The origins of The Cycling Podcast
A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of The Author, the Journal of the Society of Authors
by Richard Moore
I feel more optimistic about making a living from journalism than I did five years ago. The resilience of books is one reason. The other is podcasting. I don’t know which surprises me more.
It started four years ago. Along with two author-journalist colleagues, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe, I was looking forward to spending July in France: three days on the island of Corsica, crossing the Med to Nice, along the Côte d’Azur and into the Pyrenees, a long drive north to Brittany, then wending our way back down through the bread basket of France to Provence and finally the Alps before a mad dash up to Paris and home. An adventure that would combine dashes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald with a sprinkling of Brydon and Coogan. But it was work: we were covering the Tour de France, as we did every summer.
Only in May Lionel and I heard that we weren’t. The magazine we freelanced for, having jettisoned its editor, had other ideas. Our plans were in disarray. We found ourselves contemplating not just the end of the dream – no more working summers in France – but the death throes of a career. And then we had an idea.
While covering previous Tours de France we had dabbled with podcasting. In 2008 it was the Next Big Thing: on-demand radio, available through the internet. The theory was fine. In practice, nobody wanted to listen to the radio on their computer. What was needed was mobile listening devices – and by 2013 almost everybody had one.
The Tour de France was perfect for a daily podcast, combining elements of travelogue with a flavour of local culture and gastronomy. Oh, and, thrown in, some news and gossip from the great bike race. And so on the eve of the 2013 Tour, the three of us decided that, if we were going to do it, we would do it properly. That didn’t mean doing a podcast when we felt like it, over dinner, or in the car while negotiating our way off a mountain in the dark. It meant committing to daily episodes, to be released at roughly the same time. It meant putting a bit of effort into not only the content but also the production. Here we were clueless. But Lionel, a Watford Football Club fan, knew Jon, who worked in radio and produced a Watford podcast. He spoke to Jon. Jon was in.
Next, we needed money. Not much – just enough to justify our July jaunt. A friend who worked in sports marketing put me in touch with a marketing contact at Sharp, the Japanese electronics firm who co-sponsored one of the Tour de France teams. To our great surprise, Sharp immediately said yes. I immediately wished I’d asked for more.
At that 2013 Tour we recorded on a smartphone but in other respects we were ‘professional’. That is, we took it seriously. We used our Twitter accounts to publicise our new podcast; we used our contacts to get interviews with big names, such as Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish, to lure listeners; we tried to develop themes and running jokes to hook them. But we didn’t try too hard. We didn’t script it or over-think it; to work, it didn’t just have to seem spontaneous and fun – it actually had to be spontaneous and fun.
By mid-way through the race, when we reached Mont Ventoux, 9,000 were tuning in. More striking than the number was the feedback. It seemed generally to prompt a different kind of engagement. Whereas words on a page or screen would frequently provoke argument or disagreement, those same words (more or less) delivered into someone’s ear tended to elicit a more sympathetic reaction, even if the listener disagreed with what you said. By the end of the Tour the odd English-speaking cycling fan was even approaching the three of us at stage starts, introducing themselves, with evident pleasure, as a podcast listener. I had seen this happen to colleagues who worked in TV, but never to a print journalist.
We noticed something else. It dawned on us that one great strength of audio is that it could not be copied and pasted. If people wanted to ‘consume’ (ugh) our content (ugh), they had to listen. From an editorial and commercial perspective this was attractive. There was no slicing and dicing: in listening, you get context, tone of voice and nuance. And you couldn’t tease editorial and sponsor apart. Unless possessed of a quite remarkable ability to filter out our commercial messages (unobtrusive, sometimes humorous, or that was the idea), if you listened to the podcast, you knew it was supported by Sharp.
Best of all, making a podcast was fun. We discovered that it could be a platform for serious journalism and also, even in the next breath, silly jokes. The key was to make it inclusive. Listening to your favourite podcast should be like being invited to eavesdrop on a conversation that can be interesting, thought-provoking or funny, or all three at the same time. (A good example of this, and another sign of the strength of the medium, is Pod Save America, a razor-sharp, funny, insightful podcast about the US political scene launched in early 2017 by Barack Obama’s former speechwriters.)
We were encouraged enough to keep going with a weekly show, going daily again at the Tour de France in 2014: a significant year in podcasting history with Serial the first global podcasting phenomenon. Serial combined novelistic story-telling with investigative journalism in examining, over twelve episodes, a possible miscarriage of justice. In seven weeks it attracted 10 million downloads. Serial made podcasts mainstream but it has recently been surpassed by S-Town, made by the same team. Like a Netflix box set, all seven episodes of S-Town were released simultaneously on March 29, 2017; in four days it reached 10 million downloads.
In year two we invested in better recording equipment, but I’m talking hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. We found more sponsorship – Jaguar backed us at the 2014 and 2015 Tours de France as our audience grew to 30-, regularly 40,000 loyal listeners, and we developed partnerships with The Telegraph and Eurosport – but then found ourselves at a crossroads.
We felt we couldn’t continue to develop relying solely on advertising. We also felt that we shouldn’t. Call us old-fashioned, but we thought people should pay for our work. But how? Should we charge them? Ask for donations? Crowd-fund? We tossed the question around and eventually opted for a third way: keep the regular podcast free but offer additional shows, behind a paywall, for ‘Friends of the Podcast’. The first year it was £5 for 11 feature-length, documentary style podcasts, which also served to stretch and develop our ability to tell stories in audio (helped hugely in this regard by a burgeoning team of paid producers, some with BBC Radio 4 experience).
In 2016 the Friends subscription doubled to £10, increasing to £15 in 2018, but with the opportunity for generous friends to ‘pay what you think it’s worth.’ One subscriber wrote to say that, by paying £100, he hoped to encourage us to keep the minimum cost down so that as many as possible could afford to sign up. Viewed cynically, our friends scheme is a marketing wheeze (to whom else do you have to pay to be a friend?), and yet, as well as generating revenue, it taps into a sense of community. We also sell T-shirts featuring some of The Cycling Podcast’s catchphrases and memes.
Last year, 2016, was our biggest so far. We did daily podcasts from the three Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, and attracted long-term sponsorship from Rapha, the high-end cycling and off-bike clothing brand, and Science in Sport, the market leading sports nutrition company. We launched a new monthly show, The Cycling Podcast Féminin, focusing on women’s cycling and co-hosted by Orla Chennaoui. We produced 150 free-to-air shows with a total audience of 8 million: an average of almost 55,000 per show. Our most popular episode had over 150,000 downloads. I am writing this in early 2017 and we are now averaging 70-85,000 for each show.
And the weird thing is, after so long observing and living the apparently inexorable decline of newspapers and traditional media, there are no discernible threats on the horizon. Of course, something could emerge that does to audio, and the business model we have stumbled upon, what the proliferation of free content and ad-blocking software is doing to newspapers. But for the moment podcasting feels like a nice place to be.
That lyric was wrong: video did not kill the radio star. Audio is the great survivor in the media landscape and it thrives on familiarity. If something works, it can work for decades – think Desert Island Discs or Nicholas Parsons. This is reassuring, as is an observation by that great stalwart of radio, Terry Wogan, quoted on his death last year. ‘Television is about innovation,’ said Wogan. ‘Radio is about repetition.’