Someone recently asked me the question ‘how do you commission a podcast?’

It’s a very straightforward answer. You just say ‘yes’.

But why do you say yes? That’s a bit more difficult.

And where do you get ideas from? That’s even more tough to answer.

Only when a podcast is live do you allow yourself to look back at the journey from conception to release, and sometimes answering those questions is a bit like trying to find the source of the Nile.

In this article I am going to give you an insight into the commissioning process at Crowd Network and shed some light on how we approach bringing new content to the market.

(For context, I also commissioned podcasts at the BBC, including That Peter Crouch Podcast. It was a very different process given the public service remit and less commercial pressure.)

Crowd Network aims to create a range of titles in different genres. And that means anything goes – which makes for exciting and often random commissioning meetings.

This week I have had conversations about potential podcasts on dairy products, a real-life vigilante, futurism, and the devil living in St Louis. It is undoubtedly the best part of my job.

Without giving away our whole commissioning framework, here are some pillars of our approach:

A personality-first idea
Crowd has been presented with opportunities to work with a number of high-profile people. However, fame and a big social media following does not automatically transfer to a successful podcast. We have a phrase at Crowd: ‘extraordinarily ordinary’. It means a personality which is authentic and relatable. Given the intimate nature of podcasts the audience can spot when the mask is on and they don’t like it.
Right now, we are working with Joe Marler and Geraint Thomas who certainly fit the bill. You then create a format that plays to their strengths and they are enthused by.

A format-first idea
You get a great idea for a podcast format and then try and work out who would bring it to life and deliver your vision for the greatest podcast of all time. You might identify this person but get a flat ‘thanks but no thanks’. How far down the list do you go? It can mean your great idea doesn’t get commissioned or is put on the backburner.

In the case of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – Crowd’s new history podcast based on the lyrics of the celebrated Billy Joel song – we had a short-list of one, Katie Puckrik. Fortunately, she loved the idea, jumped on board and is absolutely everything we expected her to be and more.

A values-based idea
One of our values at Crowd Network is inclusivity. This must be reflected in the content we produce. Our aim of course is to be a commercially successful company, but we also want to make a difference to people’s lives. As a startup company where every penny counts it would have been easy to discard our values until we were more established, but then we wouldn’t have been true to ourselves. The concept of The Mentor was born – a podcast that has directly impacted the lives of three young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and benefited the amazing charity The Black Heart Foundation.

A gap-in-the-market idea
You hear that phrase all the time, or the opposite: ‘that market is saturated’. I am told there are too many chat-based podcasts, or we are overloaded with football and rugby podcasts. If you took too much notice of this, you might not produce anything – but you also can’t ignore it. At Crowd Network we want to establish new formats, which often means there is no reference point. Yes, there is a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?

The most soul-destroying way to go is to take a successful podcast and try and copy it. There is not much guaranteed in the podcast world, but it is almost certain you will do it worse. A podcast can be unique and trailblazing with the right presenters, format, and subject.

Last year Crowd launched the first ever daily quiz podcast, Quiz Chat Repeat, presented by the brilliant Miquita Oliver. The benefits of producing a successful new format are huge, but patience is required.

Crowd’s newest title is in the ‘saturated’ football market – 21st Century Football: The Complete Guide So Far… We have created a retro football podcast for those that have grown up consuming football via FIFA, YouTube, and Football Manager. The presenters are all from that target market and it is a timeless celebration of why we love football. Watch this space.

An amazing partnership idea
The more people you talk to the more ideas and opportunities you will get. Crowd’s internationally successful true crime title Murder in House Two came about through a chance introduction and escalated from there. It was a hugely ambitious project. Why would an acclaimed American film director (Michael Epstein) make a podcast he had been working on for over ten years with a start-up network headquartered in Manchester? Well, we took the time to listen to his vision for the podcast, understood the intense passion Michael had to tell the story and demonstrated that we had the production quality to deliver that vision.

The success of Murder in House Two has led to many more conversations and opportunities. We must make decisions based on what is best for Crowd, the resources we have available and the suggested commercial model. You must be wary of the ‘shiny object’ syndrome where a project comes along that you are desperate to make but might have a detrimental effect on the overall progress of the company.

We also get pitched ideas for new podcasts and are contacted by existing podcasters who have launched a title but want to take it to the next level in terms of quality and audience. We discuss the merits of every proposal and always communicate our thoughts back, whether positive or negative. That will encourage a flow of future ideas, as you don’t know where the next big thing will come from.

Crowd has recently brought three existing titles into our network, Le French Rugby Podcast, The Fertility Podcast and Football Book Club. The creators are all passionate and ambitious to grow their titles and be part of a network that can help them scale.

Brand-to-podcast idea
We are increasingly working directly with brands who are realising the power of podcast marketing. Marketing professionals are beginning to understand that podcasts allow them to target a specific market and speak directly to an engaged and loyal audience.

Brand podcasts succeed most when they are a great audio experience first, and advertising second.

Crowd Network have created formats and taken them to premium brands. We work closely on the editorial of the show along with the branding across all published content including social media. A great example of this is the Geraint Thomas Cycling Club where we have partnered with Zwift. We have quickly created a community of listeners who come together on Zwift Club rides and feel a real sense of belonging to something that is bigger than the podcast itself.

We also beginning to work with brands who want to create a podcast from scratch. Yes, it is a branded podcast, but we come at it with the view of delivering a popular podcast that delivers the aims and values of the company concerned. Well-executed branded podcasts lend credibility to the brand, expand audience reach, create top-of-mind recall, build trust, and help drive deeper customer engagement. Podcasting is marketing.

A gut instinct idea
It would be foolish of any business to not research their target audience, understand the potential interest of sponsors, do a full budget breakdown and competitor analysis, but sometimes it just comes down to gut instinct. When an idea is introduced at a Crowd commissioning meeting and suddenly everyone leans in (on Zoom) and the enthusiasm is palpable you know you are onto a winner.

After all that – you simply have to make it happen.

That is a whole other story.

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