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Kevin Jones is Founder and CEO of Blue Wire — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
KJ: Blue Wire is the driving force behind 300 sports centric podcasts. We handle ad sales, promoting the shows, and serve as a business development arm for the podcasts, and we treat each podcast as its own small business unit.
Right now in podcasting, there is a low barrier to entry and a high barrier to success. Podcasting seems to cater for either the top 1%, or beginners. The top 1% is made up of shows like Conan O’Brien or SmartLess; and the beginner is your cousin who has a fishing podcast.
We think there’s a thriving middle and upper class of podcast. Some of our bigger shows are Green Light with Chris Long, or Road Trippin’ - but we also have a thriving local class of content covering the Warriors, Yankees, Notre Dame, etc, and niche content like chess, Dungeons & Dragons, and so on.
JC: How does it work financially?
KJ: It’s varying degrees of revenue spread splits depending on how big your audience is - we track everything with Megaphone currently. We’ve been signing people to two and three year deals, and we have a super low churn rate - creators really have enjoyed Blue Wire.
You can upload podcasts to Anchor, you can go to Libsyn, you can get programmatic anywhere. We say that Blue Wire is a much elevated version of that. We’re going to handle distribution and be your direct sales force, in addition to getting you programmatic advertising. Creators have said that they want to join a place that brings their content to market more than anyone, which is the service that we’re providing.
JC: You’ve been doing some interesting things with brands. What are some examples of how you’ve worked with advertisers?
KJ: Oakley is one of our newest advertisers - we’re running one of their first campaigns for sunglasses, and we execute hundreds of audio podcast ad reads, we’re handling YouTube host-read ad trafficking - so we get the sunglasses on our hosts, or there on the desk in front of them, and in social media posts too.
Sports lends itself to lots of sponsorship activation opportunities - so for the NFL draft we had a Miller Lite sponsorship, and for the Super Bowl, we did an event with them in Phoenix with Chris Long. We also have our Las Vegas studio with Wynn Resorts that we’re going to be activating there with sponsors for Formula One and the Super Bowl coming up. So podcast ads are our core business, but sponsorships are really additive and something we think we’re doing better than most in podcasting.
JC: Because you look after a lot of different shows, do you match specific sponsors to shows, or do you do a lot of network buys?
KJ: Both. We know Miller Lite likes NFL, so we can group our NFL content for them, but some brands want a blended mix. Indeed has been with us for several years and they have the full network, they like doing run of network. And we have some athletes or celebrities that we can do packages with or the run of network. So you get a little bit of a choice on our menu.
JC: Recently you signed three shows who were previously with Vox Media. How did how did that deal work?
KJ: We pride ourselves on being the first “free agency” to reach out to this middle and upper class content. Free agency is a sports term that lends itself well to podcasting. Our ears are on the streets, our Twitter alerts are on, our team is constantly monitoring the news of content - creators are on the move. They’re either leaving traditional platforms, or they’re a fan who’s now popular, they’re a former athlete. There’s headlines every day.
I think we’ve developed good relationships over time and a pretty good brand reputation with creators. We’re creator-friendly, creator-first. There’s not a lot of corporate management here. We’re kind of anti that. We think some of our bigger competitors are just too big and they move slow. People prefer to work with us.
I have a great full time team of people supporting us, and contractors and podcasters. I seem to get the credit in articles like these, but it’s truly a group effort.
JC: With the shows that came to you from Vox Media, I read that they were able to negotiate the ownership of their own IP and their own RSS feeds. What would you recommend creators do when they’re signing deals with podcast companies?
KJ: The smartest creators are owning IP and building the value of their podcasting brand over time. Breakout podcasts that develop hit IP – live touring, merch, events – is the holy grail for all podcasters. Our focus and message is that there are varying degrees to success in the podcasting industry.
Tens of thousands of podcasts in the ecosystem don’t necessarily have “hit IP” worthy of pausing their full-time jobs to go on tour. However, these creators’ podcast episodes are highly-engaging and reaching a unique medium-sized audience. The creator might also have a big YouTube or Twitter following to pair for sponsorships. We see ourselves as additive revenue partners instead of wanting IP ownership rights.
Also… what happens when you own podcast IP and the creator leaves you? It’s challenging to just stick new content in that same RSS feed and still have the same audience. Pat McAfee rebooted his podcast after leaving Barstool; ESPN gave control of the RSS feed to Dan Le Batard. We think there is a large opportunity to be a company who figures out how to balance letting creators keep their seat at the IP table and still have long term, beneficial business relationships.
JC: You mentioned video - where are you with YouTube? Are you diving into YouTube, as many podcasters are?
KJ: YouTube is our second priority. Like a clear number two. A few years ago, we were trying to figure out what that priority is, but we are now on-ramping all of our best creators to YouTube. They should have full length episodes on YouTube and they should have clips and reels for our best creators. We’re helping support that strategy for Chris Long’s Green Light, for example. A number of our shows were given the playbook: here’s what to do, here are the resources, here are some freelance producers we know who will be the editors for you as you get going. So we’re trying to provide the services for folks to get their content to YouTube.
We think it’s the Google of podcasting. You’re going to be able to search anything. And if your YouTube channel is good enough, over time, it’s going to grow. We have some great examples of that. So we’re fully bought in. We have more engagement with YouTube, and we look forward to growing there.
I know there’s some brands who are really struggling there - we think we have some secret sauce for some of our creators that we really help them, whether it’s thumbnail artwork, whether it’s naming the clips, we we have some tips and strategies that have clearly shown how to grow a channel, so you can grow audience on there.
JC: Are you growing revenue on there as well? You can’t put ads into YouTube but you can put sponsorship messages and that kind of thing, right?
KJ: Exactly. For these other sponsorship packages, some of our advertisers just want audio, some now want the full bundle, and that includes YouTube for us. Some advertisers are counting the YouTube views as part of the downloads. You can combine them together in a blended package and I truly think that’s the future of podcasting, as YouTube starts to mature for podcasts.
JC: You’re also competitors with Spotify’s The Ringer. Obviously, there has been some big news coming out of Spotify this week. What do you think about what’s going on there?
KJ: Spotify has helped Blue Wire in the macro sense, and I think they’ve done some great things. They threw the big rock in the pond and now the ripples are coming back. And you know, some of those waves are painful when you’re growing, but I’m not one to criticize them. I think that they’re really leading in this space that’s still the Wild West in terms of business models.
When it comes to minimum guarantees, those big contracts that they doled out, I don’t think it’s a great way to build a profitable business. We’re focused on the middle and upper class because there’s a huge opportunity of great content there. I think the negative coverage is deserved, but I think they’re doing better than most people think in podcasting.
JC: Where do you see Blue Wire going? What’s the future for your company?
KJ: We are a mini audio corporation. We are a new alternative for a creator who can’t get the Spotify or the Sirius XM or the iHeart or the Cumulus deal, but their content’s great, and in our network, it’s fantastic.
It’s akin to broadcast networks and Nielsen ratings. We’re focused on our podcast network and our download scale. So we want to add efficient, profitable downloads and be this new alternative for a new class of creators. That’s the focus. We have great talent and great people in ad sales - and sales is really the focus. That’s where we’re hiring.
We’re still young and growing, so we’re growing year over year on ad sales. There will always be challenges, but I think over the long period of time, the winners will be clear, and I think you can stack wins year over year when you’re our size.
Podcasting is growing faster than other digital platforms, and we have a large infrastructure in place.
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