How Relay FM Proves That Podcasts Aren’t An Overnight Success

When Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett launched Relay FM, they expected to build a small independent network of weekly tech podcasts. Just a year later, Relay FM features 16 different shows and delivers 1.5 million downloads every month. Building this loyal audience was an overnight success six years in the making.

“Relay FM is for people who are creative, curious and obsessive. We are this type of people — we get interested in topics and we want to know everything about them,” Relay FM co-founder Stephen Hackett told me. “We think our fans are the same way. Sometimes it means that it’s not the most popular show on the planet, and some of these shows are difficult to get into. But if it’s something you are into, you’ll like it.”

The company’s mission statement is broad on purpose as you can find many different shows on the company’s website. Some shows are about a specific aspect of technology, such as Apple, Google or video games, while others are very hard to describe. They feature discussions about space exploration, nostalgia, pens or the intersection between our analog lives and digital devices.

“The shows that we do are conversations between friends”

But the show topics matter less than the hosts. All these shows feature two or three co-hosts who just talk for an hour or two — you get to hear the same hosts every week.

“The shows that we do are conversations between friends — you feel the connection between the friends. Usually, the only time you hear that is in these scenarios when you’ve got two buddies sitting here. They are talking and you are listening to them have this conversation,” Relay FM co-founder Myke Hurley told me. “It creates a really great connection. And listeners become really invested in you. When you hear people enjoying each other’s time, you enjoy it with them.”

If you’ve been reading articles about podcasts in the last few months, all of them talk about a Great Podcast Renaissance. The reality vastly differs from this narrative.

Tech podcast networks TWiT and 5by5, as well as popular public radio podcasts This American Life, Radiolab and Planet Money have been around for years, registering tens of millions of downloads per month.

Last year, a couple of new popular shows reminded non-podcast listeners that these weirdly-named online radio shows were still a thing. But as Marco Arment suggested, podcasts are slowly but surely growing, and it’s a boring story.

On one end of the spectrum, you can find Gimlet Media and This American Life producing heavily edited, story-driven, NPR-style podcasts, such as StartUp and Serial. Conversational podcasts like the ones produced by Relay FM represent the other end of the spectrum. And it seems like the two formats are both coexisting and thriving at the same time.

While it takes a lot more time and resources to produce an NPR-style show every week, it doesn’t mean that producing conversational shows is easy. For this particular kind of podcasts, the barrier to entry is lower. It means that you are competing with hundreds of good shows. And only the best succeed.

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Turning A Hobby Into A Business

In 2009, Myke Hurley’s first podcast was an interview show. He would go home after his regular job in London and record interviews with guests working in the tech industry. Many of those episodes later became shows of their owns, forming the now-defunct 70Decibels podcast network. In these shows, Hurley would talk with the same person every week and release it. One of these shows was the 512 Podcast with Stephen Hackett, named after his blog 512 Pixels.

Hurley pushed the limit as much as he could and had to cope with a demanding schedule, recording every weeknight and working the rest of the time. During the same period, Dan Benjamin and his new tech podcast network 5by5 became popular with a few of the network’s early shows — The Talk Show with John Gruber, Build and Analyze with Marco Arment, Hypercritical with John Siracusa and Back to Work with Merlin Mann.

“I started listening to all of Dan’s shows and I absolutely loved everything. As a listener, it was my favorite time — The Talk Show, Back to Work, Hypercritical… Those shows were just amazing,” Hurley said. “I look at that selection of shows and they were all kind of linked together a bit — I just loved it, they were so fantastic and Dan did a great job assembling that.”

But all of these popular 5by5 shows—except Back to Work—ended in 2012 — Gruber relaunched The Talk Show with a new format, Siracusa, Arment along with Casey Liss launched Accidental Tech Podcast. In 2013, Hurley agreed to move his shows to 5by5. While these shows gained new listeners, Hackett and Hurley felt the need to start their own network together and create something different. They wanted to be in charge, and that’s why they co-founded Relay FM in August 2014.

Yet, it doesn’t mean that they could quit their day jobs just yet. When the company was created, they expected to be able to focus on Relay FM after a while. In other words, Relay FM had no choice but to go through a difficult transition period with both co-founders having to deal with two jobs at the same time.

“I went home, I sat down to take off my shoes. I started undoing my shoe laces and I realized that my shoe laces were close to breaking. So I thought I would need new shoe laces,” Hurley told Liss in an Analog(ue) episode, one of Relay FM’s shows. “Then I looked to my shoes, and my shoes were a bit dusty — but not like dusty because there was dust on them. You know, when the leather starts to wear — and they are just not looking great anymore.”

“I don’t need new shoelaces, I need new shoes. I thought to myself, if I buy new shoes — they are work shoes, I only wear those shoes at work. If I buy new shoes, I’m committing to myself that I need them because I’m going to be there for a while. I’m going to quit my job.”

Hurley became a professional podcaster just two months after launching Relay FM. He also told me that at this point things were already looking great for the company as Relay FM had booked sponsors several months out. Hackett followed suit and recently announced he was leaving his 9-5 job to work on Relay FM full time, with a bit of writing as well.

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From Bedroom Podcasters To 16 Shows

When Relay FM started, the duo didn’t plan to drastically expand — five shows seemed like a good start. 12 months later, it seems like Relay FM is adding new shows every month. And it comes down to three key principles behind the company — strong culture, close-knit community and fair compensation.

“It sounds corny, but we try to make it feel like a little family. We really do see Relay as a collaborative effort between all of the people that are part of it,” Hurley said. “We try and work together on it. And it’s important to me that we stay that way. That’s something that we’re conscious about as we grow to not let it get out of control. I don’t know how many more shows we could really support with our current structure because I think we’ve got a good number right now.”

While Hurley is a host on eight different shows, Relay FM couldn’t work without its community of co-hosts. The company still has only two co-founders, but it works with well-known podcasting hosts, including former Macworld editor Jason Snell, MacStories‘ Federico Viticci, YouTuber CGP Grey, Giant Spacekat’s Brianna Wu, Chicago Sun-Times’ Andy Ihnatko, Mashable’s Christina Warren, Merlin Mann, ATP’s Casey Liss, John Siracusa and Marco Arment and many, many others. As you can see, some of the former 5by5 hosts are now working with Relay FM. You would think that Relay FM’s Slack should be quite empty with only two full-time employees. But there are now 30 people working together on creating podcasts.

Some of them joined Relay FM following Snell’s recommendations. “I think I’m a little bit humble — I find it hard to say this sometimes. We are kind of where it’s happening right now for indie tech podcasts,” Hurley said. “Relay is where you go now, and I think people are thinking that way now.”

“We are kind of where it’s happening right now for indie tech podcasts”

Yet, hosts like Grey already have a huge online audience. According to his website, he now has more than 75,000 newsletter subscribers receiving an email when he publishes a new video on YouTube or a new podcast. These hosts don’t need Relay FM to thrive, they could successfully launch a show on their own. Grey had already launched a popular podcast with Brady Haran called Hello Internet.

“You don’t need a network, nobody needs a network. Especially these guys, because they are big enough– we don’t really add an audience, we give them infrastructure, but it’s not incredibly hard to get that,” Hurley said. “I think people like to just feel part of something.” Hurley was probably also alluding to Arment’s post on podcast networks — according to him podcast networks are bound to slowly fade away.

But you can feel that all of these hosts want to be part of Relay FM as they interact with each other — on their podcasts, they reference other Relay FM shows. In many ways, Relay FM works like a comic book universe. If you want to know the entire story line, you need to listen to multiple shows.

But wanting to be part of a family isn’t enough if the numbers don’t add up. If Relay FM takes too big a cut, chances are many of these hosts would want to make a podcast on their own. “Our revenue is going up every month, which is great because it means that there is more money for our hosts, which is what I care about the most,” Hurley said. “Our number one thing is that everybody enjoys working with us and is happy with us and is well compensated for the work that they do. Our business is based on the people we work with.”

“Of all the money that comes into Relay, about three quarters of it goes out to hosts. Then the rest we use it to pay expenses and we take profits as owners — we are very lean,” Hurley said. While the number of shows has tripled during Relay FM’s first year, monthly revenue has quadrupled over the same period. Yet, the team doesn’t want to take any outside investment to fuel its growth.

“Of all the money that comes into Relay, about three quarters of it goes out to hosts”

So where does the money come from. Currently, sponsors are the only revenue source. On every show, you will get two or three sponsor breaks, with one of the hosts reading advertising copy. Relay FM doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel on this front as podcast sponsorships have mostly worked this way for the past decade.

“I think advertising does work as a model. It works for both journalistic and creative output. You look at those old time newspapers or radio dramas, and they are all ad supported,” Hackett said. “It’s very embedded and it’s very native and that works. We talk to big sponsors, small app developers and everybody in-between.”

If you are an avid podcast listener, you know all big podcast sponsors by heart, such as Squarespace, MailChimp and Audible. These companies are essential to the podcast industry. They are key when it comes to making companies like Relay FM possible.

“There aren’t many Squarespaces. We’re bringing on all of those that already exist — Fracture, Igloo, Hover, Squarespace and Lynda,” Hurley said. “We fill out the rest with smaller companies.”

Going forward, this could be a potential weakness for Relay FM. If two companies decide to redirect their advertising dollars toward other forms of advertising, Relay FM would probably take a hit. “We want to find the next Squarespace. It’s difficult when it’s just the two of us,” Hurley said. “But I don’t worry about advertising.”

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Turning Conversations Into Podcasts

In November 2014, Dave Wiskus shared a video on YouTube called “Podcast Intervention.” While he’s a podcaster himself, he said that there are a few issues with today’s tech podcast format. “Let me describe a show for you. Two or more white males talking to microphones for two or more hours sharing their unscripted thoughts about their phones and computers — sponsored by Squarespace.”

While this description sounds like a typical Relay FM show, Wiskus later said that his video wasn’t aimed at Relay FM, and that the new network was “part of the solution.”

“For example, Cortex is heavily edited — massively edited”

Relay FM’s approach to this issue is two-fold. First, hosts are trying to perfect the existing format to differentiate the company’s shows from other shows. Second, the team is experimenting with new formats as well, with varying levels of success.

“For most of our shows, we do research, we prepare, we talk off the air. That input and that time spent preparing really pay off,” Hackett said. “I think people feel it in the shows. I think it’s been part of the success.” While nothing is scripted, hosts usually follow an outline. They can also go off-track when an interesting topic comes up and it wasn’t in the outline. Many shows also start with a follow-up section.

But some shows are also heavily edited as well. “For example, Cortex is heavily edited — massively edited,” Hurley said. “There are two edits — we record the show, I listen to the whole thing and I edit for content, we take out boring parts. And then Grey edits as well, the same way. And I think a lot of this type of shows will be going that way.”

“All of our shows now have more editing. I make editing notes as we record now. We take out crosstalk, we take out sections that don’t work. And I think, for the type of shows that we do now, it has to be of higher quality than before because there are a lot of them.” If you want to see what editing a conversational podcast looks like, Jason Snell wrote about editing podcasts in more depth.

“I tried a storytelling format with Behind the App. I’m working on another project that is more like that,” Hurley said. “Behind the App was a great experience, but it wasn’t cost effective — it took me 15 hours to record an episode. The show met all of the goals that we set, but we didn’t expect the time that it was going to take.”

And then, there is the video question. A popular tech podcast gets 80,000 downloads per month or more. It seems like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to YouTube views. CGP Grey currently has 59 videos with more than a million views. So video feels like a big untapped market for podcasters. But it’s hard to find a format that works on YouTube.

“Right now I have no intentions on doing video. If we did video, it wouldn’t be what we do now,” Hurley said. “People ask us why don’t you do a video version of Connected. It would just be our faces, you don’t need that. We think about doing video, but it would be something completely different and we don’t know what it would be. I have my eye on YouTube, I think we should do something but I don’t know what it is.”

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Finding Your Niche

The Pen Addict is a show about pens, pencils, paper and ink. You don’t think this kind of shows would work, but it’s been running for over three years, first on 70Decibels, then on 5by5 and now on Relay FM. It doesn’t have a huge audience like more popular tech podcasts, but its fan base is quite unique.

“When I fly to the U.S. and I’m at customs, I just tell them I’m on the radio”

Relay FM set up a Kickstarter campaign to record a live show at the Atlanta Pen Show. They ended up raising $12,000 to pay for Hurley’s trip and pay a film crew to shoot a mini documentary. In Atlanta, Hurley and his co-host Brad Dowdy kept being stopped by anonymous fans. “They were like rock stars,” Hackett said.

Podcasts feel like the early blogging days. Amateurs who found a popular niche are turning into professional podcasters. Listener numbers are still very small compared to the potential market — most people just don’t know what a podcast is. “When I fly to the U.S. and I’m at customs, I just tell them I’m on the radio,” Hurley said. And podcasters are still experimenting with this relatively new medium.

Blogging didn’t take off overnight, it was a success years in the making. I can see the same trend happening to podcasting. Hackett and Hurley started recording podcasts six years ago — and now things are looking up. While Relay FM is only tackling a few niches, its founding story is representative of what podcasts are and what they could become.

Stephen Hackett and Myke Hurley

Stephen Hackett and Myke Hurley