Over the course of the last decade, podcasting has evolved from an interesting curiosity to a bona fide industry. What was once the preserve of amateur enthusiasts is now littered with sponsor-backed celebrities and big business professionals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the wrestling podcast scene. It started as an arena for “smart” fans to vent their frustrations and forward thinking wrestlers such as Colt Cabana to harness a new platform. Now, the scene has developed into a battlefield fought over by industry veterans and the biggest names in the business.
The appeal of podcasting is clear. It’s a relatively simple and cost effective way to make your voice heard. With so many competing voices though, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. One podcast that has achieved just this is How2Wrestling, created by Joanna Graham and Kefin Mahon. The premise is simple: each episode concentrates on one wrestler or theme and explores their appeal through the eyes of somebody with no prior knowledge.
The podcast has become so successful that Joanna has been able to turn podcasting from a hobby into a career. Through hard work and dedication, Jo has shown that there is still room for upward mobility in a quickly saturating market. The perceived ease of starting a podcast makes it a tempting prospect for many, but Jo knows only too well the research required to make her voice heard.
“A lot of people assume I got into podcasting via How2Wrestling, which makes perfect sense because that’s the one I’m known for. But I actually had been producing podcasts for about a year prior. I used to work at a publishing company and while there I produced a couple of podcasts for their magazine titles. Podcasting was a new venture for the company (and publishing in general) at the time, which meant we got to experiment a lot with formats, release schedule, and editing. A lot of effort went into measuring what worked and what didn’t, including using other podcasts as case studies, which is how I ended up initially working with Kefin. I found out he had a wrestling podcast, which had a fascinatingly similar (mostly male) audience, so I used his podcast as one of our case studies.”
From there, a professional relationship quickly developed. “About six months later, Kefin invited me to work on the launch of Cinema Swirl doing editing and marketing for the show, which to this day is still the most fun I’ve had working on a podcast. Creating a faux rivalry with Mark Kermode was super fun to orchestrate, and they actually ended up beating his real podcast on the iTunes charts, which was pretty funny.”
With Jo’s background in podcast production and the duo’s clear chemistry, the next inevitable step was to create their own podcast series. How2Wrestling was borne out of Kefin’s love of wrestling but it was Jo’s lack of knowledge of the subject that makes the podcast instantly unique. The project quickly garnered a following, but at what point did it become more than a hobby and develop into a potential career?
“We were a few months after the launch of How2Wrestling that the thought first registered as a possibility. We were really fortunate to get a good following on Patreon early on, so I could, in theory, have gone full-time back in 2015. I ended up learning a huge amount from the various jobs I’ve had since then that are pretty useful as a full-time podcaster. For example, working in social media in the finance industry gives you incredibly thick skin when it comes to online abuse or death threats! Both of which are invaluable when you’re a woman talking about wrestling online.”
It’s this female perspective on a male dominated industry that has proven both the podcast’s biggest selling point and its most polarising component. Wrestling media has been the preserve of white males for so long now that it’s proven difficult for some to accept her differing points of view.
“When we first started the podcast I got quite a lot of negativity, some of it worse than others. People didn’t like that I criticised things that had historically been celebrated by many male wrestling podcasters. When we started the show, the majority of wrestling podcasts were along the lines of ‘cool wrestling, but if a woman’s on screen we have to talk about her tits or else we’ve not done our job’. So I think listeners of those sorts of shows felt defensive that I was calling it out.
“At first, it really got to me! There was a short time when I genuinely did wonder if I was cut out for podcasting about such a sensitive subject, and it’s exhausting too, having to talk about misogyny in wrestling when it’s just so deep and so endless. And I had a think about it and I figured, well, I could either quit, which I didn’t want to do (never give your enemies content), or I could stop addressing it when these subjects came up, which would protect my mental health at least. I definitely didn’t want to do that, though, because even if I don’t have faith in myself, I have faith in the niche. There will always be your people, somewhere, but if you want to find them you have to be consistently your people too. So I figured, fine, it might be lonely, or this might help me find my people. And sure enough, those who agreed with what I had to say passed the show onto their friends with similar sensibilities, who passed it onto their friends. I’ve found my people!”
Jo’s “people” come from a more diverse group than the average wrestling podcast. How2Wrestling has cultivated a community that encompasses fans from all walks of life. How has this been achieved and how can the formula be applied to other podcasts?
“So I think there are several things we can do to keep voices in podcasting as diverse as possible and one would be this; if you are starting a podcast, don’t be tunnel-visioned. Don’t just look at your close-knit circle of friends – look beyond it. Think about how your podcast will sound to a complete stranger. Can they tell your voices apart? Not only that, but is the difference kind on their ears?
“Diversity is important not just because of the importance of diversity itself, but because it improves quality, always. If you have two hosts that look and sound the same, the chances are your audience will look and sound like you too, and that’s going to stunt your show and your growth as a podcaster. If you deliberately make an effort to know what sounds good, what chimes with your audience, and what people want to listen to and learn about, that’s the best thing you can do for quality and diversity.
“I think one thing we’re seeing a lot more of, and I would like to see this continue, is more women, more people of colour, more people with disabilities, more non-straight, more non-cisgender people, taking the leap into podcasting themselves. Don’t wait to be invited, start one yourself. These are the voices we haven’t heard yet, and they’re so fresh and so interesting compared to everything we’ve been fed up until now. I want more disabled wrestling podcasters telling me about how accessible WWE is or isn’t, or how the subject of race is handled when it’s used to fuel heat, or a bisexual person’s review of a dated wrestling show targeted to the heterosexual male gaze. And further to that, I want to hear these voices talk about how much they hate Roman Reigns, and how John Cena is old news, and how wrestling is an art-form. We shouldn’t be kept to the role of talking only about the issues that affect us personally, we need to get our voices out, generally – about anything and everything.”
Jo’s enthusiasm for diversity is certainly something that has been reflected by the wrestling industry in the last few years but it’s still far from perfect. Wrestling is historically known to lag behind cultural sensitivities, but in the fast moving, modern world, more needs to be done to keep pace. Jo has ideas on how this can be achieved.
“I think most of the problem needs to be handled like any other industry with a deep-rooted diversity problem – you have to hire more diverse staff throughout, you need to look at your company’s culture, and you need vocal enthusiastic support from those in power at every level of the company.
And there are some problems that are a lot harder to solve – wrestling journalism, for example, is hugely male-dominated, and even then, due to the nature of the industry, it’s incredibly hard to penetrate as an outsider – you just don’t get given access to certain information unless you’re part of a very small trusted circle. Dave Meltzer, arguably the most prominent voice in wrestling journalism, has a vice-like grip on a lot of insider news due to his connections, and this gives him huge power in the wrestling industry as a whole. Yet when you see the way he handles his role as a top wrestling journalist, he often struggles with real-life cases involving domestic abuse or rape. Just look at his handling of the Michael Elgin situation. It’s sad, but wrestling journalism is in no way kept to the same standards as in other industries, and in some ways, that’s one of the biggest failings of the wrestling industry as a whole.”
These are all big themes that paint a very bleak picture of the wrestling industry that I think a lot of long time fans, myself included, have difficulty addressing. Perhaps through a misguided sense of loyalty or maybe for fear of how these issues reflect back onto us. Jo is keen to point out though that her journey into wrestling has provided as many positives as negatives.
“I didn’t realise how beautiful it was! Discovering what you like in wrestling is like discovering video games don’t have to be about shooting people, they can be about absolutely anything. Wrestling is an art form, it’s theatre and it’s dance and it’s sport. It lives so close to reality, and yet just a hairline from it. Our recent episode #How2VinceMcMahon explored this, as the owner of WWE created this character that’s actually based on a lot of his real self, but the lines between how much of that is him, and how much is his character, is often deliberately blurred. This mirrors wrestling itself – how much of it is truth? How much is just narrative, or kayfabe?”
There’s still so much for How2Wrestling to cover and Jo is just as excited for the future of the podcast as she is proud of what it has achieved so far.
“I would like to cover a lot more female wrestlers first and foremost. A lot of female talent has been forgotten because women weren’t considered “real wrestlers” for so many years in wrestling. I would love to learn more about Kofi Kingston who is just so good it’s ridiculous. I’m also really excited to finally learn about some of the bigger names too, like The Rock.
#How2Commentary is the episode I’m most proud of. In it, we watched a wrestling match without video, only relying on the commentary, to see how accessible it is to someone with a visual impairment. The answer: it isn’t, at all. As with diversity, making something more accessible increases the quality for everyone. Want to watch a wrestling match in the other room while you focus on cooking in the kitchen? You’ll suddenly be very well aware of how ineffective a lot of commentary can be.”
While the podcast is its own reward, being a full-time podcaster certainly has some extra perks.
“Daylight! For the last year and a half I’ve worked in an office with no windows, and weekends have been spent in dark rooms recording podcasts. Now I can choose my own hours, which means I get to go outside during the daytime! Woah! That might be the millennial dream, I think. Getting to do what you love in the daytime.”