How Blue Wire grew its network to over 150 sports podcasts

Founder Kevin Jones explains how he took his 49ers podcast and scaled it.

If you review Kevin Jones’s resume on LinkedIn, it’s easy to see why he ended up founding a sports podcast network. He’s worked in virtually every sector of the sports media industry, from creating content for pro football teams to reporting for traditional radio stations to writing for sports news sites. He also launched Striking Gold, a 49ers-focused podcast that eventually accrued several thousand listeners.

But Kevin wasn’t content with simply being a podcast personality. Back in 2018, he began to notice that there were a lot of people like him — podcasters with extremely passionate fan bases but no way to convert that fandom into actual revenue. So he began pitching them one by one on joining Blue Wire Podcasts, a network that would help them produce their shows and sell advertising in exchange for a cut of the revenue.

Flash forward two years, and Blue Wire has since taken on several million dollars in investment, is now producing narrative documentary podcasts, and recently signed a huge deal with one of Las Vegas’ biggest hotels.

I recently sat down with Kevin to discuss how he convinced podcasters to join his network, his approach to working with talent, and why he’s doubling down on longform narrative series.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How he got into podcasting

Kevin was no stranger to sports media prior to launching his own podcast. Over the last decade he’s held multiple jobs producing content for professional teams and broadcast outlets. But by the time he landed a radio job as a 49ers beat reporter in 2016, he was ready for something more. “It was a wonderful experience for the most part. I saw Kaepernick kneel, I saw the Warriors win titles. I got to go on the radio every day. I created digital content. But I didn't see a path forward for someone like myself. I was 28 years old. I wasn't going to become a radio host. I wasn't going to be on TV.”

He eventually launched a podcast as a way to build his personal brand. “I rolled it out in Cleveland, so I was talking about the Browns at the time. And then I switched it to the 49ers. That's where my credibility really was — in San Francisco. I gave honest opinions about the 49ers. A lot of the reporters are covering the team, whereas I have more of a strong opinion. I think there's an appetite for that kind of content. My podcast had that more opinionated 49ers content that fans want.”

Kevin eventually built the podcast’s following up to about 5,000 listeners, but he struggled to get advertisers. “I started knocking door to door, going to all the restaurants and all the mom and pop shops in town and being like, ‘Hey, I'm talking to your audience right here. You want to be a part of this.’ And I realized that's not scalable. That's not sustainable. And I just started talking to people and they were like, ‘go get more content, go get more impressions. 5,000 listeners is cool. That's an engaged community, but you need to find more people like you.’”

Building a podcast network

Kevin had over 15,000 followers on Twitter and had built up some credibility within the sports influencer community. “I made two lists: people who already had a podcast and people who I thought would be good at podcasting. I DMed them and asked whether they were making any money doing it. Basically everyone said, ‘no.’ I was like, ‘Why don't we join forces together?’ My Twitter DMs have still kind of remained the salesforce of the company. We think that's where creators like to be met. Emails are pretty cold. We’ve been pretty successful at starting conversations on Twitter and then moving into a phone conversation where we can sell people on joining Blue Wire.”

After Kevin had signed on a few podcasts into his network, he began learning how the podcast advertising market worked. He also encouraged the podcasters within the network to promote each other’s shows. “We try and set up relationships with people who naturally and organically want to promote each other's content. We now had a Yankees pod, a Knicks pod, a Giants pod, and a Rangers pod, and they're all kind of like-minded.”

Eventually, Kevin decided to seek out investors so he could scale the company more quickly. “The pitch basically was that sports advertising is a multi-billion dollar business, and TV advertising is not effective at reaching young consumers. Radio still attracts billions of advertising dollars, and I think there's going to be billions of dollars shifting faster to podcasting than people realize as more and more celebrities become podcasters full-time.”

The next phase

Blue Wire ultimately raised close to $10 million and grew to over 150 shows within its network. It’s now moved beyond simply acting as an ad network for other shows and is developing other kinds of in-house IP.

For instance, the company started to work directly with pro athletes to build podcasts around their personal brands. “There are a lot of sports celebrities. These people have been on television for 10, 15 years. Their names have been tweeted by millions. There's a lot of fan affinity for them. I'm not the only one thinking this way. Athletes are media channels. Now, as the world goes from having a hundred cable channels to hundreds of thousands of channels, athletes are a core part of that pie in sports. And we want Blue Wire to be the place they go to to talk to their fans. What if an athlete announced their retirement through a Blue Wire podcast and we put music on it and ran highlights of his career? What if someone announced they were gay as an athlete on a Blue Wire podcast? We want to create homes for athletes where instead of having a press conference or hitting up the local journalists in the big paper for the story, what if we put it in your voice and you're in control of the story?” 

Blue Wire has also invested in longform narrative podcasts, launching a show called American Prodigy last year about the career of a famous soccer athlete named Freddy Adu. “This is what I'm most excited about. We raised $5 million really with this being the core crux. American Prodigy is our only narrative podcast out right now. It really caught fire for us with very little marketing spend behind it. It became our most listened to podcast, and now we're moving it up the IP chain talking to major Hollywood players. UTA is our agent in our corner.”

Blue Wire has at least a half dozen other shows in the works, and Kevin is excited about all the potential stories there are to tell. “That's the most exciting part about sports. The schedule stays mostly the same, and sports fans just inherently cater their lives to consuming this content. The season ends, and you get to take a break, or you can go on to following a different sport. There's more optionality for sports fans and because of that there's so much content that can be created.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.