Football journalist Iain Macintosh wants to build a podcast empire -- the Totally Football Show is just the start

  • New podcast Totally Football Show attracts five million downloads in two months;
  • Founder Iain Macintosh wants to use success to launch more shows, beyond just sport;
  • Macintosh predicts podcast advertising boom: “I think there’s going to be a swing in that direction.”
Iain Macintosh Totally Football Show Muddy Knees MediaMuddy Knees MediaIain Macintosh in the studio.

LONDON — Ever since the breakout success of true crime show Serial, podcasts have been one of the few areas of media that are growing.

The market is forecast to be worth $US300 million (£223.5 million) this year and is growing fast. An estimated 4.7 million people in the UK are listening.

The only thing anyone in UK football podcasting — perhaps a bigger niche than you might think — can talk about right now are defections from Guardian Football Weekly.

The Guardian launched Football Weekly in 2006 as a chat-show style audio round-up of World Cup action. Since then it has grown into one of the UK’s most popular podcasts, regularly charting in the top 10 and averaging 150,000 downloads per episode. Central to its popularity was its gregarious, pun-loving host James Richardson — probably best known as the host of Channel 4’s well-loved Football Italia.

But Richardson, podcast producer Ben Green, and regular contributor Iain Macintosh surprised fans in late July by announcing they were leaving the Guardian to set up their own, rival venture. The news was described by more than a few Twitter users as the biggest shock of the transfer window.

“When you see the response to the news when it came out — we pretty much broke Twitter for a day,” Iain Macintosh told Business Insider in a phone interview this week.

Macintosh, known for his buoyantly delivered “Hellos” at the start of podcasts, was the mutiny leader. A football journalist by trade, Macintosh said he could see podcasts were the future after guesting on the Guardian and other shows and listening to podcasts himself.

“We’re 10 years down the line really for podcasts,” he says. “It’s less of a niche thing and more into the mainstream. I always look at my parents — when my parents are talking about something, that’s when I know the cut-through moment is there. It’s there now.”

But why break from the Guardian? It would easy to see it a move motivated by avarice — all three of the breakaway podcasters have an ownership stake in the new business, Muddy Knees Media, and will share any spoils. Suspicions aren’t helped by the fact that the Totally Football Show, the trio’s first production, sounds remarkably similar to the Guardian’s output.

But Macintosh says it’s not about the money but about creative control.

“There’s so much freedom in podcasts — it doesn’t have to be just the standard panel, the standard current affairs, everyone getting their takes on everything,” he says. “The success of some of the other stuff that you see in the industry just shows you what is possible. I mean My Dad Wrote a Porno [a comedy podcast about a middle aged man writing a pornographic novel] — that would never get commissioned by anyone. But in the podcast world, there’s a chance.”

Going independent means Macintosh, Richardson, and Green can try new things and not worry if their experiments don’t all come off.

“There’s an awful lot of reason and every person involved has got their own motivations but obviously there’s a desire for independence, for control,” Macintosh says.

‘When the last football season ended this wasn’t even a thing’

James Richardson Totally Football ShowMuddy Knees MediaJames Richardson, the host of the Totally Football Show.

Just weeks after announcing the split, the first edition of the Totally Football Show was released, timed to launch at the start of the new football season in early August. A second show focusing on the lower leagues of English football was launched two weeks ago.

Both sound slick and well rehearsed, but their launch has been much more seat-of-the-pants than it seems.

“When the last football season ended [in May] this wasn’t even a thing,” Macintosh says. “It was very, very late. Very late indeed.

“Ordinarily, you’d want about three or four months to set up a company like this. Just for the Totally Football Show. I think we had about two and a half, three weeks? It all just happened.”

He adds: “It had always been in my head that podcasts were the way forward but the way it happened — I basically spent a week with a phone sellotaped to my ear.”

Despite the hurried start, the trio still managed to pull together a consortium of private investors to fund the project. Macintosh says Muddy Knees Media is well-funded enough not to be looking at outside investment for now.

5.7 million downloads and counting

Incredibly, just eight weeks after its first show, the Totally Football Show already has 5.7 million downloads per month — up from two million at the start of September.

“I wasn’t entirely surprised when the numbers came in as high as they did,” Macintosh says. “It was sort of what we’d hoped for. It’s always been a thing of mine — get good people doing stuff that they’re good at. And we’ve got the best presenter in James Richardson, the best producer in Ben Green. It’s all about harnessing that power now and taking that power and spreading it out to the other shows.”

We kind of have a rocket boost on everything we do

Macintosh’s ambition is to take Muddy Knees Media beyond football — beyond sport even — and turn it into a podcast production juggernaut.

“We’re in talks now for a number of very different directions, as I say non-sport,” he says. “There are three or four that are at the concept stage.”

Macintosh hopes to have three football podcasts in production by the end of this year and launch another three titles in the first half of next year. Ben Green, better known to listeners as Producer Ben, is a keen wrestling fan and Macintosh has talked elsewhere about the possibility of launching a WWE podcast.

“We’ve got the number now,” he says. “The Football League Show, we’ve been able to advertise that for free straight to our own audience [through the Totally Football Show]. You’d kill for that audience if you were setting up a football league show now.

“We kind of have a rocket boost on everything we do and it’s all about joining it all up — everything we do helping to support everything else. And this is before we even get to live shows and other commercial avenues that we can take.”

‘The guys at Football Ramble are doing brilliant stuff’

Ambition has been fuelled by the response of advertisers, which Macintosh says has been “really encouraging.” Muddy Knees Media has already secured deals with subscription shaving startup Cornerstone and fantasy football game Fan League and is “deep in talks for more advertising.”

“One of the things that really made a difference is a couple of days before we launched there was a story in the Sunday Times about Proctor & Gamble,” Macintosh recalls. “They had slashed online spending because they just didn’t know where it was going. I saw that and thought, well, if your primary concern is you don’t know who’s seeing these podcasts then, god, podcasts are great.

“There’s no better medium for seeing who your audience is. The data that we get is so detailed. I think there’s going to be a swing in that direction.”

He isn’t alone in thinking this. The Totally Football Show is not the only new football show to launch this summer — The Telegraph and The Independent have both launched ones, while popular title The Football Ramble has launched a new spin-off title about European football, On The Continent. Clearly, many people see a bright future for sports podcasts.

“Competition is good,” Macintosh says. “It keeps everyone on their toes. The guys at Football Ramble are doing brilliant stuff. They’re a great example of what can be done in this industry. They have got such great chemistry and it’s really working out well for them.”

‘We’ve got nothing but love for the guys at the Guardian’

Totally Football ShowMuddy Knees MediaThe Totally Football Show being recorded.

What about those left behind at the Guardian? New host Max Rushden and his guests sounded almost shell shocked in the first new episode of this season.

“We’ve got nothing but love for the guys at the Guardian,” Macintosh said magnanimously. “I think they’re in a very good place.”

Not all listeners agree. New host Rushden has drawn ire from some, who have taken to Twitter and the Guardian comments section to complain.

Macintosh says: “Max and Barry [Glendenning, a Guardian journalist and Football Weekly regular] are a terrific double act. Initially, the listeners will be a bit upset but, once they listen to it for a bit, they will realise how good Max is, how good Barry is.”

Ah, Barry — Glendenning is perhaps the one element of the Guardian’s secret sauce that Muddy Knees Media have failed to march away with. The sardonic Irishman is a fan favourite, with many wondering why he didn’t choose to move across.

Did he try and tempt Glendenning over? 

There’s a pause.

“We love Barry. All things are open in the future but Barry has a very good job at the Guardian outside of podcasting. He’s a very good writer.”

For now, Macintosh has enough on his plate beside chasing new talent.

“The company has to evolve otherwise it’s just me running from studio to studio and I don’t think anyone wants that,” he says. “I think as we progress through these chaotic first three or four months, we’ll assess the situation as we go. Nothing is off the table, is the way I always work.”

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