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24th Apr 2024

Breaking up with a podcast, and the ones you just won’t quit

Patrick McCarry


One of the best moments I ever experienced as producer of House of Rugby came during a break in a live show at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery.

It was back in 2019 and served as a launch party for that year’s World Cup. Our podcast and YouTube show was fronted by Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble, with Jerry Flannery as the newest cast member and special guests, on the night, included Greg O’Shea, Eimear Considine and former Scotland star, Dave Denton.

We had a great night – some brilliant stories were told, drinks were had and fans of the show got to meet the gang, during that break and after, as we toasted to a hopefully long Ireland run at the World Cup.

Myself, Barry and Andrew got talking to a young couple, as we grabbed a refreshment during the break between halves. He was a rugby die-hard, and loved the show. His girlfriend had scant interest in rugby but also relished the show. Her favourite parts undoubtedly when the lads went way off-piste and started debating Game of Thrones, laughing over teenage embarrassments and Barry delivering epic re-tellings of Jaws, Barb Wire or somehow linking how Joker was a perfect analogy for modern rugby and how the game needed disruptors and show-men.

That couple were regulars, now, and did not miss an episode. He would often be keen to catch up on all the rugby chat, but would hold off watching until that evening, when they could enjoy the show together.

To me, we had made it. We had reached a point, as a podcast, that not everyone is fortunate enough to reach. We had made that personal connection.

The first podcast I regularly listened to was The GAA Hour, when Colm Parkinson arrived here and regularly dropped football and hurling shows. He was passionate, opinionated, engaging and passionate (again!) It screamed through every show he produced and hosted. He also had his funny, warmer moments. He loved a laugh, and a decent tune. The rotating trio of Parkinson and Cónan Doherty with either Cian Ward or Stevie McDonnell was my favourite. I would often save episodes (like our friend at the Open Gate Brewery) for long drives, down to Thomond Park or over to The Sportsground. It was like listening in to a bunch of friends, talking sport and ripping each other.

That is the sweet spot. That is a huge reason why so many podcasts succeed.

Still, I did not fully embrace podcasts until my brother-in-law recommended The West Wing Weekly. It was a simple concept, but a bold one, too. Hrishikesh Hirway was a super-fan of The West Wing, a fictionalised show about American president Jed Bartlet. Hirway got former West Wing actor, Joshua Malina involved and had a fantastic insight to the episodes, and a guy with a decent contacts book.

Each show went back over episodes of the TV series, which ran on NBC from 1999 to 2006 and also aired on RTÉ (in Ireland) and Channel 4. I started listening to West Wing Weekly as it was great to revisit a show that I loved so much, growing up. As time went on, though, I was drawn in by the interactions of Mirway and Malina. You got to learn about their families, friends, the other projects and how their show had reignited interest into a TV series that had wrapped a decade earlier.

I took over as House of Rugby producer in 2018, as it transitioned from the earlier, and excellent, incarnation – The Hard Yards. Murphy and Trimble were new to the podcast host game, but they approached the project willing to learn and, more importantly, determined to have fun. I remember one of my first chats with the pair, as I raved about West Wing Weekly and advised them that the listeners and viewers wanted that personal connection. They will be initially come for the rugby, but they will come back for you.

We would get to the rugby, in those early episodes, I assured them, but people wanted to hear their stories. If they were having a great week, tell everyone. A bad day, let the followers know why. If you heard a good song or saw a good movie, talk about it.

I still laugh, years later, when I recall holding up a sign – 10 minutes into an early episode – that read ‘TALK ABOUT RUGBY!!!’

As it so often proved, during our time together, the lads knew best. Their friendship and closeness shone through.

There are many brilliant moments that show brought, from 2017 until this season, but my favourite is the Paul O’Connell Electric Picnic story, brilliantly told by Flannery, and added to by Trimble and Murphy. It can be viewed from 8:44 here (below) and sums up that chaotic, warm energy that made those seasons such a career, and life, highlight.

Breaking up with a podcast

The next show that hooked me in, recommended by friends, was The Rewatchables. The concept is Bill Simmons, a popular American podcast host, and his work colleagues looking back on classic movies, blockbusters, popcorn-munchers and quirky cult offerings, and breaking them down into categories like Half-Assed Internet Research, Cast What-Ifs and Apex Mountain.

The show can cover an Oscar-winner one week, like The Godfather II or Philadelphia, to lighter and looser flicks, like Teen Wolf, Lethal Weapon or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Simmons’ solo Cast Away podcast is something I tell all aspiring journalists and pundits to listen to as a lesson in how the best can hold your attention for over an hour, on their own, if they plan it right, practice by repetition and throw themselves into it.

I took so much enjoyment from that show that I started listening to The Bill Simmons Podcast. He would often focus on sports – American football and basketball – that were all taking place as I was sleeping away the previous day. Still, such was his passion, dedication and humour that I was hooked.

This was one of my constants for those craved-for moments of outdoor exercise during the Covid pandemic. I often told myself I was going to get a pen and paper and send a letter to Simmons, over in Los Angeles – thanking him for taking me out of the day-to-day reality of that biting, scary period of our collective lives.

It was during a recent episode of Simmons’ podcast when guest Derek Thompson – host of the Plain English – podcast brought up a concept that I had not given much thought to. Thompson, it turned out, was similar to myself – he did not watch a huge amount of basketball and American football, but he enjoyed listening to shows that summed up all the latest news, plays, gossip and opinions. He was almost following the sport vicariously through others.

It got me thinking, how many other people do the same?

The idea would be strange if someone pitched it to you – watching the big sporting events, movies, shows or attending gigs, political gatherings or press conferences and distilling it into a package for others to consume. We do it with the news, though, so why not pop culture, sport and more?

I had another big realisation, not so long ago, when I asked a class full of college students to name their favourite podcasts, and the ones they regularly followed. The students, hailing from Ireland, France, Germany, Ukraine, the USA and Nigeria, could not name one. They knew all about big content creators on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Shorts. They know what podcasts are, but they do not regularly follow any. I felt a shiver down my spine. Life moves fast. Media moves quicker.

And then there is the moment when you just reach maximum consumption rates. When you subscribe to so many podcasts that you have to do a cleanse, as the episodes stack up to a dangerous extent.

Some of the smarter podcasters and show producers realise less is actually more. If a subscriber hits double figures with episodes they have not yet listened to, they can often call it quits.

Sometimes it goes the opposite way and your favourite podcast breaks up with you. There were a raft of quality Game of Thrones pods, during that show’s successful run, but there is no need for it now. On other occasions, a show runs its course, changes direction, loses a sponsor, or the talent goes elsewhere. For the devoted follower, it can be tough.

I can’t see myself ever quitting Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, but I can’t be doing the midweek fan episodes. I listen to the occasional The Rest Is Football, but I need a break every now and then. Revisionist History is still great, but the spin-off nudges get too much.

I had to cut back from 16 to 10 podcast subscriptions, but that list of episodes I have not yet listened to is 200+ and climbing.

I need some time to catch up on them all. Either that or I make some more hard decisions.

Breaking up is hard to do, and I still owe Bill that letter.

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