Manchester based Crowd Network was launched at the beginning of September last year and in its first year of launch, has achieved millions of episode downloads.
CEO Mike Carr, former editor of BBC Radio Sport, founded the business with content director Steve Jones, an award-winning BBC radio and podcast producer, creative director Tom Fordyce, the former chief sportswriter for the BBC and one third of That Peter Crouch Podcast, and talent director Louise Gwilliam, former rugby union producer for BBC 5Live.
The four of them had all worked closely together at the BBC, launching a number of podcasts for the Corporation and delivering millions of downloads, which was a big part of the launch of BBC Sounds.
Mike launched Crowd Network with the aim to become Europe’s biggest podcast network by 2025, having seen the success of the US model and recognising an opportunity to forge a leading UK network that was home to original content.
Most of the podcast companies in the UK are production companies that make content for other people, but Mike says they wanted to build a long-standing business with content they own, or part own, that can generate revenue continuously. They want to create timeless content in partnership with personalities, whilst also focusing on documentary, narrative style podcasts.
Mike says: “The BBC has a huge advantage in the podcast market in the UK which is the main differential between the UK and the USA market.
“Trying to create content and get it covered (discovered) away from the BBC we knew would be a challenge. The marketing power of the BBC is extensive, and we took advantage of it when I was at the BBC, so I’m not going to be critical of it.”
Independent creators such as Crowd Network must make content that will bring in revenue and that tends to be mostly influencer-based podcasts with celebrities, because that’s what sponsors want. Mike says they have two or three of those, which are important to them, but are determined to make more high-end documentaries, despite being more expensive to produce.
He adds: “The BBC has made some amazing documentary style podcasts – and they can do that without the commercial pressures of a big budget and limited sponsor potential. This leaves the independent networks making sponsor friendly content which results in a market of famous people talking to other famous people. Crowd want to try and shift that dial.”
Crowd Network intends to create timeless shows that can grow, then cross-promote and feed off each other. They’ve seen success with the growth of The Joe Marler Show, which has grown significantly over the past few months, as have The Geraint Thomas Cycling Club and We Didn’t Start the Fire.
Mike knows they are capable of making high quality content, but realises it’s about being patient to watch the audiences grow, followed by increases in revenue. They are also focusing on the American market with a couple of titles they think will make an impact but intend to spend on marketing there too.
If they want to be a global company, Mike knows they must make global content. He says: “Our personality content is very much based around the UK and Europe in terms of the people we’re working with, but we want our narrative and documentary style podcasts to be global successes.”
Crowd Network has already created several partnerships with film producers and directors, through its recent signing to the Creative Artists Agency in the US.
They had their first success in the States with the documentary Murder in House Two. It got the attention of various US agencies and companies who have since made approaches about different projects.
Mike, who is Manchester born and bred, believes basing Crowd the city has been particularly beneficial: “The connections I have in terms of launching a business are very much in Manchester and the support we’ve had from the city’s business community has been huge, so I see it as an absolute advantage.
“You could get lost in the sea of companies in London, whereas in Manchester we’ve been fully embraced.”
Although some of the talent and recording is based in London, the company has a focus on recruiting locally and working with Manchester partners.
The challenge as an independent podcast network is that they must be commercial and although it’s very difficult to move away from the influencer/sponsorship model, that’s what Mike wants to do.
The company values are trailblazing, inclusivity and excellence. “Inclusivity is really important to us,” says Mike. “One of our first podcasts was called The Mentor where we partnered with the Black Heart Foundation, run by an amazing guy called Ric Lewis, to give opportunities to three people from under-represented communities and follow their journey.
“It was never going to be a successfully commercial podcast, but we wanted to make it because it was a good idea, it was going to make a difference to the people involved and was also going to make a difference to the people that listened. It was nominated for a British Podcast Award, and we were very proud of it.”
Mike’s view is that the amount of ads could potentially increase in podcasts but they should be treated as part of them and be entertaining to a certain extent. He says: “We work closely with sponsors to get their message across but explain that it’s about association with the podcast and creating editorial content that’s entertaining to the audience and therefore more impactful.”
The importance of podcasting compared to other media is one thing Mike is very aware of and believes it’s the new platform for deep dive investigative journalism and storytelling.
Murder in House Two, for example, took 15 years to make. Michael Epstein, the host and journalist behind the series, spent years following the story of the Haditha Massacre, the US military’s biggest cover-ups. In 2020, he partnered with Crowd Network to craft his reporting into the award-winning podcast.
American Vigilante is launching in a couple of weeks, a story Mike believes could only be told in a podcast format. It’s a 12-part series about KC, a hugely complex, intelligent, contradictory man who “could save your life…but end it too”. A figure who leads a group of violent men standing on the blurred line between right and wrong, between revenge and redemption.
In October, the network is launching another new show, Anthrax, to tell the story of the Anthrax attacks of 2001 following 9/11. Crowd is working with a couple of TV producers based in LA to piece it together, unravelling the truth behind a spate of malicious mail poisonings that caused the US Capitol and US Supreme Court to be shut down, with thousands of buildings across America evacuated. Prominent Senators and two news anchors were attacked, five people murdered and tens of thousands of Americans exposed to danger.
After a year in business, how does Mike feel about Crowd Network’s performance? “I’m really pleased with the direction we’re taking,” he says. “We’ve made mistakes and we’ve learned a hell of a lot. We’re continually refining our business model and commissioning process as a result.”
“We’re pleased with the way the first year has gone. We have an important few months ahead of us now, launching American Vigilante, Anthrax, plus a new podcast with Jamie Redknapp. We’re also going to be launching a new series called dot com, focusing on the people of the internet, starting with The Story of Wikipedia. So, four big titles coming up and we think it will take us to the next level!”
Read more about their podcasts on the Crowd Network website.