The Intoxicating Power Of Podcasts

I remember the day I first heard the word 'podcast'. 

It was 2005 and the Simon Mayo Show was on BBC Radio 5 Live. Simon, one of the best broadcasters in the UK, was referring to a programme on the station called 'Pods and Blogs' - a round-up of the new podcasts and blogs being produced around the world. I'd not heard of either word before.

Blogs, I eventually worked out, involved people banging endlessly on about a subject in the written form. Pods were the same, but in downloadable audio form. I didn't expect to be interested in either. 

Then I discovered The Ricky Gervais Show. 

Gervais, alongside co-writer Stephen Merchant, was star and creator of the brilliantly excruciating TV show The Office. I watched, listened to and read anything I could about Gervais after seeing that, and bravely downloaded his podcast to my computer. After two hours of troubleshooting and swearing, I synced it to my MP3 player (smartphones did not exist at the time, kids). 

The Ricky Gervais Show was just three blokes - Gervais, Merchant and someone I'd never heard of called Karl Pilkington, sitting in a room having a chat for half an hour. No gimmicks, no guests, just conversation. For the next 10 weeks, listening to those half hour chats became a focal point of my week. Gervais and Merchant's well established double-act was always gong to be an attraction, but their utter obsession and endless fascination with what went on inside the brain of Karl Pilkington ultimately made it the most downloaded show in podcast history. Why? Because Pilkington's take on banal, everyday life made the podcast listening world unwell with laughter. A personal favourite moment involved Gervais explaining the gift of a goat to someone as a form of charitable donation. Pilkington was confused. ‘But does the person receiving it want a goat?  ‘Is he going to be happy opening that on Christmas morning? ‘Oh, it’s a goat.’ And what about the goat? That goat might have been happy here in England. Now he’s over there in a foreign country. On arid land.’

And that was it. I was hooked on the medium - retreating into my own little world to eavesdrop on conversations between people I'd love to go to the pub with. I'd listen while cooking, running, nodding off to sleep, on planes, trains, in cafes, cars, morning, noon or night. 

After consuming and re-consuming The Ricky Gervais Shows several times, it was on to the Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo movie reviews, a radio show on 5 Live that had become downloadable as a podcast. The Guardian launched their podcast Football Weekly - a conversation between James Richardson and a load of sports journalists. I started caring about Arsenal - a football team I had previously despised - after discovering The Tuesday Club Podcast. It featured four of their fans, including comedian Alan Davies, talking, whinging about and making fun of their team. 

I couldn’t get enough of podcasts, and desperately wanted to start my own. But what?

In 2007, a forerunner to The Tennis Podcast was born. It only had a short shelf life - 10 episodes - but the Artois Tennis Podcast was produced by the Queen's Club tournament, where I'm now Media Director. I presented it (Catherine Whitaker was still a student at this point). It was far from perfect - for a start I was trying too hard in my presenting, and sounded like a game-show host. But we interviewed a star that would play Queen’s in each episode, and ran a special weekly feature that will sound familiar to Eurosport tennis viewers from more recent years - 'Commissioner McEnroe'. John McEnroe wasn't paid. He did it as a favour, and for a laugh. The segment was called ‘Commissioner McEnroe's 10 changes to revolutionise tennis’. 'No more aborted service tosses!' said McEnroe. 'No more 15-love. 30-love, 40-love Game!' said McEnroe. He wanted the points system to be simply 1, 2, 3 and 4.  'Male players to play without shirts!' said McEnroe. I put that one to Andy Murray in our interview on the podcast. 'Yeah, great idea,' said Murray. 'That way we can find out which players have been putting the work in.’

David with 'Commissioner McEnroe'

David with 'Commissioner McEnroe'

Sadly, while it was a fairly popular podcast, it was a one-year only thing. For the next few years, YouTube video took over from podcasts in terms of popularity.

My love for the audio medium never dimmed though. Catherine’s first job was working for me, and we discovered that as well as sharing a love for the sport of tennis, we both enjoyed listening to radio, podcasts and anything to do with Karl Pilkington. 

I had been commentating and reporting on tennis for BBC Radio 5 Live for 10 years, but Catherine had not done any broadcasting at that point. I knew she could be good at it though - she was eloquent, could argue the hind legs off a donkey, and we were always having debates about who would win matches and why, whether Grigor Dimitrov was going to be the next big thing, and why polls are such a good idea. I made that last bit up. One day, in April 2012, it hit me, and I sent her a message. 'We're going to start our own tennis podcast. It will be called, The Tennis Podcast. She was up for it. 

Our original artwork designed in 2012.

Our original artwork designed in 2012.

There was one small issue. While we felt we could do the necessary talking, neither of us knew how podcasts worked. Who edits them and how? Do we need music? Where do we upload them to? How do they get onto iTunes? What if we can't meet up to record it in person? And what form should the show take?

I suggested we be an ‘interview-based show’ setting up big interviews using our tennis contacts. Problem was that we would run out of guests eventually. Plus, Catherine said she tended to turn off interviews on podcasts, and that we should just talk to each other about what’s going on in tennis instead. I wasn’t convinced. ‘Who’s going to want to just listen to us two?' We went for a combo - chatting about what's going on in tennis and an interview in every one for as long as we could.

Carlos Moyà was our first guest, followed by Gaston Gaudio and Michael Chang. Bjorn Borg told us that losing the 1980 Wimbledon 4th set tie-break was the worst moment of his life, and that winning the 5th set was the best. Sue Barker described the harrowing years of stress she endured trying and failing to win Wimbledon. Ross Hutchins told us about the day he was diagnosed with cancer.

They were great guests and interviews, but we were struggling to keep up with delivering them. Catherine was right. It was clear that the podcast was going to thrive or fail on our ability to talk to each other in a way that people would want to listen. We couldn't meet in person to record every week. I lived in Warwickshire, Catherine 100 miles away in London. We worked out a way to have a phone or Skype conversation, recording both sides of the chat separately and editing them together, removing the bits where Skype dropped out when there were delays on the line. We took it in turns to edit. Each show took an hour to record, and at least 2 more to edit and upload. Then we needed to tell people that it was there waiting for them by promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, putting out press releases and asking listeners to leave reviews. 

We were doing a decent job, but it was a lot of work, and not enough people were listening for us to make any money from it. You get the odd podcast sensation that goes viral immediately - The Ricky Gervais Show, Serial, and My Dad Wrote A Porno (whose creator and star Jamie Morton is a Tennis Podcast listener and backer  😄) - but for the vast majority, it's a slow, painful process of building awareness by social media promotion and word-of-mouth. Many give up after 10, 20 episodes, disillusioned with the lack of listeners, overwhelmed by the work involved, and dismayed that you don't make any money. I can understand that. In our case, for four years we didn't make a penny. In fact, we spent quite a bit of money on travel, equipment, coffee and cake. And cheese. Plus, we were both freelance, and any time put into the podcast was time that couldn't be put into something else that did earn us a living. 

But we loved it. We were addicted. We were obsessed with making it work. Every time we produced a podcast that we were pleased with, or received feedback from a listener who had enjoyed it, we were energised and inspired to push on. 

We had a major wobble for six months in 2014 when Catherine got a proper job, no-one wanted to sponsor us and we didn't have time to chase one. Audience figures weren't rising enough and I went through a 'why are we bothering?' phase. By December that year it had passed. Catherine had seen the light and ditched her proper job to became a brilliant TV presenter, and we did a week of daily podcasts in which Andy Roddick, John McEnroe and Tim Henman appeared as guests. That's when we realised the potential for daily shows, and the necessity for a weekly show that would appear on the same day each week, without fail.

Catherine interviewing John McEnroe for Eurosport

Catherine interviewing John McEnroe for Eurosport

We talked it through and decided on an all or nothing approach. We went with 'all'. 

That meant weekly shows every Monday, reacting to the week just gone and previewing the week coming, and producing them regardless of where we were in the world and what else we were doing. One of us had a cold? Fine, the other one would do most of the talking. Catherine was working 7am - 4pm and David 4pm -11pm? No problem, we would record at midnight. The Putney Exchange coffee shop was closed for renovation? Ok, we would go to the pub over the road. The final bus was leaving from Flushing Meadows to Manhattan at 2am? We would record on the walk to the bus and argue, mid-Podcast, with the driver about how full his bus was. 

In 2015, we produced our first Grand Slam Daily shows during Wimbledon, partnering with the Telegraph to help promote it, and finally getting a sponsor - BNP Paribas - to cover our costs for a while. 

Audience figures rose. We had produced more than 150 shows, attracting more than a million downloads. It felt like we were getting somewhere. 

In 2016, we were more determined, producing more shows, and for more listeners, than ever, but we still couldn't figure out how to pay for all the costs and time that we were putting into it. That's when we decided to crowdfund. Our friends at the NCR Podcast, the only other tennis podcast offering of similar longevity and independence, had gone down that route a year earlier, and it seemed to work. 

It was daunting, asking our listeners to fund us, and not knowing what to expect. You are exposed. We had endured some sneering from certain quarters over the years, and this felt like make or break. Now we, and everyone else, would find out if the podcast was actually worth anything to anybody other than to our own egos.  After a week we had raised more than £5,000, putting us over halfway to our weekly podcast goal. By the turn of the year we had funded the 2017 weekly show completely. By the Australian Open we had added the amount we needed to fund the Grand Slam Daily show. 

It was utterly overwhelming. For our little Podcast to mean enough to people for them to put their hands in their pockets, was heartwarming, uplifting and mind-blowing to us. Plus, we now had a budget that would enable us to hire an editor for the first time, and pay some of the people that had been helping us for free for years.

It was one of the best moments of my career. 


As I write, from Melbourne on the eve of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2018, we have just produced our 375th edition of The Tennis Podcast, and we are a couple of days away from wrapping up our second crowdfunding Kickstarter, which our listeners have backed even more strongly this time. 

It means that Catherine and I will be having weekly conversations for the rest of 2018 (and daily chats during the Slams), and you will be able to listen to them, should you wish.

We’ll be trying to make the show better than ever. To get new guests, to do special editions, but most of all, to continue talking about the sport we love and what’s happening in it. 

To everyone that has listened to and supported us over the years - thank you.