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In Ireland, A Collective Plays The Waiting Game

The place where I live in the north west of England often feels closer to Ireland than it does to London. My city, Liverpool, has lots of historic, cultural, and family tries that visibly cuts across the Irish Sea. Indeed, it constantly surprises me sometimes with just how connected the two places are. For instance: a few months ago, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ, aired an excerpt of a podcast I had produced. At a gathering later that week, half a dozen people came up to me to say “I heard you on the radio!” in a way I’ve never experienced with a British transmission.

Irish podcasts have also long been a fixture in my regular listening rotation, and many of the shows I enjoy come from the same podcast collective, which was founded in Dublin in 2014: Headstuff. Five years in, the organization, which originally started out as a culture website, is now expanding into new premises and developing a membership scheme that includes access to their studio space and editors. At the moment, they have two full-time employees, a full-time intern on a short contract, and three freelancers, and hope to grow the employee headcount in the near future.

Although Ireland’s population is small — just under five million people live in the country compared to the UK’s 66 million — a Reuters report from 2018 put the proportion of people who had accessed a podcast in the last month at 38 percent, way ahead of the UK’s 18 percent. Given this, I was intrigued by Headstuff’s new adventures, and reached out to founder Alan Bennett to find out more.

Their business model has always relied partly on the editorial shows that Headstuff supports, such as the popular comedy podcast Dubland and the Irish language show Motherfoclóir, partly on branded projects, and partly on studio hire and production support. When I spoke to Bennett last month, he told me that Headstuff’s podcast portfolio currently numbers around 50 shows, that they collectively attract around 200,000 listeners a month.

Now, Bennett said, they’ve taken over and refurbished the former Westland Studios building in central Dublin, a large music recording studio that has hosted artists like U2 and Bob Dylan. Headstuff has turned its one large space into four studios, including one for video and one aimed at solo or voiceover work.

The idea is partly to accommodate all their current clients who want more studio time, but it’s a slightly driven by a “if we build it, they will come” sensibility, he said. In addition to the corporate clients they work with, the space is meant to also be accessible to hobbyists and amateurs, who as members can buy an allowance of credits to spend on studio time or editing support for an annual subscription of around €600 (approximately $675). “There’ll be a members’ area with a little cafe, where they can come and work and have free tea and coffee, meet guests, work on their podcasts and generally enjoy the space,” Bennett added.

This move into brick and mortar represents a big shift from Headstuff’s origins as a culture site, publishing essays and reviews. When the site launched its flagship podcast, “it grew in a way that I wasn’t quite expecting,” which gave Bennett the idea of inviting other shows in and forming the collective. Initially, the podcasts that Headstuff hosted and supported worked together just on a cross promotional basis, but now some have sponsors, crowdfunding campaigns and live performance operations as well. Bennett also has ambitions to add an in-house sales team at some point in the future.

“Some of our podcasts have been more successful than others at getting sponsors. . . We haven’t consistently had sponsors. I feel like the Irish advertising market hasn’t quite caught up to podcasting yet and there is nobody really putting a lot into it for an extended period of time. So it’s a bit hit-and-miss at the moment but I think it will get there at some point,” he said.

To date, they’ve done deals with beverage companies like Kopparberg as well as major beauty brands, and Bennett feels that Headstuff is well positioned in the Irish market for when bigger, more confident advertisers do show up. In the meantime, Patreon, studio hire fees, and the membership scheme help to fill in the gaps. “We’re still playing waiting game a little bit, but I’m also trying to force the issue — we’re trying to educate people,” he said.

The long-term goal, beyond make a success of their new space, is to be able to work on bigger, more ambitious productions. The vast majority of the podcasts that Headstuff currently puts out are conversational or semi-scripted, and Bennett has plans to make “for want of a better word, the Irish Serial.”

He added: “To be able to put a lot of resources into it into a show and be able to work on it for months before it comes out, and make journalistic shows or investigative shows or even very highly produced narrative shows — we want to do that.”

They actually have an investigative project already well under way, but the lack of resources has meant progress is slow. “It’s taken so long and we don’t have the resources to move it along quicker,” Bennett said. “We’ve been close to being able to be finished with it for such a long time that, you know, at a certain point it becomes frustrating as opposed to exciting.” The hope is that the new space and revenue stream from it will help to speed things up.

Bennett is optimistic about future growth in Irish podcasting, though, and Headstuff’s role in it as more people get involved. “I think that the appetite is there. Irish people, as the stereotype goes, are a nation of storytellers. And they always like to talk and I think podcasting gives people the ability and the flexibility to do that on a slightly bigger scale.” He hopes that the new Headstuff space, to be known as “‘The Podcast Studios”, will make starting a high-quality show more accessible and affordable for newcomers to the medium, and help existing podcasters level up.

Until the big advertisers and audiences show up, Bennett and Headstuff will be waiting. “If we just continue to make really good shows and make the space a place where people really want to be, then we can’t go wrong,” he said.