Over the past five years, Conrad Thompson has gone from the wrestling fan that sells mortgages to the king of wrestling podcasts, who also happens to sell mortgages. After a short-lived podcast with his father-in-law, the legendary Ric Flair, opened his eyes to the potential of podcasting and how it could even help his own business, he launched Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard in 2016. That was not only the birth of a new podcast format that zeroed in on nostalgic wrestling topics like The Radicalz and WrestleMania VII, with the addition of a voice from the inside (Prichard) discussing the topics at hand, but it was also the start of what would ultimately become a podcasting empire run by the ‘Podfather' himself, Thompson.
Thompson now has five more weekly podcasts, alongside his one with Prichard, and this includes 83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff, What Happened When with Tony Schiavone, Grilling JR with Jim Ross, The Arn Show with Arn Anderson, and the most recent addition, The Kurt Angle Show. If this wasn't enough, Thompson and co. have created a brand new ground-breaking Patreon called Ad Free Shows. Here, fans not only receive the podcasts early, and as the title states, ad-free, but depending on their package, they also get access to “experiences,” such as talking to the famous podcast host's over Zoom, in addition to a host of other bonus content. It's not only providing fans with incredible value for money, but it's also helped further the success of Thompson's podcasting empire.
As Conrad Thompson and Ad Free Shows continue to grow, even amidst the crazy times we are all living in, Thompson kindly took time out of his hectic schedule to speak with SteelChair Magazine last week. In part 1 of our conversation with the ‘Podfather', we discuss his start in podcasting with Ric Flair, moving wrestling podcasts away from the “stale” guest-driven format with Something To Wrestle with, the birth of Ad Free Shows, and much more. And no, this is not a rib. Enjoy!
I have to start by asking you about this new sensation that's taken the social media world by storm, and that's Michael Chandler's Ric Flair's inspired promo at UFC 257. How does it feel to see Flair's name, or brand, if you will, thriving in 2021?
“No, I'm happy for him. Anytime you can brush up against the mainstream, it's a big deal to sort of grow your brand, and he's had a real resurgence. Not just in the wrestling space or in the sports space, but in hip hop. So now to sort of be in all three, where there's a “Ric Flair Drip,” and oh, by the way, he's on the pay-per-views and TV again. A few years ago, they had the big Flair up in the NFL where they were doing the speeches in the locker rooms, and now in the MMA world, that's pretty cool, especially when you have a guy who came in with a ton of swag. Everybody knew his reputation, but it was a question of, Bellator was one thing, how's he going to fair here, and to win in such spectacular fashion and immediately have that association. Now, we're seeing online, where Chandler's hoping, maybe we'll have Ric Flair walk him out for his next fight, that's awesome. So I'm sure Ric's excited, and I'm sure Michael Chandler's excited because it's going to raise his profile to the mainstream too.”
Did you hear, Ariel Helwani from ESPN has been encouraging Chandler to go full-on with Ric Flair with the robe and everything?
“Well, Mr. Chandler, hit me up. I have a robe that you can use.”
I think it's appropriate we start with a Ric Flair question because that's where you started your journey in podcasting. I think even as a fan listening to that podcast with Flair, you guys were trying to find your footing, and you had some high profile guests like Dana White. But back then, did you envision creating this sort of podcasting empire, or were you happy doing that gig as a fan?
“Well, it was supposed to be a one-off, where I came in and asked fan questions for the first episode, just so Ric could get comfortable. At the end of the day, he was happy, and CBS was happy, so they asked me back, and I became an accidental podcaster. But that wasn't the plan, ever. But once I realised, “Hey, wait a minute, this is a national platform, and I could sell mortgages to these folks,” it became like, what if? Then, through doing those interviews with Ric, I met every major wrestling personality there was. We had Tony Schiavone, Bruce Prichard, and Eric Bischoff on, and I think we even had Kurt Angle. It became a real opportunity for me to meet some of these folks and have conversations with them, and then eventually, I got to do some work with Bruce.
“Just spending time with Bruce, it comes out of him, he's a natural storyteller, and I was like, “Dude, this is a podcast.” So as much fun as I had podcasting with Ric, that was really me just cutting my teeth and sort of paint my numbers based on what the industry standard was, and I sort of blew all of that up with an idea for Something To Wrestle. When that worked, we were like we're not deviating, let's just do more of that.”
And it was through the Ric Flair podcast that you met Bruce?
“Yeah, that's where I met Eric Bischoff, Tony Schiavone, Bruce Prichard – all those guys. I would have never known how to get in touch with any of those folks if it weren't for Ric.”
You really changed the game with the Something To Wrestle with podcast, and it came at a time when podcasts, specifically wrestling podcasts, had become a little stagnant. You changed it, so the content was the king. It was no longer, this is Jericho's podcast or Austin's podcast, it was, this is about King of the Ring 1999 or The Rock in 2002, and the bonus is Bruce Prichard's talking about it. How important was that shift?
“It was the biggest part. I think the two biggest things that we did were we decided to move away from the guest-driven format because it is a real challenge, as you know, to get fifty-two guests a year. And I was living and dying by downloads because that was the way everybody in the advertising world judges you, is how many downloads you get, and you name-dropped Dana White earlier. I thought, “Oh, man, we got Dana White” or “Holy cow, we got Lawrence Taylor.” These were major, major names. We got Michael Bisping right before he was headlining a UFC PPV. So it just felt like these were major names, but Brian Knobbs and Greg ‘The Hammer' Valentine beat them on downloads, and I couldn't wrap my head around why that was. But then it clicked, “Hey, this is just a guest-driven deal. This is a broken system.”
“So if you had a guy that had a new movie coming out, a new book coming out, or there was a PPV that weekend, those guys would make the rounds, and they'd be on everybody's podcast over the course of a month. So on some level, as a fan, and I love Al Snow, and his book is tremendous, but when he was promoting his book, he was on everybody's podcast. So when I'm trying to find something to listen to, it's like, I just heard all of this two weeks ago on a different podcast, so I'll listen to something different.
“So I started to think about, well, I hate the word, but evergreen content, and in a weird way, we're right on the heels of a Royal Rumble as you and I speak. People only want to hear about that Royal Rumble for maybe four or five more days, and then we're done with it. But if I said, “Hey, let's talk about the Royal Rumble 1991,” well, that's different. That never gets old. So when I really understood it, and I thought, let's focus more on nostalgia and less on guests and move away from current-day stuff, I thought it would work, and it did. So when it did, I didn't deviate, and now that's what I do on six or seven podcasts now.”
You talk about the format becoming stale. You, I think, put yourself as a fan first, and when you're talking on your podcasts, you see it from our side, so to speak…
“I am our side.”
Yeah, exactly. So you were seeing that in relation to all the other podcasts that were around. I mean, I love Chris Jericho's podcast, but even I was in and out of listening to it because sometimes it was interesting, and sometimes it was the same old interview. So did you feel that as a fan that these podcasts are not as interesting?
“Well, I'm not going to say not as interesting…”
Sorry, that's probably the wrong word.
“The format was stale, but at the same time, and this is a big deal, I do think that the relationship between Bruce and I, the relationship between Tony and I – you know – I listen to Howard Stern every day. Even if it's a rerun or he's got an interview with someone I don't really care about, I'm still listening. Not because I care about the guest, but because I like listening to Howard, and I like his banter with the guys. So my favourite parts of Howard's show, he does great interviews, by the way, probably one of the better interviewers around, but I like when he's busting Gary's balls. I like when he's trying to pick a fight with “Benjy!” All of that stuff is fun for me.
“We've developed a rapport now with the audience because they understand our personalities, and they're ready for him [Bruce Prichard] to cut me off with his Jim Cornette impression, and they're ready for me to ask him “was this is a rib?” They're ready for me to yell at Eric or make fun of the way Tony dresses, so it's just become a thing where they feel like they're a part of it, and I've always really equated podcasting to, it's almost like, we're hearing a conversation at the bar. And you're at the bar, and you want to participate, and social media allows us to chime in on that conversation at the bar. But the best podcasts to me look and feel like you're listening to two of your friends talk, and that's what we've tried to create, and I think we've got that with a lot of our shows.”
Yeah, absolutely because sometimes it's just as fun to listen to you talk about KFC with Arn as it is anything wrestling-related (laughs). Also, what drew me to your various podcasts is the fact you guys talk about these topics that are not covered much, for example, Scott Steiner in WCW on 83 Weeks. That's arguably a name and subject that's slipped by the wayside, but it's sometimes the most interesting podcast.
“Yeah, and I think one of the more misunderstood things about our podcasts from the outside is, if we say we're talking about No Way Out 1998, we're not just going to cover that PPV. We're going to cover Shawn's [Michaels] injury from the Royal Rumble and what the doctors are saying, and will he be able to make it, will he not? And when you knew things were rocky with Tyson, from a relationship. So all of that stuff – it doesn't really have to do with that show, but it provides context to what's going on at the company at that moment. I think that those sidebars; they're some of the best parts of the shows a lot of times.”
No, I agree. Do you also look at posts on social media and identify topics that, perhaps as more of a die-hard, you think need to be discussed in more detail? You guys did a show on Yokozuna, and that was a year or two before the documentary that just aired on the WWE Network.
“Yeah. One of my strategies is to look for anniversaries because I know that people will be talking about it online, and while they're talking about it online, say, “Oh, yeah, I just listened to this,” on the so and so podcast. And that's good for us to just sort of have grassroots growth. But as far as the sidebar stuff goes, to use that same example, No Way Out 1998, I'm gonna look at like six [Wrestling] Observer's and six [Pro Wrestling] Torch's from that time, and if it's a profile piece, you're going to look for their shoot interviews. You're going to look for if they've written a book and all of that type of stuff, in addition to whatever was in the newsletters.
“The format of our shows is sort of, here's what we fans have been told and what we've heard for all of these years, now here's what really happened. Then we as listeners because I consider myself the first listener. We get to decide, do we believe that or this, or is the truth probably somewhere in the middle? And I don't often beat everybody over the head with it. I leave it open-ended, so the guys can save face because there is a lot of stuff that they'll say that I just disagree with.
“I love Eric Bischoff to death, but when he says, “Oh, I didn't offer Bret a contract in '96,” it's like, “Yes, you did.” You just forgot, and by the way, you're allowed to forget something that happened twenty-five years ago. I'm not mad that he forgot. I don't think he's lying, and I know he's not intentionally lying. But dude, I don't remember a lot of stuff from twenty-five years ago, so I get it. But when it's in his book, it's in his shoot interviews, and it's in all the newsletters, and everyone was talking about it at the time, and Eric says, “No, didn't happen.” Eric's just misremembering, and I'm going to let him say that, and I'm going to continue to say what everybody else said, and he can refute it, but in the end, it's up to the listener to decide, is Eric mistaken or is Eric the only voice of reason? But I think leaving it open-ended like that and letting you decide is what makes our podcast special. You present both sides.
“A lot of times, a lot of the other news and information sites, they'll present something very black and white, very matter of fact. Here's what happened. Without anyone, as Bruce likes to say, “They weren't even there, I was there.” But also, some of the stuff that shows up in the newsletters would have been something that was through a filter of, “Hey, I'm trying to play politics, or I'm trying to look out for myself.” There is an angle to that news story a lot of times, and it's fun to discuss that or poke holes in it. We've had a lot of fun with the format.”
You touched on something there, where you kind of grill or push back against Bruce, Eric, etc. and their answers, and that's something I love about the shows. You have that relationship, where you can call them out on what sounds like B.S, but on a normal guest format show, there's a lot of…
Yeah. They don't necessarily believe the answer, but they'll just scoot along, where you don't do that. As a fan, it's great because none of us believe some of the answers, and you're showing that as well.
“I'm trying to be the voice of the fan, and I ruin my credibility if I don't challenge it. If I don't push, fans will think, “Oh, well, he's Eric's boy now.” So I've got to be on equal footing with the show. So I drive the show. Normally when there is sort of a celebrity, and a fan, the fan, and I did this with Flair's show, I'm just there to tee him up. Flair was saying all kinds of nonsense that I didn't think was exactly true, but that wasn't the format of the show, the format of the show is, let Ric be Ric for an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes. Then click stop, and we're done. Throw some commercials in there, and we're out of here.
“However, when we're having almost a debate format, a point-counterpoint, almost like the old CNN Crossfire show – the only way that happens is if you've got two opposing views. By the way, they do this on sports talk radio, political talk radio. It's a proven format, and the guys also know, when we're hooting and hollering at each other, we're making money together.”
That's ESPN's First Take, isn't it? Stephen A. Smith is just going back and forth with someone.
“It is, and they get paid handsomely to do so. But they also believe what they're saying, and every now and then, you turn the volume up. So we'll hoot and holler, and we'll carry on as we like to say here in the south, but everybody's making money and having fun, so we'll keep doing it.”
We've spoken about the fan element, and that kind of leads us on to Ad Free Shows, which is one of the most incredible platforms I've ever seen for fans as far as the interactive experience you provide them. Again, was that driven purely from looking at the fan perspective. What are they not getting elsewhere?
“Yeah, absolutely. I tried to do that with Starrcast, and I'm trying to do that now with Ad Free Shows. If I were a customer, what would I want to see? What would I enjoy? What would I pay for? What would I find value in? So whenever we get an idea like that, I'll say, “What if?” and we run it past the group chat, and if they like it, we'll run it past everybody on Ad Free Shows, the top guys, and if they like it, we're going to do it. Even as I'm talking to you, we just had a really great idea in the last twenty-four hours, and I immediately took action. That's really been the key to my success, is I don't have an idea and just kick it around and perfect it and get into what I like to call analysis paralysis. The only way to get better at anything is to just do it and just try.
“You look at the first iteration of anything I've done, and you look at where whatever it is now, and it's a lot different. I'm not going to say it has been perfected, but it has certainly been improved. But there is no way for us to know what we can do better until we do something. So we're taking action with ideas and trying stuff, and even now, and I appreciate you saying nice things about Ad Free Shows, but there is stuff on there that I thought was a good idea on paper, and now that I have actually seen it, I don't like it. So I'm not going to keep it around. I'm going to find another thing to do with the talent involved, because I obviously see value in them, but a lot of this is just finding the right seat on the bus.
“You know, Eric Bischoff had a podcast before I met him, and so did Bruce Prichard, and neither one of those podcasts were as successful as they would have liked. And I'm not taking the credit for that. I'm just saying, I'm daring enough, bold enough, if that's the right word, to say, “Let's just try something different.” And eventually, if we try enough things, we will hit it. If we don't give up, we'll win. We had some failed Patreons before, where Something To Wrestle With started out awesome, and it was doing really, really well, but then as Bruce went back, he had less time, and I realised this is not working as well. It's sort of the same thing with Eric in 83 Weeks.
“So then I thought what if we just combined them all and gave everyone access to commercial-free on the cheap, and you know, we'll continue to add bonus content for more. Then we'll add real interactive stuff for the top two levels, and that has worked. There is a fan out there, who just wants to consume our content and doesn't want to listen to BlueChew commercials, and god bless them, I get that.”
You do a great job with those commercials, by the way (laughs).
“Thank you, I appreciate that. But there is another fan out there, who, yeah, they like the podcasts, but what they really want is an experience. So while it might be cool to have a picture with Elvis or an autographed Elvis picture or album, what's even cooler is, eating dinner with Elvis. That's an experience. So one day, when you're hanging out, and somebody says this is my favourite Elvis album or I met him, or I have an autographed album, and you say, “Oh, I had dinner with him.” That's like the ultimate, “What!” The interactive piece of Ad Free Shows is what we're, well, the original idea didn't involve COVID, of course, and we would have already had our first big get together. You would have had all of our hosts hanging out here in Huntsville, and I could have shown off some of my ring used belt collections and things like that that people are curious about. But they would have had real opportunities to eat barbecue with Jim Ross, watch old matches with Arn Anderson, and cut a promo with Tony Schiavone. That's cool stuff that you can't just do.
“So I wanted to provide experiences that you cannot just stand in line for. You know, if you go meet Arn Anderson at a meet and greet, he's going to be fantastic. He's going to look you in the eye. He's going to ask you how you are and ask you to spell your name, and he is going to talk to your kid and sign all of your stuff, and use the marker that you want. But then you're off to the next one. But if you really got to have a conversation and pick his brain about wrestling over the course of two days, dude, that's another level. So that's what we're looking for with Ad Free Shows.”
Stay tuned for part 2 of our exclusive interview with Conrad Thompson, which drops tomorrow!
To stay up to date with Conrad, his various podcasts, and Ad Free Shows, you can follow the following social media channels: @HeyHeyItsConrad, @adfreeshows, @PrichardShow, @83Weeks, @JrGrilling, @TheArnShow, @WHWMonday, @TheAnglePod.
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