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How Podcast One grew an audio wrestling powerhouse

Steve Austin Podcast

It was a night like most others for Norm Pattiz, sitting in the same L.A. Lakers courtside seats he had occupied for about 25 years. At some point between Kobe Bryant splitting two defenders for a dunk or a Pau Gasol 3-pointer that put the purple and gold up by 10, he had an important conversation.

Sitting courtside in seats with a street value that could buy a neighborhood worth of kids Christmas presents means you have a lot of important conversations. But this one was a little different. Pattiz was developing a new idea, an idea that would leverage the 34 years he spent building Westwood One into a radio syndication powerhouse; an idea that would bridge the fast-growing digital world with celebrities looking to extend their personal brands. That idea was Podcast One.

The conversation was with fellow Lakers courtside season ticket holder and super agent Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of the William Morris Endeavor agency and the inspiration for Ari Gold on Entourage. Pattiz explained how he and podcast marketing trailblazer Kit Gray wanted to produce and own their own original audio content, anchored by established brands like Adam Carolla, The Nerdist, AfterBuzz TV, and more.

Emanuel was intrigued, and Pattiz’s group went over to WME to give them a presentation. About two hours after that meeting, they got a call from United Talent Agency (UTA), one of the biggest agencies in the world. After presenting to that group, Pattiz and Gray were provided a list of various talents in different genres with large social media followings, talents that could help promote shows and provide a great foundation for a 200-show strong network (“a perpetual promotion machine” as Pattiz puts it.)

One of the names brought up was a familiar one to the 71-year-old, reminding him of time spent with his father at L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium. At the time, he didn’t know signing that name would begin a domino effect for another great run of success, opening up Podcast One to a dormant but loyal audience.

“How about Steve Austin?”

While not a lifelong fan, Pattiz was very familiar with the work of WWE Hall-of-Famer and icon Steve Austin. Since retiring from active duty inside the ring in 2003, Austin appeared in The Expendables and Grown Ups 2, hosted several seasons of Redneck Island on Country Music Television (CMT) and starred in his share of straight-to-DVD movies. A meeting was set up and it didn’t take Pattiz long to realize what he had in front of him.

“I met the guy and he had ‘natural’ written all over his forehead,” he explained.

A partnership deal was struck for a weekly podcast and on April 5, 2013, Austin released his debut, a 27-minute show titled ‘WTF I’m Doing Here’. It was the usual you’d expect from someone doing a podcast for a first time: raw, scattered, newborn. A week later, Austin interviewed Shawn Michaels, and a week after that, he talked about a manicure/pedicure he had to get for a movie. “The Rattlesnake” was on his way to finding his voice, something he’s achieved more than 130 episodes later.

The response was immediate, and after they sold out their ad time for his weekly one-shot, they decided to add a second weekly show. Eventually, they converted it to a family-friendly version to expand the audience. They sold that show out as well without cannibalizing downloads. The public was responding and just like the late 90s, they wanted more Austin.

“Depending upon the guest, he gets well over half a million listeners per episode, and it’s not uncommon for him to go over a million. That’s very sellable to advertisers,” Pattiz said. “Often times with Steve, the advertisers are interested in attracting the male audience, and we can package him with other programs like Dan Patrick or Adam Carolla. We own the male demographic in podcasting and are looking to expand in the female demographic as well.”

Talents work with Podcast One on a gross revenue share basis, not a flat fee. This ensures that both sides have an equal stake in promoting their shows. For the most part, talents like Austin read their own ads on the show, adding more memorable flair than a canned spot from the advertiser (Onnit and Barkbox immediately come to mind). To no surprise, Pattiz said that element, in addition to when a talent endorses a product, drives conversions higher.

That’s why that aforementioned recruitment process in finding stars with large social followings that can leverage their networks to listen and share is such a key. You won’t find many unknowns among Podcast One’s well-stocked and diverse roster, but you will find people with extensive lists of celebrities with extensive celebrity networks.

Chris Jericho

With Austin settled, it was time to see if another wrestling star could match his popularity. They didn’t have to look too far in finding Chris Jericho, the host of Rock Of Jericho on SiriusXM. After being a guest of both Carolla and The Nerdist, he got the bug to do his own show. He connected with Austin which eventually led to the debut of ‘Talk Is Jericho’ on December 4, 2013, with Austin as his first guest. Like Austin, it didn’t take long for the show to go from weekly to twice a week.

Even with a large social media presence and celebrity friends, the ultimate success differentiators for today’s discerning podcast listener is quality and connection. Fans can sniff an imposter and with hundreds of broadcasters now in the fray, entertainment value and sharability makes a huge difference. Pattiz soon learned that with wrestlers, connection through communication was a huge advantage.

“For someone to be the type of marketer that you have to be in WWE, you gotta be glib, you gotta be able to sell, you gotta be a great pitchman, and you’ve got to be hell of an athlete,” he explained. “We knew we were on to something and now we’re using (wrestling) as a model to build out comedy, society, business and other types of programs.”

With Austin delivering two weekly cans of audio whoop-ass and Jericho hosting two weekly meetings for Jerichoholics, it was time to expand the family. Austin was convinced that one of closest friends would be an ideal candidate to carry the flag.

There was one problem: that candidate didn’t know what a podcast was.

“What’s a pod?”

The 2013 WWE “retirement” of Jim Ross was met with frustration from fans who were annoyed that another one of their ties to an era fast fading away was cut without an acceptable explanation. But even though WWE called it a retirement, the broadcasting veteran was a long ways away from playing shuffleboard down in Boca Raton.

After Ross was a guest, Austin suggested he should get into the game himself. Agent Barry Bloom (also Jericho’s agent) also suggested that they should consider the opportunity. There was one issue: Ross didn’t know what a podcast was.

“When I listened to my interview with Steve, that was my first one,” Ross said. “I wasn’t an experienced podcast consumer. Like Twitter, it wasn’t something I had gravitated to. I was reluctant, but it has worked out well and I’m glad that I did it.”

Before signing on the dotted line, Ross wanted to ensure the venture would financially be worth his time as his preparation for weekly shows would be extensive. (Ross calls himself a “meticulous planner, which is a blessing and a curse”). Pen met paper and 10 months after Austin busted through the glass, ‘The Ross Report’ made its debut with, you guessed it, Austin as its inaugural guest.

Jim Ross

The initial success was more than Ross or Podcast One could have ever expected. The debut hit the No. 1 spot in the iTunes sports and recreation chart in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. It also got as high as No. 3 among all podcasts in the U.S., No. 2 in the UK, No. 5 in Australia, No. 7 in Canada, and No. 7 in New Zealand. To say it was a smash was an understatement.

“You could have told me that (about the debut numbers), and I’d have would have said that is such bullshit. But sure enough, it happened,” Ross said, proudly adding that he’s regularly beating and competing with ESPN podcasts like Bill Simmons’ ‘BS Report’, PTI, and Colin Cowherd’s ‘Thundering Herd’ every week amidst the top five in sports and recreation podcasts.

“People vote with their ears, and they’ve all voted to elect the guy,” Pattiz said. “He wasn’t a wrestler, but he was a communicator and this is a medium where people communicate. He’s perfect for it.”

Ross’s process for selecting guests is simple: scroll through his iPhone for people he wants to reacquaint with or people that he wants to talk to, making for a weekly conversation between two people “shooting the shit”. Breaking news or hot button issues of the day aren’t primary content drivers, but Ross will go deeper into topics that come out during conversations in an effort to accentuate stories without exploiting them.

“If I’m interested in talking to the guests, the interview has a fighting chance to be interesting and informative,” he said. “I’m still a fan, maybe a more experienced and educated one. I ask what I think are smart questions that I think fans would like to know answers to, and hopefully, I get smart answers.”

Taping shows in advance to accommodate schedules, his prep begins on Monday afternoon and wraps on Tuesday morning. Later that day, he makes the 30-minute drive to a radio station outside Norman, OK. While Austin and Jericho will record on the road, from their homes, and sometimes from the Beverly Hills studios, Ross enjoys his weekly drive as he likes the feel of going to work.

Upon arrival, he checks in with the station audio engineer and the digital tapes begin rolling for his intro, followed by a call to the guest. Usually wrapped by 8 PM, he spends the drive home clearing his head and thinking about the show. The file is sent to Beverly Hills, and Ross will contact the producer there during the drive to go over show notes and feedback for editing. Despite his experience, he said he is still learning in this new medium all the time.

But while his past and future guests continue to impress, he is still waiting to hear from WWE on a request to interview current talent. Because he tapes on Tuesdays and Smackdown is taped on Tuesdays, there is a bit of a scheduling issue. There has also been rumblings WWE may get into the digital audio game themselves, raising a Rock-like eyebrow for how good that would be be considering how scripted most of their content is.

Ross is fine with whatever decision his former employer decides as there is no shortage of non-WWE talent he can talk with. He does raise a valid point about why freeing up their talent to talk with him would be more beneficial as opposed to them putting out their own audio content.

“Why not have me put your talent over? I did that for a very long time and still will,” he said. “It sounds more objective than them patting themselves on the back.”

The game for guests among the Podcast One wrestling crowd can get a bit incestual at times with both hosts and old friends appearing on each other’s shows. Kurt Angle, Paul Heyman, Dallas Page, Jim Cornette, Bully Ray, Shawn Michaels, and Eric Bischoff are just a few that have been on at least two of the five wrestling podcasts. Austin and Jericho have branched out to musicians, comedians, and actors, but is there a concern about guest oversaturation?

For Ross, there isn’t.

“Steve and I talked about that with Eric, but we have two different interview styles. When I interviewed Eric, we talked about entirely different topics than he did with Steve. After I talked with Eric, he said it was an entirely different conversation than the one he had with Steve, and that’s because we’re two different guys,” Ross said.

Norm Pattiz

Sustaining “the ESPN of the podcasting space”

Podcast One has 25 full-time employees with production based in Beverly Hills, CA, and sales personnel in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in addition to infrastructure costs for hosting an insane amount of audio data. The company touts 1.2 billion annual downloads, and wants to keep increasing revenue while keeping ahead of competitors that Pattiz knows are coming.

“I’m building this out of my own pocket. There’s a certain amount of risk that I want to take and a certain amount that I don’t,” Pattiz explained. “If we win (with talents), we win. If we lose, it won’t be the first time. As long as we both perform, we’ll stay together for a long time. If we’re not, we’re not making money.”

Business is good for what Pattiz calls “the ESPN of the podcasting space”, but it could always could be better. At the time of our talk, he estimated roughly half of his advertising inventory is sold among 200 podcasts, and while many providers would love to have both the revenue and content variance, he wants to maximize his investments and sell the other 50%.

Because of their due diligence in meeting with all talent, Pattiz hasn’t had many duds but sputtering shows are eventually put out to the same resting place as Eyada if they don’t work.

“When you put (a show) up there, you know in a month if it’s working or not. If not, you look at whether the promotion is working and does the show have legs,” he said. “After four to five shows, you ask if the problems are fixable. If not, you move on.”

He hasn’t had any of those issues with the 62-year-old Ross, envigorated by his various new media ventures and a healthy outlook on life that has included quitting smoking and an improved diet. Whether they agree with his opinions or don’t, his allegiance to his audience can’t be questioned. Wrestling fans are his BBQ’d bread and butter, people he won’t get away from anytime soon.

“It’s important I broadcast to them and make sure they’re enjoying what we’re doing,” Ross said. “If there’s a football player that grew up a big wrestling fan, we’d have him on to talk wrestling and football. But I am always going to focus first on my target demo, and that demo is the wrestling fan. I won’t take my eye off the target.”

Thanks to Austin, Jericho, and Ross, two more shows featuring former wrestling talents made their Podcast One debuts in the spring of this year with Roddy Piper’s ‘Piper’s Pit’ (April) and Bill Goldberg’s ‘Who’s Next’ (May). More could be on the way as long as the interest and revenue are there to be made for Pattiz’s growing brand.

But why have fans responded so strongly? Anyone that has followed the business understands that when WWE is hot, everything else in the wrestling industry benefits. While WWE has garnered both interest and frustration for their WWE Network launch, the industry isn’t white hot. Yet, an independent media entity is cashing in huge with a portion of their audience.

“Does it say that fans are so in love with today’s wrestling product that they are thirsting for  more info or does it say that they’re so disenchanted that they’d rather talk about another generation than today’s genre? I don’t know,” Ross opined.

“The fan loyalty is amazing in that if it’s something that they like, they’ll still invest,” he continued. “People talk about Monday night ratings going down, but If you give fans what they want in a compelling fashion, watch the numbers resurface and watch people come out of the woodwork to get emotionally invested in the product.”

Just over 16 months after Steve Austin made his podcast debut, it’s clear that fans have emotionally invested in Podcast One.