The Current State of Football Podcasting
On collecting the gong for best podcast at the recent Football Supporters Federation awards on behalf of The Guardian newspaper’s Football Weekly, Jonathan Wilson, founder of The Blizzard and author of numerous books including his history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid was seen to tweet:
Podcast of the Year at the FSF Awards goes to Football Weekly. Nice to win, better to beat Judas FM.
For those out of the know, the reference was assumed to be directed at the purveyors of the Totally Football show series of podcasts and parent company Muddy Knees Media, headed by Iain Macintosh, a co-podcaster of Wilson’s at Football Weekly until a few short months before and who jumped ship to form his own concern taking main presenter James Richardson with him.
Even if one assumes that Wilson’s comment was tweeted in jest – and that is certainly my inclination – the setting up of Macintosh’s rival outfit caused not a few shock waves when announced in the late summer of 2017. This was as much for the suddenness of it all as anything as well as the way Football Weekly has shaped itself into an institution of football broadcasting, enjoying a rumoured 150,000 downloads per episode and becoming increasingly influential. Indeed, this was far from the first time that the newspaper’s soccer podcasting wing had garnered an award.
So why the split?
Without wishing to get into existential debate about the nature of the internet and how we should regard it, there’s little doubt that if the world wide web had been better regulated from the off, the notion of providing billions of pages of lovingly produced content for free might never have been a thing. Instead, like anything else – tomatoes, hoovers, regular soccer media indeed – we’d all assume that if we want to use a thing, then we should probably have to pay for it.
By extension, those actually doing the producing – writers, broadcasters, designers – can reasonably expect to be paid for their endeavours – especially if there is a serious market for what they do. In an interview with Business Insider produced in the wake of the split, Macintosh spoke of 5.7 million downloads over the early months of Muddy Knees Media’s existence. If what you did attracted that many people, you’d probably reason that you’d deserve to be afforded a decent amount of money for it wouldn’t you?
The model deployed by Muddy Knees Media’s flagship programme The Totally Football Show differs little in content from that of Football Weekly with the crucial exception that Macintosh has chosen to fund the enterprise via advertising. In the same Business Insider article, he claimed to have access to an astonishing level of detail when it comes to the audience for the shows and hence, it hasn’t taken much to persuade advertisers to jump on board. Indeed, the publicity is targeted in an especially cunning way – as a resident of Oxford, my weekly listen contains invitations to come on down to the city’s new abysmally identikit Westgate shopping centre.
To this day, this website still receives several emails a day asking if we could mention football betting in a post in return for a few quid (and we would not even be obliged to mention a firm by name – just adding to the turf accountant ecosystem is enough) so it won’t surprise you to know that the majority of the advertisers on the Totally Football Show are gambling firms.
This is also the case with one of Muddy Knees Media’s spin off ventures, The Totally Football League Show hosted by MacIntosh himself, incidentally a Southend United fan, and this is no exception to the system – a bloke from William Hill regularly appears to provide the odds and MacIntosh and guests nail their colours to the mast each week as to who they think will win lose or draw.
If Wilson’s comment is unlikely to be a bitter one, the fissure has provoked a degree of moral outrage amongst some listeners and of course in the bear pit that is social media and Twitter in particular. More importantly though – is the show any good?
The answer is very much a ‘yes’.
MacIntosh is joined by Blackburn Rovers supporter Matthew Stanger, formerly of Football 365 and a revolving series of guests. He approaches the task with a great degree of wit and self-effacing humour, traits that will be familiar to those who have read his Football Manager Stole My Life . Knitting it all together with considerable knowledge borne out of years of lower league fandom, MacIntosh’s style is professional but easy going while Stanger is also always ready with a useful fact or figure and is a presence of real authority.
In recent episodes, the decision has been taken to draft in Ali Maxwell and George Elek from the Not the Top 20 Pod which has been going for a couple of years now and has deservedly received accolades. Both know their stuff and can quickly expound on the topic of the day – not an easy thing when you are talking about 72 clubs of varying fortunes.
There is also a useful section on how to get to a featured ground each week and an entertaining historical rundown – the kind of regular features that podcast listeners like. There’s also been a tendency in recent weeks to concentrate more on bigger issues facing EFL clubs and the team are unafraid of being critical albeit in a mild way.
Feedback is being taken on board and while I shuddered at a recent comment from MacIntosh that thay would be looking to get more ‘newsy’ – no point when the BBC gets to things first – while feedback from fans will always be along the lines of ’why don’t you feature Forest/Bury/Stevenage more?’ should not be taken as good counsel. The podders are at the best when exploring a major issue – such as Carlos Carvalhal’s plight at Sheffield Wednesday before his recent sacking. One hopes that they will follow the lead of the late and seriously missed We Are Going Up pod and develop a more campaigning side that will look to tackle in depth issues such as ownership and finance. Simply repeating the mantra that ‘Wolves are quite a good team aren’t they?’ won’t really wash and The Totally Football League Show has so far managed to avoid this prosaic mode of presentation.
The advertisers could be an encumbrance or an assistance and as far as turning a podcast into a business is concerned, it may still be the best and only model out there. Alternatives from the world of written media include crowdfunding from the likes of Patreon – previously deployed by the peerless blog Two Hundred Percent and various club blogs such as The Tilehurst End; The Blizzard ’s Radiohead style name your price model; and the kind of two tier membership schemes provided by Liverpool blog The Tomkins Times .
As far as podcasts are concerned, there are a couple of noteworthy examples. First, veteran journo Graham Hunter introduced a membership scheme for his series of ‘Big Interview’ podcasts where he has deployed his existing lists of contacts to record generally enjoyable chats with the great and the good of the game – from Harry Redknapp to Michael O’Neill; from Slavan Bilic to…ahem…Peter Beardsley. Members can pay a small amount of money to become ‘socios’ and gain access to the choicest of the interviews.
Things may have improved since but Hunter’s scheme coincided just as I felt my interest in the podcast was waning and the promotion of subprime material such as the interviewer rattling on about that weekend’s La Liga matches to a position in front of the paywall wasn’t that welcome. Similarly, there is the case of Irish podcasting phenomenon Second Captains.
A pan sports podcast which also takes regular interest in Gaelic Football, hurling, rugby and boxing in particular, the football content of this entertaining show revolves around the inimitable figure of Ken Early, a man who delights in tearing down shibboleths. Despite his Clarkson style method of pronouncing certain words in a sentence in an extra loud voice, Early’s opinions are generally on the money and it’s also sobering but necessary as an Englishman to get the full picture of how one is viewed abroad – the twin embarrassments of Brexit and England’s defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016 were cause for much merriment and with its amusing jingles featuring the worst excesses of Arsenal Fan TV and traditionalist Johnny Giles, it can be an exhilarating listen.
From a position of strength that sees the show enjoy almost rabid levels of loyalty in Ireland and, increasingly, on this side of the Irish Sea, the team decided to break from their erstwhile partners, The Irish Times newspaper and to go it alone with their own two-part model – the paid portion of which is labelled, ‘The Second Captains World Service’ – henceforth, all the really interesting bits including some challenging interviews and in depth features are to be paid for while the regular show continues.
It’s a clever approach. The regular show is fairly run of the mill in its constant dissection of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho press conferences, which we’ll all have already seen and made our own minds up about, and if Early and his cohorts are never less than engaging, there is clearly the provocation to fork up the small sum to get the full package.
Which is a slight problem – for while Hunter and the Second Captains team have every right to charge for what they do, there remains a lot of quality material that is open access for free, especially when one considers that we all have only so many hours in a day – I am not sure how I would fit in listening to the full gamut of offerings from Second Captains anyway.
Chief among those yet to seek ways to receive recompense for their work are the evergreen Sound of Football, with its fake World Cup draws and annual advent calendar, the superb Football Fives podcast which has struck a winning formula with its five issues format and in particular its greatest ever 5-a-side team pods, the frankly indescribable Athletico Mince and a host of club and topic specific enterprises. Then you have the behemoths that are the likes of the Five Live World Football Phone In, as a BBC show, funded by us the taxpayer and worth every penny, and the brilliantly knowledgeable Andy Brassell on Talksport’s European Football Show, the podcast version of which is shorn of advertising. That some of the leading pods come via traditional broadcasters should come as no surprise.
For it’s very much a golden age of football podcasting and the quality is as high as ever. The informality of the format and less pressure to get facts right (as opposed to an article or a blog post) can be a release for the listeners as well as the presenters while recording equipment is cheap and the sheer convenience of consuming podcasts while ironing, cooking or walking the dog are well chronicled. Like the heyday of football blogging of a few years ago, there is also a strong feeling of camaraderie and a wish to emphasize inclusivity while eschewing the kneejerk reactions of ‘proper football men’. The dreaded word ‘banter’ is far from absent and is indeed a major feature of many of the pods described above – but only in its traditional meaning and not as a cover for racism, sexism or homophobia.
Personally, I have as much appetite for another debate about the weekend’s Premier League talking points and the main Totally Football Show won’t be anything that I’ll be subscribing to any time soon but MacIntosh and his associates really need to be congratulated for stating that ‘enough is enough’ and seeking to make a living from what they do. What’s more, the project seems to have been a resounding success to the degree that one imagines that Muddy Knees Media should now be in a position to pay guests – an Achilles heel of traditional models in that it always seemed unfair to make money from a venture and not pay all of its participants. Whether this will all pave the way for the next potential horizon for football podcasters – to charge for the majority of their content in the manner of The Financial Times, The Economist and others remains to be seen – but many possess the knowledge and the talent to give it a go.