Transcript: Couch Talk 37 with Daniel Norcross

Couch Talk Episode 37 (play)

Guest: Daniel Norcross, Founder of “Test Match Sofa

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Subash Jayaraman Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the founder of Test Match Sofa, Mr Daniel Norcross. Welcome to the show for the 2nd time, Daniel.

Daniel Norcross – Subash, it’s a delight to be here. I never tire of talking to you.

SJ – Me neither. How are things with you?

DN– Things are good! We’re ramping up to the tiny-ly pointless 2-match series against Sri Lanka. I’m a little bit of grieved that it is not a 3-match series, but, then again, they start at 5:15 in the morning for me. So, I should probably be more careful with what I wish for!

SJ– The last time I met you was in July-August of 2011, and you were talking about raising sufficient funds for Sofa, so that it continues to function in a self-sustainable way. You wanted a “professional outfit.”  A few months down the line, and now you have had this tie-in with The Cricketer Magazine. How did things progress from July to where you are now?

DN – One of those things! We talked about this once, ourselves, off the record, that when you are doing ventures similar to the ones we are both doing, the key to sustainability is just staying alive a lot of the time. So, our focus was on staying, and keeping on going. The actual business model was always very precarious, for us to create enough money to keep going, we needed our listeners to pay for us to do that. And, whilst I think the internet is going to move in that direction over the next 3 or 4 years, with people paying for unique content, I don’t think at the moment the people out there are quite ready for that. they’re taking stuff for free, and who can blame them? So, what we did was, stay alive, thanks to the incredible generosity of some of our listeners, 10-15 % of them were dipping into their pockets and keeping us going. And that, I guess, kept people going and kept people aware of what we were doing. I guess we wouldn’t have been going to debt, but in the cricket world, there aren’t very many players. The players are either very enormous, like ESPN or BBC or SKY, or there are kind of fair bit smaller. The Cricketer, a marvellous venerable organization, one that I’m very, very happy to be working with, isn’t of the same magnitude of SKY or ESPN. But, there isn’t anybody in the middle, like there are in some of the other industrues.

In November, by the end of the season, the English summer season, and we were doing another couple of series, we were approached by a couple of different organizations. The Cricketer approached us in January. I suddenly started to see that the way to keep this going was through that kind of close support form an interested cricket-knowing stakeholder. Because, ultimately, if you are not getting paid by the listeners for the content any more through advertising and sponsorship – every website is aware of the business conundrum – you cannot support yourself. You cannot go 150 days of commentary a year without getting paid. You got to pay mortgage. You got to have a job. And, especially something like Test Match Sofa, you can do with 6 people. But, either it has to be the same set of 6 people every day, in which case the problem is to pay the 6 people. Or, you got to have a new group of people, which is the model that we have gone for. But, within that, in order to maintain the consistency of voice, we want to have a certain key commentators. I was on the lookout for an investor. I had one, and then another came along – The Cicketer. I had to look at the two offers on the table, and The Cricketer’s offer was better in many, respects. They were deadly serious about the future of the Sofa, and that’s what I needed – I needed a commitment, because when you reach this point in the business, you can’t go with someone who is taking a punt. You have to be able to see their eyes, their business strategies, if they have a plan… They do have a plan. I’m excited, delighted.

SJ– The benefit for the Sofa, in plain terms, is quite obvious. But, what does The Cricketer stand to gain by buying you out?

DN– I won’t be giving too much away in saying that magazine publishing takes a lot of challenges nowadays. And those challenges come from the internet from a variety of different ways in which the information is packaged. People are starting to want more than an article written in had copy. Magazines struggle in the sense of having dynamic news. If you produce a monthly, for four weeks you have a website which you can update. But, your magazine in itself is not updating, you got to wait till next edition in 4 weeks’ time. They’re beefing up their internet presence and putting more content on it, and they need content that differentiates it form the other cricket websites’ content. I like to think that Test Match Sofa certainly does that, it differentiates us from other websites. Whether you like it or not, is another matter, and in that sense, it is a gamble The Cricketer are taking, and it is a gamble on the popularity of the Test Match Sofa. It’s not just the ball-by-ball commentary that we are producing, but also, we have been doing podcast, more of which will be announced over the course of the year. That helps massively to drive users to The Cricketer and to bolster their brand and I don’t want to speak for The Cricket, but they are a 90 year old magazine which has been producing a type of content for a long while and I think they are aware that cricket’s audience has always been getting younger, every audience is getting younger for obvious reasons. And, for the young people today magazines aren’t necessarily the first pot of gold for information, because there are other dynamic media content. They are getting it on their iPhone, the web. To be able to create more of that content is crucial for The Cricketer, for any magazine or for any hard copy publication. It’s a fairly obvious synergy between us and The Cricketer

SJ– There are obvious questions and concerns from listeners of the Sofa. How do you expect the content and the tone and the style of the Sofa to change or be more refined? Do you anticipate it at all? And, if you do, in what sense will that be?

DN– I do expect it to change, to change for the better. I expect it to change because, it’s no secret all of our listeners would’ve known that, they live the production of the Sofa with us while we are doing it. But, without the certainty of where we are going to be, with the personnel you have on, it’s not like you are going to change the personnel, but you want to regularise the personnel, regularise the voice, and be sure that you can produce it more regularly. In the two and a half years that we have done the Sofa, it is undeniable that there have been days that we have been good and that there have been days that we have not been good. And part of that is a function of being a part of a voluntary organization. If it is a voluntary organization, with the best in the world, then people would prioritize the walking of their dog, picking up their child from school or any number of other things that could get in the way of life, which makes the organization of a live radio program pretty difficult. You don’t see Agges having to deal with that, you don’t see anybody who is making good, consistent radio programming having any difficulty in doing that. first and foremost, the most important aspect of this move for us- is that we have a certainty of our location. We know where we are going to be. We have the technical infrastructure to be able to create a consistent noise. The challenge for internet radio stations doing live content is to ensure that nobody can not get hold of you.  Obviously, there are people who don’t have a smart phone, but you have to cover every single base. You want to maximise the number of people in the universe who can hear you, from a technical viewpoint and ensuring that I’ve got the people I want to hear my program. And, to do it, I got to have a lot more certainty that I can achieve that. now, implicit in your question, and that’s entirely on the standpoint of many of our listeners, issues on the tone of the program. Are we going to become a sort of pale imitation of other audio ball-by-ball commentaries that exist down there? Many are saying that we have to be more professional, and in being professional means taking the edge off the commentary you are doing.

I understand the concern, but the people who raise that concern don’t understand why The Cricketer has bought Test Match Sofa. What they are after is that differentiates the content. It’s got to be different. They’ve gone for it because of the tone we adopt. It could well be the case that when we could reach a larger audience, we would try to be more disciplined with the expletives that we use. But, I think that is for the better. The number of times I’ve heard “I really like Test Match Sofa but I’ve got two kids and I can’t put it on in my house because of someone of deafening and blinding…” The amount of swearing will be going down anyway when we are bought by The Cricketer. But, generally speaking, you don’t want to alienate the listeners who you know really enjoy the tone. The tone of the program is not determined by the suddenly exploded expletives,. It doesn’t make the program funny. What you do need to do, is ensure that there is a degree  of jeopardy, that it may slip out in a way that you can’t do on the BBC. If that was said on the BBC, the BBC would be shut down. Well, that won’t happen at the Test Match Sofa, the people will occasionally become passionate that they won’t be resisting the temptation of blurting out an expletive. They won’t be sacked, because we are not taking taxpayers’ money to run the program. We are not run by a licensee. We don’t have those pressures on us. But, it is for the betterment of the program that we try to appeal to as many people as possible. And I want eleven-twelve-thirteen thousand people listening to us. I passionately believe that there is a place for entertainment within commentary. I firmly believe there is a very firm place for straight cricket commentary as well. What they are trying to achieve is something different from us, and I want the people to be aware that you can tune into commentary that gives you all the elements you need, but at the same time, doing it in an entertaining way. Entertainment is your focus. And, engaging your listeners is your focus. Engaging them enough so that they become a part of the program. And, that’s not going to go away. That’s the essential part of the program. The jingles are not going to go away. We might just not use the ones in which someone’s shouting “F-off”, though. That jingle will probably go, and some people will be disappointed with that gone. But, they’ve got to take that sacrifice in order to reach out to a larger audience. We want to reach out to the younger generation who love cricket, and who want to hear cricket being produced in a different way.

SJ– You mentioned within quotes, “professional”. What happens to your current cast of amateurs who have been coming in and going out. Is there still space for those? Or are you going to be bringing in paid professionals?

DN– The answer is yes, and yes! What I’ve been given is a budget to be able to secure the program and as i said earlier, the regularity of the voice of the program, the consistency of it, the professionalism of the voice. So, when you tune in to Test Match Sofa, you know that you are going to get a good program everyday. At the same time, I have a limited budget. If you think that we are doing a 150 days broadcasting, and I’d have 8 people on the show everyday, so that’s 1200 man-days. If I was paying everybody a proper rate, say, 100 pounds a day, that would be a budget of 150000 pounds just on personnel alone! Well, we are not giving too many business secrets away, but my budget is nothing like that. I’m still going to rely on amateurs and volunteers , they are an essential part of the program. That’s not going to go away. What it does give me an opportunity to do is, to pay the people who have other work. So, I can say, “Look, I am giving you money to do this. So, will you do that and help me, what do you have to say for that?” Obviously, if they have been listening to the Sofa and watch, they would go and do that other job that day! Who wouldn’t? But, they have been doing that for nothing for the past 2 years. They are going to now do it for a bit of money. Secondly, there are people out there, like (Iain)  O’Brien… Iain needs to get paid. I can’t ask him to come down to London if I’m not giving him some money. So, I need to have bit of budget for that. I need to have some guests on my program of high profile maybe. Or, they could be ex-cricketers. This isn’t the next cricketers’ show, but with 150 days of broadcasting, you occasionally want ex-cricketers on it, you want a bit of the inside. And you similarly want comedians who have agents, who won’t let them on the program and thus you’re tossing them 150 pounds or something. And, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s the sort of things that makes our show zing! If our listeners are on it, they loved it when Mark Steves was on. They love Andy Zaltsman. They love it when these guys who have given up their time for nothing come on. To answer your question, yes, the team will remain very similar, if not, identical to what it is now, with the likelihood that more fringe commentators are likely to be on air just likely less of them. I want ot keep more of my more regular commentators on, more regularly, not just as a function of man-hours and time. But the point of Test Match Sofa is the voice of the amateur, the voice of the fan, and if you took them out of it and turn it into a serious professional outfit doing no more than a very-good version of Test Match Special, it is not the intentional at all.

SJ– Question from Benny, Josh and the wonderful Ant Sims, they all talk about the same thing – Does this tie up mean that you will cover non-England games, or will you continue to do the pick and choose method?

DN– These things are a process. We just started. We signed the deal in the middle of February, and what we have got to do now is sort out our infrastructure. We have to get everything tight and get ourselves into a new studio, and make sure the technical infrastructure work. We can’t have unlimited manpower resources. First things first, we will ensure and guarantee that we will be doing all of England’s games. We are going to do the ICC T20, the India-England October series. Frankly, between now and then, that’s where most of all the cricket is. Until you get to the winter. The plan is to ramp up the degree of programming, the quantity of it, so that we are going to be commentating more. You don’t really see the real benefit of that in the next 9-12 months. But, imy sincere expectation and hope that we will be doing a lot more cricket as the year 2 and year 3 progresses.

SJ– And this will be non-England matches as well?

DN– Absolutely! The Sofa has done a lot of non-England matches before. We’d love to do it again. We did the India – New Zealand series, the India – Australia series in 2010.  There is nothing more relaxing for an England fan that to be watching India and Australia go head to head. Of course, we want to do those, we want to get as big a profile and get as wide a listenership as possible. It’s no secret that there is an enormous population in India of committed cricket fans. And, we want to get to them, we want to appeal to them as much as possible. We want to do more games based in South Africa, we did the South Africa- Australia series, partly for the selfish reasons because it started at 8 o’clock in the morning, which is a lovely time to be commentating. But also because they are big teams and it is big cricket and of course, you want to be doing that. I was first finding it really difficult to finding teams together to do Test Match Sofa for non-England games when I had no money. With a bit of backing, money and support in the future from sponsors, we will be able to cover a lot more cricket. And, hopefully,  might be able to cover more from the country that are hosting the games, rather than us doing the red-eye-shifts at 4 in the morning.

SJ– Richard O’Hagan, he has a few questions. One of them being – “The essential charm of the Sofa is that it’s a group of fans sitting together, having a beer, having a good time watching cricket, talking about it. would that charm somehow be diminished by this tie-up?”

DN– No – is my expectation and hope. The point of the tie-up is not to change the tone and the style of the program, but to ensure its regularity and consistency and it is always there. To be honest, but we have been providing a service to people. In over two and a half years, well over 200000 unique listeners have tuned into Test Match Sofa and a very few of them have paid for it. In reality, only 200 of them have probably paid at some point for it. And that’s not sustainable model. It’s not really sustainable for the listeners either to expect the degree of sacrifice. I don’t want to go too long on the sacrifice, it’s great fun to be watching cricket. But, you can’t do it if you haven’t got any income, unless you are happily rich! And we are not! Fans don’t tend to be that rich. They tend to love their cricket. I expect to produce the exact same kind of program with exact same kind of fans and exactly the same kind of tone, albeit maybe slightly less swearing in it, otherwise it’s the same thing. There’ll still be jingles. We will still take the mickey out of players. Still enjoying  the game for what it is. The passion. Why would that go away simply because we now have more time, and can actually think about it? my commentators before had to fit it in among everything else. But, now, who knows, they might even be able to do a bit of research. Check what’s written on cricinfo and come in a bit more informed. That can only be for the better.

SJ– Richard also wonders and worries that there is going to be a suit somewhere which is going to come and tell you who should or should not be on air. Is his worry genuine? How do you put him at ease?

DN– Immediately, there is an assumption within the question with what The Cricketer’s way is and what Test Match Sofa’s way is are odds. I wouldn’t have got into the bet with The Cricketer if we hadn’t looked at each other for long and hard and said “This is what we do, this is what we are buying you into, and this is what I intend to do. Is that your intention as well? To which, their response is “Yes!” What I think it will do is, very positively, make commentators aware that they have a responsibility to the program, much greater than they had before. We are the best within the world. You’ve run cricket teams, right? If cricket teams are entirely amateur, on a Saturday morning, they can decide on not playing and give you some nonsense of how they got stuck in a door. “I couldn’t make it up that I hurt my hand.” The next day, miraculously their hand has no scratch on them. When there is a bit of money on it, people have a bit more of responsibility and care to the program they are giving. There are suits, if you want to call them that, at The Cricketer, and they want the output of the program to be consistent which they can sell against it. but, that is actually no different a motivation from the one that I’ve had at the Test Match Sofa ever since I started it. it’s very difficult to manage the process consistently without being able to guarantee the personnel. It’s obviously a concern. People have raised it many times. I understand that, and it is my challenge that while producing or managing the program, to make sure that suits don’t arrive saying “I don’t like that, that was rubbish!” It shouldn’t be rubbish in the first place. That’s how you deal with it. You have to make the program look consistent and good. And the commentators are more aware of that than they were before. There is a danger, then, that people might be more inhibited, and that’s a challenge that I have to deal with and have to make sure that the atmosphere on the Sofa is as relaxed as it ever was. Since this deal went through, the commentators are aware when the deal was going through in January and February, I heard no difference in tone in the program during the January England-Pakistan series. I see no reason why we should change it in the future.

SJ– Shifting gears slightly… I’m assuming you have read Richard’s blogpost on this? Your response to his blogpost?

DN– I have. I didn’t get to make the point on twitter, I didn’t get to engage on it. I’m actually flattered by Richard’s concern, how much he cares about Test Match Sofa. It’s something the listeners are concerned about. And I’m not remotely offensive about what he wrote about, it was a tunnel of blue-print for me to think about. These are issues that the listeners are worried about, and they are quite right to be worried about, they are stake-holders of the program, more so than any other commentary program. That’s deliberate – we want our listeners to be a part of the program and we want them to care about it.

It is an entirely reasonable blogpost of Richard’s. I think what I would say, though, is that what he doesn’t quite latch on to, is the point I had made in the beginning, that he paints the new arrangement between The Cricketer and the Test Match Sofa as a big established person buying out a small new one. Maybe The Cricketer will not thank me for saying this, but The Cricketer is not an enormous cricket organization like SKY or ESPN or BBC. The Cricketer is a very, very worthy vulnerable institution that’s produced great, great content. But, actually, if you look at this, this is not a particularly large player in the media buying a not so particularly large player – Test Match Sofa. In some ways, we are a little bit like The Cricketer. We’ve been established as a commentary service, which is as long as anyone else has been doing it. There have been blogs, like Jarrod’s, that pre-dated Test Match Sofa, just. But, actually, by consistency of voice, we are an established internet presence. There is obviously quite a synergy between eh two organizations, which is something that Richard didn’t take into account in his blog. As I said earlier, the concerns he has, the concerns that flatter me, the ones that I’m pleased he has raised, because they are the ones that we need to think about. We need to make sure that we are not alienating our listeners, we are not changing our tone, we are not being subsided in the organization. The one thing that he did get entirely wrong, I will face him down on this one, is the idea that by getting in tie with The Cricketer, we reduced the amount of opportunities for amateurs to come on to the Sofa. That simply isn’t the case. What it does, is that it makes you a little bit more selective on the ones you want to invite on. I know that, with certain regularity in my own team, I’m going to get the bear and Max and Hendo and Manny and Me, for most days. So, I’m going to be looking for the best bloggers and the best writers and would be wanting them on. I would want to be in that position anyway. But I’m still going to be a mouth piece to the people who are in the internet. Our focus is still the listeners, still the interaction with the listeners, and it is still finding the most amazing creative people on the internet whose voices are not heard. It doesn’t mean that I might get Andrew Miller on the show more often, because he is just ‘round the corner. Who doesn’t want editing cricket magazine journalists? I’ve had Jonathan Liew, Patrick Kidd. I’ve had professionals on all the time. So, that’s a kind of mix between the professionals and the amateurs, and that’s not going to change. Bear in mind one thing that is always forgotten in these circumstances – yeah, The Cricketer has bought the Test Match Sofa, but it actually is spending more money than it needs to in creating content. So, if I can get free highly intelligent people to come and operate on Test Match Sofa, then that’s a bonus for me, instead of paying somebody else to come on.

SJ– Stephen Brenkley called the Sofa “mildly irrelevant and faintly diverting nowhere nearly as funny as it thinks it is”, and when comparing with Test Match Special, which has Jonathan Agnew, who has a stake in The Cricketer, can be construed as some kind of conflict of interest. So, how does it all fit in?

DN – Let’s tackle Stephen firstly. I’ve met Stephen a couple of times. And he’s a venerable member of the press pack. I don’t know whether he has ever listened to us, I have to say. His article used words like “presume”. Most journalist actually find out, rather than presume. He’s entitled to presume, I don’t have a problem with that. I also would not expect, having had a conversation with him about ‘short-hand’, how horrified he was that the latest generation of journalist didn’t use short hand, and he said that perhaps internet based commentary might not be for him, no matter whoever is doing it. the purpose of Test Match Sofa is not to drag all the listeners away from Test Match Special and make them listen to Test Match Sofa, it’s far from it. It’s to provide a place to people who like the sort of things that we do, to come and listen o what we do. A lot of people who listen o us don’t listen to us “instead of” Test Match Special, they listen to us independent of Test Match Special. It’s  a different audience altogether.

The second question, I totally understand Aggers’ situation, which may come as a surprise to all of you. He is on the board of The Cricketer, he is also the lead commentator for the BBC. And, it is difficult, if you are fronting the BBC and the organization that you are working for has bought another ball-by-ball commentary service, albeit one that actually does not compete Test Match Special. But, it’s easy to see why people might argue so. And it is quite awkward for him. The BBC does pay for rights for audio for ball-by-ball commentary on the radio and that money does go to the ECB, and that money is being distributed to clubs and counties and cricketers. There is an argument, which I don’t agree with but I quite understand, if rival ball-by-ball commentary exist, that might reduce the value of the rights. Now, I’d be interested in knowing what the value of the rights are and what the imagined diminution would be as a result of the essence of Test Match Sofa, especially when a  lot of our listeners are listening from locations where they can’t get Test Match Special. So, we are not taking an audience from Test Match Special. We are actually increasing an audience for English cricket, an audience that would otherwise not have existed, because they did not have anything else to listen to. And there are benefits to the ECB, I believe, in what we do, in maintaining and increasing an audience that cannot be reached and keep excitement in cricket and buys cricket product and pays in a way slightly more difficult to quantify – there is no straight cheque paid by the BBC to the ECB – but these people are also contributing to the health of cricket. But, it’s a complex argument. So, Aggers’ position is one that I have total respect for and it makes absolute sense to why he would feel that way. I think it is a bit of storm in a tea cup, a way of making a story when there isn’t any. There is a lot more interesting stories. There is an established brand, has the vision to realise it can’t stand still and needs to move in the 21st century in the internet age and support different kinds of content. But, I can see why someone like Steven might want to write an article. It might have been a co-incidence that the article appeared on the very morning that he appeared on Test Match Special. You’d have to ask him if that was a co-incidence.

SJ– George Dobell observed this on cricinfo – I think a lot of people also wondered this – the great Giles Clarke came out and said the pirate cricket streams is the biggest threat to cricket. BBC is coughing up a lot of money for the radio commentary rights, why wouldn’t they just switch to having someone sit in-front of the TV and have them doing the commentary?

DN– They are entirely entitled to do that. I would argue that they have a huge advantage over us. They have the crowd noise, which is a great thing to have. They have access to players, which too is a great thing to have. They are producing an entirely different type of program. The listeners who want Test Match Special don’t want it to be done by a bunch people in a booze. They want it for a very good reason. It’s quite absurd. The point about illegal internet streams is quite valid. The biggest danger to cricket is, we don’t really need to get down to the detail it -various match fixing allegations and getting into bet with the wrong people commercially and bringing the game of cricket to disrepute and altogether more concern for cricket as a whole. He does have a good point, Giles Clarke, about illegal streams. What we do and what the illegal streams are, are two entirely different things, without getting boringly legalistic about it.  if you are taking SKY’s feed and you stick it to your website, then that is just a flagrant and outrageously lazy, stealing someone’s intellectual property. It should be stamped down upon, this is not right. What we are doing, is creating an entirely different piece of intellectual property. We are putting a load of people together, the like of which you would never normally hear, to create a wholly new program, and to involve and engage our listeners to contribute to the program. This is not an illegal stream. This is something entirely legal. Also, I’m afraid, it is impossible to shut down. Because, if you shut down what we did, you’d have to shut down ball-by-ball text commentaries, whether on cricinfo or Guardian. It slightly be a freedom of speech issue. It’s a kind of specious piece of arguing from the people who I think are a little bit irritated that we have found a way for really enjoying ourselves and making a good program that they have not thought of doing themselves. That’s how it seems. You know what we could do if they even tried? We could just sit around in a room, with a mic, and say I just received a text message that said “Zaheer Khan’s come in, bowls over the wicket and Kevin Pietersen has driven that back at him, and there is no run.” You can’t stop that. You can’t stop people reflecting your own lives on the internet. That’s what technology now allows you to do. Personally, in 1977, when cricket was on BBC, full stop, with no adverbs, that was what I was brought up in. I guess Test Match Sofa is a reflection of my childhood expectations that cricket should be made available to everybody. Because it’s not a game that is owned by the ECB, or the ICC. It’s a game that we all play, and we all have ownership of it. Looking at it from behind painted walls, it sometimes damages it. I understand that there is an economic argument to it, and there is a balance to be struck between the two things. The idea that Test Match Sofa might anyway place a threat to cricket, I find it laughable and insane.

SJ– Brilliant point. I guess we will leave the conversation right here. Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Daniel! It was marvellous talking to you!

DN– Thank you Subash. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to say all these things out. As always, it’s been a magnificent pleasure to speak to you!

SJ– Cheers!


[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman