WatchMojo is launching a series of audio programming, starting with Sports, Music… but with plans to expand into more areas. It’s contrarian, and like everything else we do, will take time and persistence to pull off.
When listing WatchMojo’s editorial influences, I’ve emphasized
- Encyclopedias (factual, objective, historical, biographic),
- Magazines (a certain tone: going above the obvious while blending smarts with humor),
- cable TV programming: the use of b-roll, mix of voice-over and initial categories we covered,
- and of course, the iconic pop culture franchises in movies and gaming which eventually became the crux of our coverage.
One area I have under-emphasized in terms of my influences is music and radio. Before we were anointed the heir apparent to Dave Letterman, Wayne’s World and Moses and his Ten Commandments, we produced biographies in our mission to cover the people that fans were passionate about. The first artists we covered were thus musicians with profiles before finding platform/format fit with entertainment lists amongst our four big bets. To develop our editorial processes and best practices, we started with music lists as I was more confident to build the best product by focusing on my comparative advantage to ensure the finished videos had the authenticity, accuracy and quality we sought. I’ll touch on my love and hate experience over the past decade with music in a separate post, much of the latter dealing with having to navigate copyright and fair use on YouTube (whose ambitions in music are growing), and the PTSD that comes with that while running a privately held scaleup.
Growing up in Montreal, we didn’t get The Howard Stern Show, which gained popularity when it was nationally syndicated on terrestrial radio from 1986 to 2005, after which point he moved to Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
I first truly paid attention to Stern after 1997’s Private Parts which covered his own ten-year overnight success journey (here’s mine). Anyone who had an interest in talking for a living or pursuing a career in broadcasting and media couldn’t help but feel inspired by his story. (Side note: imagine if the first time you find out who Jenna Jameson – whom I subsequently interviewed while at AskMen in ~ 2002 – was was from that movie).
Anyway, in 1997, I was in college studying finance and presuming I’d pursue in my brother’s footsteps in consulting, or more likely, an analyst/investment banker/trader focused on the media industry.
Howard Stern in talk radio as a shock jock and later Joe Rogan in an interview series podcast are great examples of platform/format fit, i.e.
– WatchMojo – clip-based commentary mashup countdown lists on YouTube
– ESPN – Cable Sports
– Pewdiepie – Let’s play gaming on YouTube
– Tony Robbins – Self help motivational speaker & author
– Dick Clark – New Year TV show from Times Square, etc.
and adapting your programming strategy based on a given distribution reality of the time. Stern eventually commanded a $500 million deal when leaving terrestrial radio for satellite. Rogan, not to be outdone, commanded a massive payday from Spotify in 2020.
[side note, how much of a coincidence is it that Rogan worked on News Radio, and got a feel for the medium there?]
You can also make the argument that Stern was the precursor to Rogan in terms of Then vs Now versions of Platform/Format fit (but this is a deeper analysis I am working on for another day):
While at AskMen, I found my calling as writer and storyteller. It’s not surprising that I launched this Context Is King website in 2020, after sitting on the URL since 2005. Writing is therapeutic and helps us process thought and emotions.
Writing and Speaking are Coping and Learning Mechanisms
Writing or presenting (be it on stage, in a TV interview or on the airwaves) have always served many purposes. Yes, there’s something riveting about engaging with an audience, but for me, it’s primarily a way to process the massive amount of information I take in as learning and improving mechanisms. Admittedly, I’m a passionate person, and passionate people tend to manifest emotions and be sentimental. As such, writing helps me as coping and healing mechanisms, too. There’s a lot I regret not doing, but I wouldn’t trade anything at all, so I only use the past to help me navigate the future. This stuff isn’t intended to make me look good or bad, but to help you make more informed decisions.
Everything Happens For a Reason, part 1
A mistake media executives make is thinking that journalists can produce videos, video editors can write and so on.
While at AskMen, we published articles, communicating via letters, words, sentences and images. For us to adapt our articles into videos was conceivable, but a different skill set. Similarly, expanding in radio wasn’t rocket science since radio talk show hosts were already discussing articles like ours on air. Indeed, before Digg and Reddit reinvented and further popularized news link aggregators, Drew Curtis’ Fark was a pretty popular tool that would – much to Drew’s chagrin since he was oftentimes uncredited – be used to find stories to discuss.
After publishing my first book in 2003, I set my sights on radio next. Radio was in between terrestrial remaining dominant but satellite radio moving out of its infancy. Internet radio was something altogether different, but if you considered the video streaming landscape, it was still early days:
I pitched a radio expansion strategy to AskMen, which left my fellow executives unmoved. With their blessing, I proceeded to test the waters alone. Like some good leaders, I have a tendency to wade into unchartered territory to study the terrain, before regrouping with the larger group to develop a plan of attack.
Since none of us had the right skill set, I returned to my alma mater Concordia University and spoke to a group of communications and journalism students about career opportunities. There, I met my current partner and WatchMojo COO Raphael Daigneault. In 2003, I recruited him as an intern to help me venture into radio programming.
“Music I get Ash, but why Sports?“
Along with music, I was equally passionate about sports. Part of the “font of information” I absorbed over the years thanks to those encyclopedias my father had ordered for us when we were young was a ton of sports data and facts. Draft picks, trades, etc. You name it, I knew it.
At AskMen, I was writing ten columns over a fourteen day production schedule, but only one – the Young Professional column – under my name.
Creatively, I needed to spread my wings beyond writing and I suppose, looking back, to reclaim credit for my creative efforts, since I wasn’t actually credited on 95% of my columns, many of which were under various pen names to project a bigger organization. Even the interviews I was conducting with newsmakers and celebrities like Joe Montana, Hugh Hefner, Depeche Mode, Tiesto, Tony Hawk, Nas, Robert Shapiro, Joe Satriani, Wyclef Jean, LL Cool J, Yoko Ono, Lyor Cohen, Gene Simmons, Seal, Russell Simmons, Joe Cocker, Tears for Fears, Motley Crue, Def Leppard and so on were all uncredited. As a team player, I honestly didn’t object then and myself found it odd if the career columnist was also doling out dating advice, cooking tips, and so on. But to say it didn’t bother me would be a lie. The silver lining, I think, is that it made me a more empathetic and successful manager of creative talent at WatchMojo.
The “Other” Sports Business Guy?
Amongst those many columns, one was a pretty good sports business column which combined my considerable strengths in accounting, finance, management and marketing with my extensive passion for sports. But, as I alluded to in my recent conversation with part-time WatchMojo contributor and co-host of our first sports podcast Julian McKenzie, I realized that to be the “sports business guy,” you had to devote yourself to sports business exclusively.
Indeed, another aspiring writer my age then realized what I had spotted in terms of the business of sports being overlooked. Who was the writer? According to David Albright, then Senior Editor at ESPN, via Buzzfeed:
“Rather than a standard résumé, [the young writer] handed me a media guide — spiral-bound and laminated — that broke down his experience, interests, and included his interview availability on the back cover. He printed out the headlines from ESPN.com, and three out of seven of them on that day had dollar signs in them. All the stories were written by different people at Associated Press. He said: 'If ESPN wants to be the worldwide leader in sports, why wouldn't you want to be the worldwide leader in sports business?’”
ESPN’s then Vice President of Digital and Print Media John Kosner would go on to add:
"I felt sorry for [the young writer], I just thought: ‘Wow, there's not a big market for this information and everyone who works here wants to cover the NFL or baseball.’ But he just outworked everybody in the industry."
That young writer, was none other than Darren Rovell, who more importantly at least subconsciously understood the value of focus.
By 2006, Rovell had left for CNBC. Coinciding with Twitter’s launch, in pure platform/format fit, he leveraged Twitter’s growth and via “sheer force of personality” pulled a seat at the big boys’ table and thrust:
“marketing, bean-counting and general corporate influence to be intrinsic to the sports conversation at large, not a sidebar, and that he would be the subject's ambassador and enforcer via this burgeoning medium that many of his peers and employers considered, at least at first, confounding and stupid.”
To be clear, I don’t think I had the mileage to ever replicate Rovell’s success. I most certainly didn’t have the shamelessness (that’s a compliment in this context, I assure you) to build a personal brand the way Rovell did, parlaying it all of that for a new gig at The Action Network. Rovell’s story echoes the profile of “storyteller/entrepreneur” who first hears “good luck with that, pal,” only to then feel the “always believe in ya” pats on the back.
2003: Internal & External Politics, part 1
As an admitted jack of all trades/master of none, I have never retained interest in one thing and one thing only for long enough to be successful. That is ironic given the influence that Plato’s Principle of Specialization has had on my thinking. Our success with WatchMojo is a confluence of many things, namely Vision, Ambition, Execution, Persistence, Luck, Timing, Focus and Resiliency.
As I was growing increasingly frustrated while at AskMen in 2003, when I explored radio, the natural extension was a local outlet first. Team 990 as it was then known (or Team 690 as it’s now known) was a local sports station that today is part of BCE’s Bell Media. Highly regulated, their license was for sports programming.
To strike a balance between my near and long term personal and professional ambitions, the idea was to produce a couple of weekly radio show I hosted on men’s lifestyle issues and another one on the business of sports show (called SportsCents), which aired locally and I “streamed” (i.e. linked to) online.
At any moment, the station may have reached 15,000 listeners. By comparison, AskMen served an audience that was easily ten-times greater on a given day (we were serving some 5-10 million unique users per month and as a reflection of how YouTube and other platforms drive much more reach, WatchMojo reaches 150 million viewers in 150 countries each month).
There were a lot of takeaways from that experience which overall was great. That year, I started dating my current wife. I had season’s tickets at Montreal Expos matches. Because I worked Monday through Friday, I would rush to produce the shows Friday evenings and rely on my public speaking skills to host the shows on Saturdays, one from 10a-11a, and the second in the afternoon.
As it was the weekend, I felt sheepish asking people to come on, and in hindsight regret not enlisting others to help me more. For example, when not serving as a consultant, my older brother’s range of impersonations of accents is quite impressive, given the nature of radio programming that would have certainly been a hit…
In carrying so much of the duties by myself (while working full-time during the week), I was growing increasingly burned out… But the major lesson I learned was the importance of preparation to succeed in radio. In fact, if I had to adapt that Formula for Success for radio hosts, I would assume it is built on a base of Preparation, Commitment, Knowledge/Expertise, Focus, Differentiation, and more ingredients which I am sure others have learned over time.
Public speaking includes keynotes, Q&As, panels and so on. Similarly, talk radio is best when there’s banter between a few people. A fellow contributor at the station was in on weekends and would provide the news and produce a show on the CFL. While I would show up having prepared say 1 hour for a 1-hour show, this fellow would put in 2-3 hours for a 1-hour show. It was clear that he was deeply passionate about broadcasting, was able and willing to put in the hours, and would project such energy for the NFL’s lesser-known north-of-the-border cousin that I knew “this is not for me.” That guy, my paisano Arash Madani, today works at Rogers’ Sportsnet and went on to cover Hockey Night In Canada, the Olympics, multiple World Series, NBA Finals and Super Bowls.
[Side note: one day, the radio station producer Marc Aflalo walked into the studio to tell me I was mispronouncing his name. As his paisano, I assure you I was not!]
One day while researching Roger Penske for a segment, I read how he “retired” from car racing to pursue business, realizing he was more valuable alive than dead (Penske’s son Jay is the Chairman and CEO of Penske Media).
For me, increasingly burned out and wanting to spend more time with my then soon-to-be-engaged girlfriend, I decided that timing wasn’t right, and with a company reaching out to to inquire about acquiring AskMen, I had zero time to focus on the medium. Then and there, radio was local and small while the web – where I worked full time – was global and huge. That was the front to focus on.
2005: A Year of Change
In June 2005, IGN Entertainment acquired AskMen. Months later, News Corp. bought IGN. I was a free agent. In between, I got married. Always an intrapreneur, reluctantly I found my next calling as an entrepreneur.
I had stopped working with Raph when I walked away from my radio projects but kept in touch. While watching Live 8 streamed on Aol, I knew online video was ripe for a comeback. I reached out to him and we began to plot a plan as audiences were shifting ever-faster online, storytelling was shifting to video, and mobile was due for a massive breakthrough.
The Streaming Revolution
Entrepreneurs are driven by insecurities, good and bad. To paraphrase something my father always tells me, that first glass of water in the desert is worth a lot. In that vein, we yearn for what we lack. When Rishad Tobaccowala was conducting research for his book, he examined why people work and who are the most fulfilled people at work. He found:
"Initially people work for three important motivations: Money, Fame (Recognition), and Power (Autonomy). The people who succeed in the long run also seek and find three other motivations which are Purpose (alignment with the goals of the company, finding meaning at work), Growth (learning, becoming better, new skills) and Connections (Connection to people they work with and the communities they work with)."
For me, it’s never about Fame, but I certainly appreciate being respected and trusted (Recognition). Frankly, I only made money because I didn’t care about money to begin with; but Power in the context of Autonomy (which money plays a part in) is paramount. I am certainly driven by Purpose and Connections – which echo manager of the 20th century Jack Welch’s two pillars of winning: People and Competition.
Ultimately, I wanted to (in the vein of Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher) start an organization where I could treat stakeholders the way I wanted to be treated. WatchMojo was a means to an end.
Building an Army, part 1
While I certainly briefly considered a more personality-driven brand, I adopted a more Penske-like mindset recognizing that false modesty aside my time would be more valuable in building a media company that would be built to last. So instead of building WatchAsh or AshMojo – who’d want that? – we launched WatchMojo, with our first tagline being Just Watch!
I certainly had something to prove and began to assemble my new army. Ironically, when another young candidate – my other partner Kevin Havill – was interviewing with us and asked me what WatchMojo’s long term goal was, I pointed to a poster of the 1994 Montreal Expos and answered: “to bring back the Expos.”
As we began to produce our first videos, it was clear that they weren’t going to put Hollywood out of business, but inasmuch as ESPN started off with Second Division Lacrosse matches from Connecticut, this was a journey that we needed to start somewhere. Internet companies generally succeed through iteration, tinkering, and experimentation. We would be no different.
Fast forward to today.
Having built our programming natively in video from the ground up, psychologically any audio-only programming we want to produce is invariably benchmarked to our videos, which is “our thing.” Media professors come to me at conferences to tell me they study WatchMojo’s style. It’s flattering and a reflection of the amazing team we have assembled.
WatchMojo “won” in video because unlike the Gawker’s of the world, we didn’t have another business to defend and protect. We didn’t merely burn the boats (i.e. articles) – there were no boats in that there was no plan B. With a non-competition that prevented me from launching an online men’s magazine, I steered clear of publishing even though we launched some blogs early on to complement our videos for discovery and recovery purposes.
[Side note: despite clearly not violating the Scope of my non-compete, News Corp./FOX/IGN/AskMen proceeded to sue me in a meritless, frivolous but ultimately seminal lawsuit which I won, and which helped me build confidence in our eventual journey navigating copyright and defending fair use].
Podcast Boom is Actually More Just a Reflection of a Brave New World
Audio programming has underwent massive changes in the past twenty years. For more on that, Matthew Ball’s essay does a great job of recapping the new landscape. This has all of course been fueled by changes in technology, consumer behavior and the general fragmentation and direct to consumer trends of the past few years. As a subset of that overall boom, podcasting has experienced a period of massive growth.
Our challenge here was a combo of Innovator’s Dilemma meets “Not Built Here” syndrome. Last year we explored producing a podcast version of WatchMojo, and for all of the reasons you can imagine, we kept hitting a wall and shelving it.
If you notice, the companies who utilize podcasts are those who want to move from one-dimensional media (text / articles) into multimedia, realizing jumping all the way to video may be too much at once.
Similarly to how we perfected video storytelling because we weren’t focused on text publishing, being really good at video has produced challenges in podcasting, because you have to organizationally first ask what the purpose and objective of audio programming is. But that’s still tactical, from a strategic sense, why? is the greatest question to ask when making decisions.
Our programming lends itself really well to audio formats, and for that reason over the years we spoke to SiriusXM or iHeartRadio – but to no avail.
Venture backed firms in particular suffer from herd mentality and the institutional imperative. Seeing all of these deals – the funding rounds, the acquisitions, the content deals – an entrepreneur and CEO may be prone to want to pursue that blindly, but if you look at the delta between when things launch and they reach critical mass (if they reach it at all), it’s usually a period of 3 to 5 years. As such, I have resisted venturing into podcasts blindly, but with more and more people and companies approaching us, we’ve decided to put our best foot forward in 2021, starting now.
The Person and the Project
I’ve gone on the record and stated that yes, in theory and ideally, everyone (starting with the head of the organization) is replaceable; that doesn’t mean you actually want to replace anyone, ever. But I’ve also stressed that without the right person – be it entrepreneur, intrapreneur, executive, operator, storyteller – a project turned out to be rudderless. Nowadays, when we discuss projects, I always ask “who’s the leader?”
This year has amplified my sense of gratitude over expectations. Seeing Covid tear apart so many people’s dreams and disrupt their future, one tries to give back and help in any way they can. I am blessed in being able to create opportunities for others – within reason.
The Paradox of Opportunity
We live in a world of infinite possibilities, but also one where people are ever less willing to give others an opportunity. The Hunger Games economy has created an “everyone for themselves” mentality. As a very driven and confident young professional, very few people truly gave me opportunities early on. I never had a sense of entitlement and believe you have to fight for what you want. But that is why I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for those who recognize opportunities and execute on them.
Building an Army, part 2.
Looking for work?
Hit me up with the following 3 answers:
1) Principle of Specialization: What is the ideal/realistic role for you where you are the Wayne Gretzky/Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods of your craft?
2) Sum of the Parts: What is the kind of organization you perform in the best? Fit and culture matter.
3) Comparative advantage: What industry/sector do you have considerable domain expertise?
And I’ll do my best to provide a “direct hit” with the person / company I think you’d be most helpful to & have most success in the years to come.
Soon thereafter, I received an email from Frank Pavan:
“I stumbled upon your
"Lost your job?
" tweet and figured this would be a great way to introduce myself. A graduate of Concordia's journalism program and a current graduate student at McGill University,
Keeping my nose to the grindstone has always been a mantra of mine. In 2015, I began my own sports podcast that focused on North American sports (for the most part). Since then, I've acquired a number of guests (sports journalists from all over North America) to add more depth to the show(s) and, with hard-work, dedication and several hours behind-the-scenes, the show has reached an audience of 60,000 listeners each week.”
Now I will be candid and say that we could’ve turtled up and batten down the hatches – and let’s face it, no one would’ve blamed us – but we didn’t only ride the storm, we actually came out stronger on many levels. When I read Frank’s emails, I wasn’t sure anyone at the company wanted to launch a new initiative like podcasts two months into a pandemic with no live sports, but I also felt we had an obligation to give back to the community – within reason. The last time I thought I was doing the world a service by hiring aggressively, we broke the “hire slow, fire fast” rule and as such,
I learned a lot from our WM2020 initiative in 2016 where we invested in 10 new areas and effectively tripled the size of the firm, recruiting both experienced and young professionals.
I knew that I couldn’t once again feed Frank (first time for Frank, not for others before him!) to the lions and expect podcasts to succeed, so from my bunker, I created WatchMojo’s Summer Media & Finance [paid] Internship, to help students who lost internships due to Covid.
[side note: another thing Frank had going for him? He also, like Raph and Kevin, went to Montreal’s Loyola high school, which in my experience had produced nothing but all-stars].
Given my nature & nurture, I’m always trigger-shy to devote any resources to things that may even be seen as personal passion projects, but in light of the spirit of the internship, I first asked him to finally set up this Context Is King blog (why not a Substack, you ask?), figuring it would be a good primer on the industry and company (both history and mechanics) before he tried to don the intrapreneur hat and build the podcasting unit from within.
While naturally a contrarian move, I also told him to shelve the more natural entertainment & pop culture podcast to avoid it dying before it takes off. Given his background in sports, it was natural for him to focus on that. I told him to build a system with sports – a terrain he was more comfortable with – and we could then expand elsewhere.
Incidentally, the sports leagues never really objected to our sports lists (wrt copyright) despite their business models being all based on selling rights to matches; whereas the record labels who stood to benefit most from editorial like ours ended up squeezing YouTube and Spotify to maximize their pound of flesh (to quote a former record label executive). This is why Amazon bought Wondery.
Matrices, Bingo, and other Unconventional Means of War
As we’re effectively playing “Strategy Bingo” in trying to solve for and find “platform/format” fit, then
- with sports/music being categories we wanted to re-engage in, and
- Spotify being a platform we wanted to be present on,
Then I felt like killing two birds with one stone made most sense. So in sports, having Frank produce and co-host a sports show with Julian McKenzie, a young talented and promising voice who’s done a lot with us over the years, made a ton of sense. Having both gone to the same alma mater, Julian recently interviewed me on career paths in media here (you may appreciate the Eminem and Kid Rock anecdote and the many sports analogies).
Without Further Ado
Admittedly, when we produced our first game show The Lineup, we may have overthought the local talent angle and settled on a hockey execution. In hindsight, I think we could have executed the format in pop culture just fine… and so when we did our second game show What the List?, we aimed for the bull’s eye and focused on pop culture. I believe that Game Show Mojo will over time create many hits and has already enabled us to further push into new formats.
The sheer amount of disruption happening in sports and our massive global reach of 150 million viewers in 150 countries is an argument as to why we should not walk away from sports. But, when I see driven young talent who want to roll up their sleeves and pursue their passion, then I am inclined to support them with all my might. It’s always about the people.
The Show Must Go On
I don’t have any imminent plans to appear on the Water Boys, though I am sure, one day, I may go on. But I do plan on appearing as a guest on the first episode of the second podcast series we plan to produce in music, called Inner Sleeve, to answer, amongst other questions,
- Why we decided to pay tribute to Eddie Van Halen (video to be published on Dec 20th) the way we did,
- The story behind those early hard rock and guitarist-based lists featuring Eddie,
- The drive and ambition that is similar between creatives like Eddie and entrepreneurs,
- why we have reduced our music editorial despite our pioneering role on YouTube, where we fought to ensure that YouTube would reflect the DMCA, and not tilt things too much in labels’ favor, enabling them and other rights holders to unlawfully earn billions.
If you are wondering why music, as well?
After a call to arms in April 2019 to outline the vision behind SoundMojo, we launched last year and slowly but surely have built a community with multiple moving parts coming together, culminating with a concert, to boot!
As a very ambitious person, I would be lying if I said SoundMojo was where I was hoping it would be after a year; but I assure you WatchMojo wasn’t anywhere years into its existence. As SoundMojo continues its own journey to find its platform/format fit, and mainly, its own voice, it seems like a natural to pool some of SoundMojo’s efforts into our podcast initiative and launch parallel series in Music and Sports – unrestrained from our core editorial and not held back by Innovator’s Dilemma – before being ready to launch something similar to serve our main audience, who are super fans of movies, TV shows, gaming and pop culture.
Hundreds of years ago, entrepreneurial types would build armies and go conquer foreign lands, which, incidentally, was the theme of my fourth book. These days, they assemble designers, engineers, sales people and build companies. You don’t send your troops into combat without a clear plan, let alone no raison d’etre. The “podcasts” hype will subside, but as it’s a natural extension and cycle of our storytelling journey, if you want to join the movement, be like Frank.