Issue 195,  published February 12, 2019

The Anfield Wrap does it themselves

Hot Pod readers probably know that I’m based in the UK by now, but I’m not sure that 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 north west 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 (or 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.

In my mind, The Anfield Wrap has some distinctions from other direct-support podcast operations that take contributions through Patreon. Part of this has to do with scale — deriving so much of their revenue from subscribers for paying for content in a niche feels more consistent with that Chinese educational model I wrote about a few months ago — and part of this has to do with the tech, because this show runs their own back-end 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, and asked Atkinson to host. There were already fan podcasts during this time, he says, but they were often recorded later on in the week 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 centre, 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 added.

They quickly increased their roster of contributors, often having up to ten people recording a round-table on Monday mornings. The following year, Atkinson and fellow TAW regular John Gibbons were asked to host a live weekly show on local Liverpool radio station CityTalk, which they are still doing seven years on. Live tours to Ireland, Scotland, the US and elsewhere followed. The podcast grew steadily, but other ventures like an online fan magazine didn’t fare quite so well. In the meantime, Atkinson had been made redundant from his day job as a journalist and 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. “On 1 March 2015 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 came in.

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 series 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 their own app, which will house all of their paywalled audio content plus extra videos and articles. It’s in development at the moment, and is 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 that 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 behaviour.”

The app will just provide them with a convenient hub for everything they put out, 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 UK podcast culture, and there are other independent production teams making them. But I don’t know of anything else like The Anfield Wrap, where they focus 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 while trends have waxed and waned elsewhere. If there are to be turbulent times ahead, theirs could be a model to emulate.