Issue 208,  published May 7, 2019

Making Money: Part III

This week, I’m wrapping up — for now, anyway — my multi-part look into the different ways podcasters make money from their shows with this profile on Muddy Knees, which largely tells the story of how a group of creators who first built an audience at a publication they did not own fared after they started their own outfit. (You can catch up on the first two parts of this series here and here.) Here we go.

It was the source of many a “transfer window surprise” gag*, back in the summer of 2017, when three of the people behind The Guardian’s popular Football Weekly podcast — host James Richardson, producer Ben Green, and contributor Iain Macintosh — announced they were going solo. Football Weekly had been running in some form or other since 2006, and had a sizeable audience that drive over 100,000 downloads an episode.

The trio had departed to form their own company, Muddy Knees Media, with which they hit the ground running with their first podcast: The Totally Football Show, hosted by Richardson.

“We had a three year plan,” Macintosh, now the company’s chief executive, told me over the phone recently. “We really did. We ripped it up after about 20 minutes after we started, though, because we had such an incredible reaction to the start of The Totally Football Show that we had to accelerate. . . We realised that we had this massive audience.”

A few later, they launched a second podcast, The Totally Football League Show, which Macintosh said is his particular labour of love. “I’m a Southend United fan, and they’re terrible and no one ever talks about them, so we had a show for people like me who supported terrible football teams.” Sponsorship deals were quick to follow — three came within the span of 45 minutes one day, he says — and, just like that, they had two podcasts that were above the break even point Golazzo, a podcast that draws on Richardson’s deep knowledge of Italian football was then launched, as was another podcast specifically on Scottish football.

The numbers spoke for themselves very early on. The Totally Football Show has done over 50 million downloads in under two years, Macintosh says, and they measure the rest of their shows “in the hundreds of thousands”. It’s a far cry for his initial estimate of 20,000 an episode when they were just getting started. “I think we did 20,000 in the first 10 minutes,” he said. I know just anecdotally from my own circle of friends that fans of the Guardian Football Weekly were torn about whether to follow Richardson and co to their new show or stick with the original (“it was like a schism!” one said; but it seems like plenty did go with them, or at least listen to both.

I am aware that this is the second football-based British podcast startup that I’ve profiled this year. Football (or soccer, if you really must) is a massive deal here, financially, culturally, historically. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that two of the few successful independent podcast outfits that exist in the UK are based on following this particular sport. Football fandom is big business, and makes total sense that football podcasters should be able to carve out a decent living for themselves within the wider football media sphere.

However, Muddy Knees isn’t just a football podcasting company. Macintosh, who had to quit all his other work as a football journalist to manage the company full time six months in, said that they knew early on that they wanted to expand into other areas. “We knew that we couldn’t just making more football shows, people have only got so much time in their lives,” he said. “What we wanted to do was see what we could do now that we were in an environment where we have broadcast quality studios, access to great talent, and a growing reputation.”

From their base in London’s Soho area, Muddy Knees started making branded content and partnering with other broadcasters. They made The Bradley Wiggins Show about cycling for broadcaster Eurosport, as well as other things, and have plenty more partnerships lined up for the next 12 months, Macintosh says. They also provide studio space and production help for hire.

“So I guess right now the business is in three parts: we have the football network, we have the branded content, and then we have that third part that I always want to keep whatever happens, which is that I want the great people who work here to have fun and be creative and have ideas and do things. So we will always have a department for going ‘you know what, let’s do a podcast about this, let’s just go for it just see what happens,’” Macintosh said.

But he is still mindful of the risks involved in total independence, of course. Muddy Knees’ podcasts are all ad-supported, because Macintosh wants everything to be free and openly available to listeners, with some sales handled through Audioboom and some through their own team. “We are not backed by a high net worth individual. This business was started on my life savings and I’m a journalist so you can imagine it really wasn’t very much to draw on and we have to take our shots very carefully,” he said. Ultimately, though, he thinks that the quality of what they make will always be attractive to sponsors.

“I think we’re dealing with a very sophisticated audience who understand the difference between a podcast which is essentially a Yeti mic plugged into a MacBook and broadcast quality studios with experienced producers and top, knowledgeable talent. The latter brings a fee. These things do have to be paid for at some point,” he said.

As long as football keeps generating stories, though — and Macintosh believes that every game, every goal does that — Muddy Knees will have something to say.

Making Money, Coda. When we published the second part of this series, where I talked about the monetisation options open to small podcasts using my own experiences as a case study, I received a really fascinating response from Tim Romero, a Tokyo-based entrepreneur and podcaster.

Romero brought up the subject of advertising and sponsorship, which I had dismissed as an option for my own show, since I felt that I didn’t have either the time or the skills to devote to it on a scale that would actually prove profitable for me. He told me about his experiences with his Disrupting Japan podcast, which he described as “a small niche podcast with about 3,500 listeners.” After going all out on finding sponsors, he managed to earn around $8,000 a month from this show, which is an awful lot more than I was envisaging as a possibility (for context, his is a business-focused podcast, which I think does make a difference, but still).

However, Tim eventually decided to shut down the commercial side of his show in order to pursue other projects, but he did direct me to a recent episode he made where he laid out his monetisation process and why he made the decision to scale it down. This was the part that I found particularly interesting:

Disrupting Japan had become financially successful, but I was spending 70% of my time finding and working with sponsors and only 30% of my time creating the podcast. And then it hit me. “God help me. I’m running a media company.”

 Tim’s experience backs up my theory that it is absolutely possible for a small, solo podcaster to make a living from their show, but they have to be willing to find more time for the business than the audio. Anyway, if anyone else has perspectives on this, I’d love to hear from you.