“Our most recent audience survey told us that 96 per cent of listeners download three or more episodes a week,” says Martin Bojtos, “which frankly I’m delighted by.” Just how does a small podcasting outfit inspire such devotion from its listeners?
Along with Andrew Harrison, Bojtos is co-founder of Podmasters, the London-based independent podcast production company which has become one of the most prolific and fast-growing in the business since they set it up in 2015. Hitting 1m monthly downloads earlier this year – representing a 40 per cent increase since the previous summer – the Podmasters network includes such beloved shows as the Brexit-critical Oh God, What Now? (formerly Remainiacs), The Bunker, a politics show launched in early 2020 and which went daily during the first Covid lockdown, and Maybe Baby, a podcast for “the parentally undecided”.
In 2021, Podmasters launched Doomsday Watch, a new show in which former diplomat Arthur Snell looks at impending geopolitical catastrophes in different global contexts. Just a few days after launch, the podcast was sitting at #3 in the overall Apple podcasts charts, alongside hit shows such as Tortoise Media’s Sweet Bobby. Since February, Snell has also published weekly War Bulletins with experts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which have pulled in new listeners from across the world.
During an era of seemingly permanent crises in the UK and beyond, from the financial crash to Brexit to Covid, Podmasters has risen to meet the moment, delivering shows which combine wry humour with sharp social and political commentary. The Podmasters team has shown that they can take a great idea and put momentum behind it, continually offering brand extensions such as live shows and extra minisodes for the most committed listeners – a reward system which makes this relationship especially strong.
As a longtime patron myself, I was interested to find out just how the small Podmasters team manages to serve its fiercely committed audience with high quality content almost every day of the week – a prolific output by any measure, and a strategy which has made their shows an integral part of listeners’ everyday lives. Speaking to Bojtos recently, he told FIPP about why the company has doubled in size in recent months, how they manage their workload, why there’s so much appetite for politics podcasts, and much more.
Can you tell me a bit about Podmasters today and how you got started? What are your backgrounds in?
Podmasters is one of the leading independent podcast production companies in the UK. Andrew [Harrison] is a journalist and former magazine editor with the stewardship of Q Magazine (where we met), Mixmag and Select under his belt; I’ve worked on the commercial side of media for over 17 years, predominantly in digital advertising in recent times at places like The Guardian and WarnerMedia.
After we both left Bauer Media (the publishers of Q), we promised we’d find something we’d work on together in the future – but podcasts couldn’t have been further from our minds. Since meeting up to discuss ideas nearly seven years ago and accidentally stumbling onto the format, we’ve grown and developed a deep love for what is still a nascent industry with huge potential.
Where are your listeners from and what can you tell us about them?
Our listeners are predominantly UK-based but we see a good footprint across the globe; a title like OGWN is very UK-focused, but Doomsday Watch has seen great growth in both the US and Australia as it deals with geopolitics, which very much affects us all now.
A big part of our podcasts is Patreon, the crowd-funding platform. It not only allows us to offer more to our dedicated fans but also build a community around each podcast and find out more about our listeners. They really run the gamut of backgrounds but predominantly we see they are slightly older, wealthier and educated; and often feel disenfranchised by the fast news ecosystem we live in which covers lots but in little depth.
“We’ve moved to the era of no apology, no resignation if you’re caught doing something wrong. This all leads to a huge amount of distrust in any political discourse.”
How did the podcast OGWN (formerly Remainiacs) come into existence, and what gap was it filling at the time? Why the podcast format?
Remainiacs came about in response to the lack of reasonable dialogue around Brexit at the time. For a red button issue that was decided so narrowly, the media behaved as if 80 per cent of the country had voted out; which left the 48 per cent with very few places to feel like they had a home. We launched Remainiacs with no idea of how strongly it would resonate – our goal was to bring together a panel of like-minded, intelligent speakers who could offer a reasonable, different perspective. When we had over 10k downloads on our first weekend, we knew we’d struck upon something.
As to why we chose a podcast – it’s the perfect platform to launch an idea. It’s relatively low-cost to launch – the investment is in the quality of the content, the speakers and the editing. It fits the gap between radio and TV perfectly – talk radio in the UK is short and sharp punches of debate squeezed between ad breaks with little freedom, and TV is expensive and aimed at serving the largest market possible. Podcasts give you much more creative expression – ideas can breathe and they can be discussed fully without feeling like the next thing has to be jumped to.
Perhaps related to the above: Why do you think there is so much hunger for political podcasts right now?
We’ve reached a peak in politicians not answering questions; everything is media-trained, especially on TV. Quite often, politics seems like a game of catching someone out but the natural conclusion of this is even more undesired; we’ve moved to the era of no apology, no resignation if you’re caught doing something wrong.
This all leads to a huge amount of distrust in any political discourse – so a lot of people are gravitating towards podcasts where they are finding a home for topics and ideas to be discussed in a nuanced, balanced fashion. I think it’s no coincidence that whilst mainstream media is dominated by rightwing media outlets funded by a few billionaires, popular political podcasts tend to be from the centre or left; less hyperbole, less fearmongering and better discourse.
Something I think is unique about shows like The Bunker and OGWN is the format of having quite a wide range of panellists in addition to the core team, some of whom become “regulars” and part of the extended family of the podcast. What’s your process for making editorial decisions – who is involved and how do you plan ahead?
Our speciality is panel shows and we know that audiences want a few things – to feel like they’re spending time with their smart friends, that they’re learning something new, that they’ll be entertained and that they’ll be hearing from a wide range of voices. This starts with the producers but is very much a team effort between them, the host and panellists. It’s very democratic – we want everyone to be involved and passionate about the content but also opt out of stories where their knowledge isn’t as strong.
For example, with OGWN; we plan for each weekly episode on a Monday with a call with the panel on Tuesday to flesh things out – the show is then recorded Wednesday and sent to Patreons on Thursday before going on general release on Friday. It’s a hectic schedule but the team are experts in reacting quickly, brushing up on topics and turning out quality episodes every week.
The Bunker especially puts out an enormous range of high-quality content six days a week, which is a huge amount for a podcast – especially when the Podmasters core team is quite small. How did you build up to that frequency, and how do you manage the workload? (I imagine you must be very organised.)
We tend to react from gut instinct here, with an emphasis on trying things out even if they might not work. When we launched The Bunker, we knew it had great potential to be more than just a weekly panel show but it was only through trying out Bunker Dailies that we saw an appetite from our audience. By continuing to launch things like Start Your Week and the Culture Bunker, we could see with download figures that audiences were coming back and listening to more; in fact, our most recent audience survey told us that 96 per cent of listeners download three or more episodes a week, which frankly I’m delighted by.
Managing the workload – organisation! We are now a team of eight with an additional 20 or so freelancers so it’s important we know exactly what our weekly cadence looks like to ward off any problems as early as possible. This is largely down to Andrew’s experience of running magazines and is a huge asset for us. Our mantra is we never fail to deliver an episode for listeners – if we promise to put it out, we do.
The Bunker was launched in January 2020, then grew during the early stages of the pandemic – and you’ve attracted a lot of new listeners in recent weeks. How do you see the responsibility of podcasts like yours to respond during times of crisis?
It’s hard – we’re not campaigners and that is a deliberate choice and therefore, we don’t want to tell people what to do. I think our responsibility comes in the form of making listeners feel they’re not alone and to tell them how we interpret the information out there on any topic. We were one of the earliest podcasts to cover Long Covid and we’ll always look at the broader world, pandemic or otherwise, and find an expert to talk about it. That said, we get messages telling us we’ve offered a lifeline to listeners which really makes the whole thing worthwhile.
OGWN underwent a rebrand last year. What was behind that decision? Did you receive feedback from listeners?
The OGWN rebrand was definitely one of the hardest things we’ve ever done; to take a beloved brand like Remainiacs and change it took a lot of time to think about and plan. The main crux was the fact that Brexit WAS happening (despite our best efforts) but we knew our listeners still wanted the podcast to keep going. It’s difficult to change the core purpose of a podcast so we knew it needed to reflect the underlying themes of the podcast – humour, rebellion and a cause.
The name Oh God, What Now? took quite a few goes to reach but came almost accidentally in the end and once we got used to it, felt very appropriate; it reflected the wider world but also the gallows humour we’d become known for. Listener feedback was almost universally positive and whilst we understand that for some, Remainiacs will always be the thing they loved, the vast majority were happy that we were keeping going! We’ve seen that sentiment reflected in our Patreon numbers, which currently stand 52 per cent higher than after Brexit day.
“One of the best bits of a podcast is doing a live show – you get to see who’s on the other end!”
How do you decide to launch a new show – for example, Doomsday Watch?
Any new ideas we have must pass a few key questions – is it interesting for listeners? Is there humour? Can we do it differently to everyone else? Can it be supported in a number of ways, financially? And finally, can it be more than a podcast (e.g. a book or a TV show)? A new show is a big investment for any small production company and we underwrite everything, so whilst we can’t expect to get it right every time, we want to give it our best shot whilst minimising risk.
For Doomsday Watch, it started as an idea from a producer we work with for Arthur Snell, one of our panellists and morphed over the course of several meetings into a look at the world of geopolitics, how everything is connected and what are some of the dangers (known and unknown) in the world today. It’s a real collaborative process with a team of five working across everything and as soon as the first edits came back, we knew we were onto something. We’re now well on our way to one million downloads with a rapidly growing Patreon and an army of fans worldwide, with positive feedback the likes of which we saw in the early days of Remainiacs. It’s heartening to know that we’ve been able to create something from scratch that’s had such an impact and certainly gives us confidence in our future launches.
Can you tell us a bit about your live shows?
One of the best bits of a podcast is doing a live show – you get to see who’s on the other end! We keep it relatively simple for live shows with a few extra audience participation bits thrown in; the one underlying thing is the sheer enthusiasm you feel from the audience. It’s a room of friends who are all there because they love the podcast enough to part with hard-earned cash to watch it live, so it always makes for a good show. To date we’ve done shows in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds with Brighton coming in June – these have been predominantly for OGWN so far and we’re exploring how we can do something different for The Bunker and Doomsday Watch this year.
You have a lot of committed patrons (myself included). How useful a tool is Patreon, and why?
Thank you for your support! Patreon is a great tool for us as it opens up the modern concept of the fan club. The concept of fans wanting to invest in their favourite content isn’t new but was clunky in the digital era; Patreon built the platform that bridged that gap. It gives us a direct connection and means we can build podcasts on more than just advertising; it means we can offer more content and closer relationships with the panel and give people a chance to be more involved in the development of the show.
Do you have any future projects you can tell us about? What are you excited about right now?
We have three new projects in various stages of development at present as well as a drawing board full of ideas. The hardest part is limitations of time and resource – but we’ve almost doubled in size as a company since the start of the year and I anticipate we will continue to grow as quickly. In terms of what excites me, I think the development of ideas in podcasting – we’re moving past the era of talent and interview being the sole source of success to creating innovative concepts and ideas that will go far beyond podcasts; for me, it’s the ultimate proving ground for an idea that can then become so much more.
From a personal point of view, what the team are doing with Doomsday Watch and how they are bringing information and perspectives not covered by larger media outlets is frankly outstanding; it’s reflected in the numbers but also how interesting each episode is.