You might not have heard of Scott Yager’s first podcast, appropriately titled A Shot of Yager. Despite having celebrity connections, magazine promotion, and Yager’s natural interviewing and podcasting ability, the numbers were simply never there.
“I read the feedback,” he says. “It all started with a lot of ‘who the hell is this other guy?'”
The podcast started through the contacts Yager made while working as managing editor at the Sound Magazine, a music and culture publication based out of Connecticut. The magazine already booked interviews for print, mainly to promote shows the subject had touring through Connecticut. Yager suggested to the PR department that the interviews be recorded, podcast-style, so people could hear it everywhere and they could plug an entire tour in the process. “I was interviewing a lot of cool people—actors, musicians, comics, athletes,” he says, but “it never turned into more than just a hobby.”
Yager decided to stop podcasting, but a few years later in 2017, fate had other plans. Derrick Kosinski, who had just finished a season on MTV’s long-running reality competition show The Challenge, reached out to Yager to see if he wanted to partner with him on a Challenge-related podcast. Having worked with Kosinski briefly in the past, he decided to give it a shot. Yager’s second podcast, Challenge Mania, was born, finding the success that his earlier podcast venture did not.
In The Challenge, now in its 35th season, contestants compete against each other in intense physical, well, challenges for the chance to win a cash prize. In the nearly three years that Yager and Kosinski have hosted Challenge Mania, they have interviewed contestants, broken down Challenge news and episodes, and even started touring as a live show.
The podcast got off to a solid start—which, according to Yager, is mainly due to Kosinski’s popularity on the show. Kosinski’s platform as a beloved star in the world of The Challenge was the leg up the two needed to get visibility.
Yager knew Kosinski would likely draw an audience because he was a three time champ with a loyal fanbase, and he had just finished a season on the show in second place. Kosinski announced he was starting a podcast shortly after his season finished, and his excited fans were more than happy to give it a shot. This was the window in time when fans would be interested in keeping up with Kosinski even though the show was between seasons.
On the other hand, Yager’s job, as he put it, is to make sure that they “don’t suck.”. “I read the feedback,” he says. “It all started with a lot of ‘who the hell is this other guy?’ …One-hundred and eighty episodes in, I still begin every podcast with my tagline: ‘You didn’t come for me…you came for D’ and even if it is a bit tongue and cheek at this point, the sentiment remains.
But though the initial popularity came from Kosinski and his insider experience, the podcast had staying power in part because Yager had hours and hours of interviewing and home-production experience. “I am someone with 10 years of TV experience, [I have] narrated an Emmy-winning show, and conducted hundreds of celebrity interviews,” he says. Since starting Challenge Mania, I have developed personal relationships with a lot of the contestants as well.” This layer of professionalism separates Yager and Kosinski from other fan podcasts and it allowed them to put out a decent product almost from jump street. Another tactic that likely helped is Yager’s affinity for tracking the numbers and feedback. “[Our] numbers were great for the beginning. They obviously go up and down based on things like who the guest is, but our base level was good enough that I knew that we were on to something,” Yager said. “Then it was about finding a balance. We know that a lot of people want to hear our guest tell their story, but many others prefer to hear detailed discussions about a specific episode.”
He also tends to lurk on social media to find out what their viewers might want from tuning in. “Reading feedback, whether it’s sent directly to us or communicated internally between listeners who don’t even know that I am eavesdropping, can be very helpful to gauge what people want,” Yager says.
“Even the nasty feedback on Reddit and such. Sometimes it’s just mean, but if you hear the same insult 40 times over, even if it’s wrapped in snark and sarcasm, it should also tell you something. Doing my own internal focus groups [through] comment threads allowed me to learn what the listeners wanted more of.”
This social media fan stalking allowed Yager and Kosinski to find their footing, improve their audio quality, and become a part of their listeners’ weekly routine.
Today, more than 200 episodes on, “I am just as synonymous with the Challenge Mania brand as he is,” Yager says “Now, if we sucked… Eventually all those people would jump ship. That’s where I [come in.] But now it’s just about finding new ways to invigorate our audience [and] adding new dimensions to the experience.”
After finding early success in podcasting alone, Kosinski and Yager decided to try for a new challenge: live touring.
“[The] panel live show coupled with a meet and greet was something I thought would work particularly well for us, and [it] has,” Yager says. “I am a podcast junkie, and many of the podcasts I listen to were doing live shows. They have catchphrases that they sell as T-shirts, they do meet and greets, and have Patreons where their most dedicated listeners can get even more than the average experience. I paid attention to what those folks were doing right and copied as much of it as I could.”
As someone with 10 years of experience as a production manager, Yager was he was prepared to do the job of four or five people to prepare for touring. Between booking venues, organizing travel, coordinating the meet and greet and more, Yager was the first guy in and the last guy out. “I didn’t know [the live shows] would be a massive success, but I had a feeling. And even then, not all of them are massive successes. But none have been failures, which is great,” Yager says. “What has been very helpful is how much the cast-members have embraced them. They ask us to be a part of them just as much as we hound them to be our guests.”
One of the best parts of the live shows, Yager said, has been fostering a sense of community among their fans, the Maniacs, as they are called. “Our listeners have all made friends at our shows, and now they travel the country to see each other as much as to see us. They use our calendar dates as excuses to book weekend trips and see their friends. [Connecting] so many people is really a magical thing.”
Ultimately, Yager and Kosinski’s goal with their podcast is to become something that no Challenge fan can miss. “If we can secure even a small portion of that massive [fan]base, then we will be doing just fine,” Yager stated. “When it comes down to it, our goal is to be the very best Challenge podcast we can be, and make sure our listeners know that they can always count on us for that.”