old technology-oriented podcast network started by Dan Benjamin. Slate expects to announce more partners soon, and they’re hoping to use this launch press push to stoke interest among potential clients. I’m told that they’re eyeing two target demographics in particular: (1) existing podcast networks that don’t have their own registration system in place — “We love Patreon, but they don’t support multiple shows, and they’re really trying to own the relationship with fans,” Stern said — and (2) independent podcasters who are looking for another stream of meaningful revenue and aren’t happy with their current alternatives.

Interested publishers should note a few things:

  • The service allows publishers to build scenarios where multiple premium-tiered shows can be accessed by listeners within a single account, which is a pretty important user experience cornerstone.
  • Supporting Cast isn’t a self-serve platform at the moment — meaning that you’d have to request a demo, fill out a form, and manually work with the team to set up an account for now. But Stern says it will become self-serve soon.
  • Publishers using Supporting Cast will get a dashboard that displays all the usual dashboard things: subscribers, downloads, signups, revenues, and so on. If you know how to use Stripe, Patreon, or Memberful, you’d probably know how to use this.
  • Speaking of Stripe: I’m told that Supporting Cast will support Mailchimp and Stripe integration, which is nice. More integrations to come.
  • Supporting Cast being a technology service and all, Slate will take a cut of the revenue. The company has worked out individual arrangements with its two launch partners, and I’m told that they’re still figuring out precise rev-share splits. However, Stern did say that the cut will likely be “more than Patreon, certainly, but less than Apple.” (Patreon takes 5 percent; Apple takes 30 percent in most cases.)
  • Slate emphasizes that Supporting Cast is purely a white-label service. “Podcasters can customize the signup flow to match their brands. We don’t stick a Supporting Cast logo at the top of every page. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t treat these members as our users. They belong to the podcasters whose shows they support,” the press release notes.

The introduction of Supporting Cast couldn’t have been better timed. Spotify’s acquisitions last week signaled the music streaming platform’s intent to become an all-consuming audio distributor, with podcasting being its primary vessel to take on the entrenched but valuable world of talk radio. If that bet pays off, Spotify could accumulate a considerable amount of power over the podcast ecosystem — a fact that worries more than a few publishers, both big and small. (For what it’s worth, and I’ll explore this further in a later column, I feel like we need to explore these anxieties more specifically before we can properly assess the pros and cons of Spotify’s gambit. This take needs more time in the oven, though.)

Anyway, these worries appear to be at the very front of Slate’s mind. Here’s Stern in the press release:

This might seem like a strange moment to be launching a product that targets and depends on an open podcasting ecosystem. Spotify and Pandora have entered the podcasting market in force, with well funded new entrants close on their heels. Slate partners with some of these companies to offer our shows on their platforms, as we do with Apple Podcasts, Overcast, and Pocket Casts, in pursuit of the widest possible audience. But if one of these walled gardens comes to dominate the market, it’s likely to share a small fraction of its revenue with podcast creators, just as Facebook and Google share a very small proportion of the revenue they generate from content sites back to publishers.

We think that scenario would be bad for podcasters and bad for listeners. As an early podcast producer — we released our first show in 2005! — we believe a thriving ecosystem depends on openness, diversity, low barriers to entry, and lack of concentration. If podcasters can’t monetize their work adequately in the open market, they’ll have no choice but to offer their shows to one of these closed platforms—on terms that will worsen significantly if a platform achieves monopoly status. It’s clearly possible to produce great shows, sometimes quite profitably, in the current market, but as Slate Plus has shown us, podcasters need multiple sources of revenue. We hope Supporting Cast will enable more podcasters to build sustainable businesses that let them keep doing what they do best: making great, entertaining, informative shows.

Slate isn’t the only shop working to seize a paid-audio opportunity out of this environment, by the way. Just last week, Nieman Lab wrote about an attempt by Substack, the paid newsletter provider, to claim similar territory, and I’m fairly certain we’ll see more efforts at building tools to help publishers to find or scale up levers of direct power to serve as a check against the potentially distortive impacts of platform influence.

Now, it should be noted that direct support, whether as a subscription or membership or patronage model, isn’t anything particularly new in podcasting. After all, Radiotopia was launched on the strength of successful crowdfunding campaigns, and a number of noteworthy publishers currently rely on Patreon-facilitated support models to drive their businesses. (Though, recent reports suggest that storm clouds are beginning to loom over Patreon, which, you know, yikes.)

But the problem is that, despite all those experiments (some of which are quite successful), the podcast industry as a whole remains overwhelmingly advertising-driven, and it’s always seemed like most publishers have prioritized ad revenue over all alternatives. We don’t quite know what Spotify will do to the ad market, but at the very least, it should drive more publishers to diversify and scale up other revenue streams. And initiatives like Supporting Cast are a reflection of that.

Quick flashback. From the May 10, 2016 issue:

…the tension between the two communities with very separate needs and beliefs that share the same infrastructure is very real. It’s podcasts-as-blogs versus podcasts-as-future-of-radio, it’s the independents versus the corporate. But whatever happens with Apple, we’re going to have to confront this question. The push toward professionalization is fully underway. As [The New York Times’ John] Herrman put it succinctly in a series of tweets: “Whether or not Apple encourages it, online audio will develop beyond current infrastructure…Anyway, I understand horror at the industrialization of a creative medium. Participants I talked to think it’s coming one way or another. So the question *right now* is: by Apple’s hand, or someone else’s. These conversations should sound familiar!”

The question is, then: Can we cultivate a media universe that can effectively and simultaneously support two very, very different kinds of communities without compromising the integrity and efforts of each?

I suspect I was smarter two years ago than I am these days.

Podcast fans unite [by Caroline Crampton]. At the top of February, I headed off to Birmingham to attend the first PodUK convention. There have been a few different podcast events debuting in the U.K. in the last few months, with new festivals in Brighton and Manchester and workshops in London, and I consider their viability a good test for the health of the industry here as a whole. Live shows and associated events have proved to be good revenue streams for podcasts elsewhere; if the U.K. can now support more of them, it’s a decent sign that the audience and awareness here is growing.

Consistent with its positioning as a convention, the day’s programming saw a mix of live performances, talks, meet-and-greets, and signings, mostly dominated by independent fiction shows but with a few appearances by other kinds of podcasts such as the BBC World Service’s historical true-crime series Death in Ice Valley and Ewan Spence’s Eurovision Song Contest Insight.

The day took a hit from adverse weather conditions, with snow preventing some ticketholders traveling to the event, but there were still plenty of attendees at the Millennium Point venue. The programming was interesting, but what really stood out to me was the atmosphere: It was one of the kindest, most supportive podcast things I’ve ever been to, with strangers striking up conversations in the halls and plenty of listener–talent mingling. I would guess that this relaxed vibe partly stemmed from the fact that most of the shows in attendance were smaller and independent, so there was a feeling of easygoing equity around and none of the uneasy tension that I’ve experienced at other events where you can have hobbyist, semi-pro, and superstar podcasters all sharing a bill.

Jess Anson, the woman behind Rocksalt Events, the company that organized the convention, told me the whole thing grew out of her participation in fandom culture elsewhere — and her own growing love for podcasts. “I used to make events for the TV show Supernatural…like little fan events,” she said. “And then I found these guys the McElroy brothers, who make The Adventure Zone, My Brother My Brother and Me, and so on. I realised that there were a lot of fans in the U.K., but there was no one getting together and meeting up. So I started making fan events for that, and that kind of spiralled into, ‘Hey, there’s not really a fandom hub for for podcast fans in the U.K.,’ and I’m looking for a new event to do, so why not make one?”

The aim of the day was for people to have fun and enjoy their favorite shows: “We’ve tried to keep [the lineup] kind of lighthearted, let’s say. So we wouldn’t want to bring any business podcasts, or serious podcasts, let’s put it that way,” Anson said.

The decision to hold the event outside London was partly cost-driven — “it’s a lot cheaper to do an event in Birmingham!” — and partly because it gave PodUK a unique selling proposition, since so many other British podcasting events take place in the capital. Even then, they had people travel from all over Europe to attend, with fans, performers and sponsors coming from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Sponsors, such as Hindenburg, also started getting in touch as news of the event spread, enabling Ansom to up her offering for attendees and get some help with merch.

PodUK definitely had the feeling of a passion project rather than a commercial one. But the goodwill towards it both from podcasters and listeners was really striking, especially as the U.K. audio space has become more profit-aware over the past few years. Ansom feels like she’s found “a gap in the market,” and I’m tempted to agree. It’s good to see that fan-driven enterprises like this can still thrive in an increasingly professionalized industry.


  • WNYC announced a new chief content officer last week: Andrew Golis, formerly the general manager of Vox Media.
  • From Variety: “San Francisco-based podcasting startup Himalaya Media has raised $100 million in funding to establish itself as a new force in the podcast distribution space…Himalaya’s main investor is Ximalaya, China’s biggest spoken word audio platform.” Seems China wants a piece of the American on-demand audio action (see also: Castbox), and they’re sloshing silly money around to get it. We’ll be watching this broader trend.
  • Slate’s Slow Burn is heading to television, with a six-episode series based on its Watergate series. Despite having left Slate to start their own podcast studio, Leon Neyfakh and Andrew Parsons will be executive producers, alongside Julia Turner (who is now at the L.A. Times), Slate CEO Dan Check, and editorial director Gabriel Roth. Relatedly, here’s The Verge: “MGM-owned Epix jumps into the streaming service arena with EpixNow.”
  • From Bloomberg: “In the four years since it first started buying podcast slots, MeUndies has sold almost 9 million pairs of skivvies and hasn’t had to raise any capital. It now has 144 employees and expects to post $75 million in sales this year. Podcasts remain one of its biggest expenses and comprise one-third of its marketing budget.” Podcast advertising works…at least, in the way that it works right now, which may not be the way it works in the future.
  • For the first time in a very long time, NPR is updating the Morning Edition theme to appeal to “new listeners,” i.e. the youths. Shouts to that one time NPR asked its audience to remix its theme in 2016. Personally, I stan for the Breakmaster Cylinder take.
  • Might want to keep an eye on this one. From The Verge: “Spotify is now explicitly banning ad blockers, as stated in an updated Terms of Service policy sent out today.”
  • If you miss Another Round’s Tracy Clayton, you can now hear her hosting a new podcast that Pineapple Street Media is making with Netflix called Strong Black Legends.
  • On the smart speaker beat: “Apple’s smart speaker is struggling to grab market share from the Amazon Echo and Google Home.” (CNBC) And “Google Home can now translate conversations on-the-fly.” (TechCrunch)
  • From The Daily Beast: “Steve Schmidt Storms Off Own Podcast When Asked About Advising Howard Schultz.” Awkward. That podcast, by the way, is called Words Matter.

This time last year. To refresh: I’m copping this new feature from the very smart Ali Griswold, who writes a damn good newsletter on the sharing economy called Oversharing, where we go over the headlines from this point last year.

In the February 13, 2018 issue, Vox Media launched Today, Explained, its bid to take on the daily news podcast genre (then-Vox GM Andrew Golis, mentioned above, told me: “It gives us an opportunity to have an audio daily presence in our audience’s life in the way our website does in text and our YouTube channel does in video”); The Onion released its true-crime podcast spoof, A Very Fatal Murder; Crooked Media announced that Pod Save America was heading to HBO; we talked about spray-and-pray tactics and what comes after; and we Call(ed) Your Girlfriend to see what’s up.

Animated illustration of Liverpool FC’s Mohamed Salah scoring a goal against Porto, February 14, 2018, by Mahmoud Amin used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 12, 2019, 9:45 a.m.
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