Blue Wire podcasts CEO Kevin Jones. Blue Wire founder and CEO Kevin Jones.

Last month, Blue Wire, the podcast media company founded by former sportswriter Kevin Jones, announced the acquisition of several new podcasts, including shows hosted by Cam Newton, J.R. Smith, and Lou Williams.

On the heels of his company’s latest moves, Jones joined Awful Announcing’s Ben Axelrod for a Q&A session to discuss Blue Wire and the state of the podcast and sports media industries.

Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Axelrod: Let’s start from the beginning. How would you describe the backstory of Blue Wire?

Kevin Jones: I worked in sports media for eight years. I always dreamed of having a press pass and interacting with the players and coaches. And I realized once I did that, that podcasts and YouTube are where fans were starting to engage with the content more than traditional websites or newspapers, or radio. My dream of being a radio host — I don’t think it was the dream anymore. I was covering the 49ers and the Warriors at the time and I saw these two guys, Sam Esfandiari, and Andy Liu, they had a podcast, and they were trending on Twitter all the time and in my head, I was like, ‘Wait a second. I think there’s actually stronger voices outside of the traditional media, who are fully independent right now. What if we start putting all these people on one team?’

What I knew was — I had a podcast at the time — that no one was making any money doing podcasts back in 2017, 2018 and that if we banded all this content together, we’d have a much stronger chance to make some revenue together. So it was really born out of my frustration with working in traditional media and seeing this gap in the market that there was all these talented, independent voices.

BA: It’s one thing to say, ‘I want to start a podcast network’ but another to make it happen. What would you say was Blue Wire’s big break in terms of having staying power and creating its own brand?

KJ: A couple things happened. One, we got our first investment from Dot Capital. Over the years, more than 500 investors have told me, ‘no’ but we’ve gotten 15-20 of them on our team and Dot Capital wrote the first check. Joe Saviano from Dot Capital has invested more than $5 million over the years. He really allowed us to pursue this dream. You’ve gotta lose a little bit of money to make money, so it gave us some runway for the first several years.

Chris Long joining the team in 2021 was kind of our first big athlete who ever came to the team. So those were big milestone moments, but there have been a lot of employees who were just absolutely incredible and early believers. Maggie Clifton, Scott Reinen, Luke Pagano, Andrew Rotondi. It does take a village of people to take this dream and turn it into an actual business. And one of our sponsors, Indeed, they’ve been with us for five years. They’re one of our largest advertisers. ZipRecruiter advertised with Bill Simmons and some of our competitors. Indeed took a chance with us for a long time. It took a lot of forces coming together — investors, talent, advertisers, employees. Those four gave us some rocket fuel to actually turn Blue Wire from an idea to an actual growing and sustainable business.

BA: You mentioned Bill Simmons. The sports podcasting market is so saturated right now and you’re going against people like Bill Simmons, Dan Le Batard, and Colin Cowherd — people with big profiles and big business backings. What’s that like?

KJ: It’s definitely a dream come true. I grew up consuming all the content, buying Bill Simmons’ book, love-hating Cowherd, laughing along with Le Batard. And they’re all three building and have built some special podcast networks.

There’s kind of the best of the rest. It’s similar to an expansion team, like when the Houston Texans were born. Just because I’m not super well known or famous doesn’t mean we can’t put together a competitive team. It’s definitely a ‘pinch me’ story to be able to compete against those guys. I’d throw [Dave] Portnoy in there too. Just these massive personalities. But I think there’s a need for Blue Wire for a brand that didn’t have that face of the franchise on top where people can truly still be independent, where they get the benefits of the infrastructure from us and being grouped with other shows so we can be efficient with sales. But there’s nothing in the way.

Those guys are controversial in a way that’s maybe a turnoff to some independent creators. And of course they continue to land great talent, but I do think us remaining independent, we’re not as focused on the Blue Wire brand. We’re focused on our podcasters and how they maximize their brands. I think that is zagging where everybody else is zigging.

BA: I think that’s interesting. Take Meadowlark for example. They have so many podcasts that it would be impossible to consume them all and it’s easy to feel like you’re missing out. But for Blue Wire, you’re not necessarily expecting people to listen to everything. It’s more picking and choosing.

KJ: For years, we all just turned on the radio and that’s what you got. You turn on ESPN, that’s what you got. Now the choice is back in the listeners’ hands. So we’re trying to serve as many listeners as possible with athlete-led shows, with local shows. I do think podcast clips have made it more viable to where you don’t have to listen to every show. You can consume shows with just the TikTok clips or even the 10-minute clips.

But you’re right, the way we’re positioning Blue Wire is we try to find an expert on a topic and they don’t have to be promoting all of our other content. It can be a self-contained listening experience or viewing experience. We’re banking on we’re going to continue to identify great experts across all of our sports verticals. We do promote some of our shows, but we’re not trying to force it down anyone’s throat. We think podcast listeners and consumers are really smart people and they’re going to pick what they like. And we do believe in local. I think that’s what sets us apart from some of our competitors. Having that local portfolio allows us to reach a lot of unique listeners. We’re over-indexing on unique listeners, where with some of our network competitors, if you’re listening to the main flagship show, those are probably the same people listening to the other shows as well. So we’re able to have a much more unique audience.

BA: I was going to ask you about the whole local vs. national push and pull. A sport like baseball has become so local, it would seem like you’d have an easier time targeting X amount of fans from a single team than you would getting the same amount of fans with a national approach.

KJ: We can geotarget a lot more effectively. So you could be listening to a Marlins podcast in Miami or [the same] Marlins podcast in California and hear a different ad from us. We do have audience thresholds. We’re looking for a podcast to get at least 25.000 listens per month at a bare minimum. We do turn down a lot podcasters, which is tough because I started this thing to be more inclusive.

We’re looking for these medium-sized shows because we actually think the fandom there is just as strong, if not stronger, than the national shows. There’s more community, they’re buying the merch, they’re doing hashtags and trending on Twitter. I do think local radio is starting to phase out for people 35 and under. But people still love their local teams. It’s kind of the full experience you get with a local creator.

BA: One of the things you guys did that really stands out to me is the Ken Griffey Jr. series (American Prodigy: The Kid). Where do standalone series like that fit into Blue Wire’s strategy?

KJ: I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve made mistakes along the way building Blue Wire. We really thought that we could mix that into the portfolio. I think the quality of content there is amazing and not enough stories are being told. But it is costly to make audio content at a super high quality. In 2022, we ended up shutting down that division. It wasn’t a large division. It did make more headlines for us, it did reach really sophisticated listeners, but the audience numbers were not there. We still own some of those feeds. We could maybe reinvest in them down the line.

We realized our strength is in monetizing the content. That’s what more and more people are coming to us for. It’s still a struggle to monetize podcasts, so we went all in on monetizing shows and building really strong brand relationships. It has not been a perfect journey and that was definitely a learning experience for us.

BA: I was looking at your website and I didn’t realize that you have an affiliation with a bunch of other outlets, like Field of 68. Is that what you’re talking about in terms of people coming to you for help with monetization?

KJ: That’s right.

BA: Is that something that you had in mind when you started this, or is that something that naturally evolved from your place in the space.

KJ: That naturally evolved. We were so focused on our own shows in the beginning, but then we realized we’ve developed a strength here of talking to hundreds of advertisers over the years and building these relationships. Field of 68 is really focused on their own content. And now that we don’t produce our own content, but we can be the sales arm for a lot of these folks. That definitely evolved within our vision. We’ve tried to pride ourselves on being super flexible. That has been a huge growth source for us because people like that we’re not trying to poach their shows. We’ve been an additive partner, that’s how we try to pitch ourselves.

BA: You guys just made headlines with your new podcasts with Cam Newton, J.R. Smith, and Lou Williams. Like I said earlier, this field so crowded especially with ex-athletes. What do you think makes a good podcaster when it comes to former athletes?

KJ: First, I think it’s crowded, but think of the amount of cable TV shows, the amount of local sports radio shows. There’s hundreds of those too and they’re all kind of declining.

In terms of what makes a good athlete podcast, those shows we just signed, all of them launched before working with us. The true athlete who’s really into this is not trying to get a check from day 1 and build the show. They’re actually interested in this.

Cam had some really strong takes last year. The game manager was a real trending topic surrounding Brock Purdy and other quarterbacks. I think he articulated himself really well actually and did some follow-ups on that. I think because he’s played the position, you might trust his opinion more. They’re having more fun with it. They’re cursing a little bit because they own their own shows. Cam smoking a cigar — they’re really showing off their personalities. They’re not in a box, they’re not tossing to a commercial break every 10 minutes. They’re able to kind of breathe a little bit more. We’re looking for them to be engaging on video too.

BA: I agree, I think Cam is really good. And it seems like if you can be engaging and also have the on-field credentials he does, then that’s the jackpot.

KJ: That’s ideal. But even Lou was more of a Sixth Man of the Year. You don’t have to be a star player to be really good at this. Chris Long was never a superstar player. He bounced around on a couple different teams. But he’s a fantastic podcaster. I think you’re going to see more of those types, like the Will Compton, who was more of a journeyman, but he’s still an amazing podcaster. Yes, the Cam Newton is ideal. But I think you’re going to see more players you weren’t familiar with because they’re witty, they’re funny, they’re good at social media.

I think 10 years from now, a podcast from an athlete is going to be just like an Instagram page. Not every single athlete is going to have one, but a lot of them will. I think people are just getting smart with how they want to apply their time. Everyone’s building media businesses. LeBron started it with Uninterrupted and I don’t see this trend ending anytime soon.

BA: It kind of blew my mind when Charles Barkley was talking about potentially taking over Inside the NBA with his own production company.

KJ: It’s the way of the future. Why be owned by any of the networks? If the content’s good enough and the audience is good enough, they’ll pay you a licensing fee. You have more freedom of movement. We’re doing this on a smaller level with the podcasts, but being owned and operated could be a thing of the past 10 years from now. Sports is just changing faster than anyone can predict.

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.