In March 2007, Georgina and I attended a podcasting conference in London called PodcastCon, an event which turned out to be rather aptly named. Because it was there that we first came face to face with Adam Curry – the ex-DJ from Guildford who once claimed to have virtually invented podcasting single-handed.
[Note: Legend has it that Adam actually doctored the Wiki history of podcasting, adding his name several times and deleting the names of numerous others who had been involved in the creation of the technology. He has since apologised for this cyber-tampering, and offered a fairly lame explanation of why he did it.]
On that day in Exmouth Market, the self-styled Podfather was suave and charming, if a little cheesy, and Georgina managed to pin him in a corner, over a warm glass of Chardonnay, and talk to him about The Big Squeeze. Meanwhile, I stood chatting with one of Adam’s UK executives, Neil.
Neil was pumped up about Podshow’s hot new UK talent signing. Apparently, he was funny, versatile, and sexy, and Curry’s Podshow Network were planning to make him into a big star!
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Dr Cockney,” said Neil.
Georgina and I had met Neil before. He’d been instrumental in getting us involved in the Mobipod project, which had briefly enabled us to distribute our podcasts via mobile phones, and earned us a little beer money a couple of months before. His brain still swimming from the heady success of signing Dr. Cockney to the Podshow Network, Neil invited us to a meeting at Adam Curry’s London headquarters. These “headquarters” turned out to be a small flat over a wine bar in Old Street, but we were undeterred. This, after all, was our big break.
Neil made us a cup of tea in the kitchen, which also doubled as the meeting room and a TV studio, and he began to pitch to us all the amazing things that Podshow could do for our podcasting careers. Neil said he could get our podcast onto the prestigious online radio station Sirius. He said he could promote our show as a key product on Podshow’s Network. Most importantly, he could hook us up with a sponsor who “would enable us to be podcasting full time within a year.” In short, he’d make Georgina and I podcasting superstars.
To be fair to Georgina, I have to say that she was dubious about Neil,and the whole Podshow thing, right from the start. But, ever the optimist, I persuaded her that Podshow were the biggest podcasting network in the world, and that we were better off working with them than remaining as independents. Without getting a media lawyer to check it over for us, we signed one of Podshow’s standard promotional contracts, and were now a part of Adam’s worldwide podcasting family. A couple of weeks later, we set about creating a brand new weekly series, exclusively for Podshow. We came up with new items, recorded new jingles, and threw ourselves headlong into the whole Podshow experience. The Big Squeeze became The Sowerby and Luff Show.
We had already syndicated six Sowerby and Luff Shows before the promised sponsorship finally came through, several weeks later. The partner that Podshow lined up for us was a web domain marketing company called GoDaddy.
“So, how much are GoDaddy going to pay us?” I asked Neil.
“A hundred pounds,” said Neil.
“A hundred pounds per show isn’t very much,” I grimaced.
“Not a hundred pounds per show,” said Neil. “A hundred pounds a month.”
I laughed. “No, seriously,” I said. “How much are they going to pay us?”
The deal was that our sponsorship income would come from driving traffic to GoDaddy’s website, and if any of our listeners bought a domain name from the company, we’d be paid an impressive ₤1.50. Even a year before we’d been earning more from product endorsement than this, so the figures were a little disappointing to say the least.
“Don’t worry,” said Neil. There are podcasts in America making thousands from this sponsor. Just be patient.
OK, I was prepared to give Podshow the benefit of the doubt on the sponsorship front, as long as our audience began to build. But it didn’t. It fell. Not only did it fall, but it dropped almost out of sight. Podshow had promised Sowerby and Luff prominent promotion on their network, but day after day, week after week, all we saw heavily promoted on the Podshow UK network were our main U.S. competitors Dawn and Drew.
“Why are you promoting U.S. podcasts on your UK network?” we asked. “Where’s all the PR and promotion you promised for the Sowerby and Luff Show?” All we received in return was corporate bullshit. It was becoming increasingly obvious that Adam and his huge network cared little about Brian and Georgina. In the meantime we were losing the loyal listenership it had taken us almost 2 years to build. We started to get numerous emails from our audience saying that Podshow’s website was so confusing to use and slow to operate that they simply didn’t have time to subscribe to our new series. Life was too short.
Georgina and I had a crisis meeting. Before we lost anymore of our audience, we had to take action. We decided to distribute our podcast through both Podshow and our old feed Comedy 365. This feed was still running repeats of The Big Squeeze, and still had many thousands of existing Sowerby and Luff listeners, so we reasoned that this was probably the only way of re-building our audience before it was too late.
“You can’t do that,” said Neil at Podshow. “We have the exclusive right to syndicate your show on our network.”
“Neil,” I said. “We’re earning less from our show than we were before, and our audience is falling by the minute. What possible incentive do we have to not use our own feed to reach our own audience?”
“You’ll be in breach of contract,” said Neil.
“But that doesn’t mean anything,” I ranted “if we’re not benefitting from being in a relationship with Podshow.”
Neil dug in his heels. “Those are the terms of your contract,” he said.
“Neil,” I said, through gritted teeth, “If you were paying us a fair fee to produce the show for you, then you’d have the right to control its distribution. As it is, you’re having your cake and eating it. You’re getting virtually free content, and benefitting from exclusivity. You can’t have it both ways!”
“I’ll speak with the guys in the States,” he said. It was something he was going to say to us many, many times over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, we began to do some serious digging into the whole subject of Podshow contracts. What we found on the internet was alarming to say the least. Our fellow podcasters in New York, Keith and the Girl, had taken a rather closer look at their Podshow contract, and had refused to sign it in the first place – going on to dedicate the whole of one of their shows to warning other podcasters about entering into partnerships with Podshow. We even found a Facebook group for people who had quit Podshow in disgust. It looked like Georgina’s gut feeling might have been right in the first place.
The whole Podshow fiasco came to a head at the end of that week, when we received a provisional offer of programme sponsorship from a company called Kalashnikov Vodka.
Kalashnikov had been founded by a British entrepreneur called John Florey, who had bumped into the infamous Soviet general Mikhail Kalashnikov at a tradeshow in Russia. During a fairly heavy drinking session with the 84 year old general, John had suggested that Kalashnikov would be a great brand name for Russian vodka, and the general had agreed.
After being wounded in World War II, old Mikhail had invented the world famous AK47 assault rifle. But having created it for the Soviet people, he had been paid bugger all for his idea. The old feller was therefore relatively penniless, so the notion of co-creating a product for which he would actually receive royalties appealed to him. Having swiftly hired a distillery to make the stuff in St Petersburg, a few short months later John was proudly presenting the general’s new liquor in London. From gun-toting to vodka-tasting – General Kalashnikov was certainly moving up market – and best of all, no-one was getting shot in the process.
During the media-crammed launch for Kalashnikov Vodka, the general was quoted as saying that he was delighted that this new brand of 82% proof spirit was continuing “the good name of his gun”.
We met with John Florey in a rather smart gentlemen’s club in Mayfair. He was already a fan of our podcast, and when we talked to him about the promotional work we’d once done for Malibu Rum, he was particularly impressed. John immediately understood the potentially excellent brand match between alcohol and comedy, and was excited by the prospect of Kalashnikov having its very own podcast. By the time the dessert course arrived, we were shaking hands with a brand new sponsor for The Sowerby and Luff Show.
When we came out of the club we danced around Mayfair like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on uppers. It was by far the most exciting moment so far in our podcasting adventure. Breathlessly, I rang Neil Dixon at Podshow.
“Great news!” I said. We’ve found a sponsor for The Sowerby and Luff Show.”
Neil was in no mood to join the party. “You can’t do that,” he said.
“Only Podshow’s marketing people can find sponsors for your show,” he explained.
“But this is 10 times more money than we’re earning from GoDaddy!” I winced. “Surely you can’t be serious!”
I even suggested that Georgina and I would be prepared to agree to a percentage from the Kalashnikov deal, if Podshow, in return, stepped up their level of promotion for The Sowerby and Luff Show. In the face of everything everyone else was telling me, I really was still trying to cut a realistic deal with Podshow. It was as if I had been brainwashed.
“Here’s how it works,” said Neil. “You put us in contact with Kalashnikov, we do a deal with them, then we distribute their sponsorship money across a number of UK podcasts, including yourselves.”
“You are fucking joking,” I said.
“I can validate your anger!” said Neil.
“Neil,” I said, “I am going to start running Kalashnikov endorsements in programme 15. That’s in three weeks time. Would you be kind enough to remove the GoDaddy branding from our show by then?”
“I’ll talk to the guys in the States,” he said.
When Georgina and I launched the first Kalashnikov-sponsored programme three weeks later, Podshow were still stubbornly inserting GoDaddy sponsorship stings into the beginning of every new Sowerby and Luff Show. They obviously knew this would jeopardize our valuable new partnership with Kalashnikov. But they clearly didn’t care.
We signed a termination of contract letter the following week, and I faxed it to Podshow. But the GoDaddy branding stayed in place. I rang Neil.
“Will you please remove the GoDaddy promos from our podcast,” I pleaded.
“I’m afraid I’m not able to do that,” said Neil. He was slowly turning into an annoying computer, like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Neil had started out as a podcaster himself. He had built a reputation for promoting good UK podcasts with his own excellent website Britcaster. But now he had clearly gone over to the dark side. I became so incensed when the GoDaddy promos continued to jam our Kalashnikov podcasts the following week that I rang Neil, on his private mobile number, on a Saturday afternoon. My language was so colourful on that occasion, that he was prompted to immediately email his boss Joe in the States. When Joe replied, he accidentally sent the reply to me, instead of to Neil, and when Georgina and I read the tone of that email, we finally realised what a thoroughly unpleasant bunch of characters the Podshow executives were.
Joe had telephoned me at home only a couple of weeks before and had gone to extraordinary lengths to tell me how much he “valued our talent”, and how “committed” he and his colleagues in the United States were to furthering our careers. But the arrogant and dismissive email he sent to us by accident that day proved that neither he nor his network appeared to give a damn about any of their UK talent. We were clearly nothing more than a disposable resource. If one lot of podcasters were unhappy, the strategy was to just get rid of them as quickly as possible and sign another bunch of mugs. Of course, Georgina didn’t trust Podshow from the start. “Validating our anger,” and asking us to “Play as part of the bigger picture,” was never going to impress her. Child-like mid-Atlantic jargon like that has always made a little bit of sick creep up in the back of Georgina’s throat.
We were both desperately disappointed at the way Podshow treated us and the way in which the company so blatantly and cynically failed to keep their promises to us, then did everything they could to damage our chances with our own sponsors. We felt stupid, we felt ridiculously naïve, and we were deeply, deeply hurt. But we were also extremely angry, and absolutely certain that no-one would ever take advantage of Sowerby and Luff in the same way again.