Can podcasting learn from news media’s mistakes?

One of the biggest laments of the traditional news media has long been “why the hell did we ever make this stuff free to read?”—and they’ve been trying to stuff that genie back into the bottle ever since.

What does that have to do with podcasting? Lots.

Over the last month or so I’ve been toying with getting into the field. I’ve consumed more than my fair share of guides, from how to structure a podcast, to the equipment required and so on, but there was something that really gave me pause.

On the topic of monetisation, nearly all commercial podcasts make their money by intermingling ads (warning claxon!) within the podcast. If you’ve ever listened to a podcast you’ve probably heard voiceovers for Mailchimp and some bed sheet company (I forget the mob’s name).

As with ads on websites, the implementation of this varies from the unobtrusive to the listener-hostile “Oh my fucking God how long can you go one about bed sheets for?”.

Also as with online ads, for the anti-ads (or just anti-bed sheets) crew, there are straightforward ways to skip over these. For example the podcast app I use, Pocket Casts has a fast-forward 45 seconds button—I’m sure other apps offer similar functionality.

The fast forward button—an adblocker for podcasts.

I wasn’t keen on doing an ad-supported podcast, rather I was more interested in, you guessed it, something subscription focussed. This, for me, is where the wheels start to fall off.

In a similar fashion to the early days of website subscriptions and online payment, the options for setting this up are complicated, far from failsafe, and often very dependent on the podcasting app a listener is using. Says this piece by Max Willens for Digiday:

“Workarounds are labor-intensive, expensive or leaky. … Slate’s only dedicated customer service representative for Slate Plus spends a large portion of her day helping people add the Slate Plus podcast feeds to their preferred podcast app.”

Not entirely surprising—nor encouraging.

More surprising was the pushback from podcasters themselves. Plenty of thoughts around how the priority should be on building awareness and growing audience rather than establishing a sound business baseline for what is being produced.

Says Melissa Locker for Fast Company :

“Just because I can toggle between six podcast apps doesn’t mean I want to or that it will make for an enjoyable listening experience. Second, advertising works pretty well for podcasts. ”

The whole piece, focussed around podcast start-up Luminary (think “Netflix for podcasts blah blah”) is well worth a read.

Manny Veiga for Hacks and Flacks gets to the core issue for many (echoed here by Kevin Goldberg):

“All of these stories drive at an existential conflict that sits at the heart of podcasting. The medium has traditionally been open and distributed.”

and

“By walling off access to content, aren’t parties like the BBC, NYT, Luminary, and Spotify just making it even harder for new listeners to dive in?”

Open and distributed—sounds a lot like the old “information just wants to be free” mantra, and yes discovery remains a massive challenge for what is still a fairly nascent industry. Plenty of echoes of news media here.

But then, just like a wire story on an earthquake in Bali, does the world really need another True Crime podcast?

So where am I going with this?

The gut feeling is ads seem kinda easy to get around and paywalling is a PITA and perhaps detrimental to the industry. So what happens when a big podcaster tries to switch from ads to subs?

It’s ugly.

Tim Ferris boats over 400 million downloads of his podcasts and recently announced what was to be a six-month experiment switching from sponsor-supported (ads) to donation-supported (exclusive access to extra stuff for supporters).

In practise, the experiment lasted about 6 weeks. Ferris doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, though he hints he may write on it in the future. He does though quote from a survey with 18,000 respondents, where a whopping 72% said they wouldn’t donate. Ferris says:

“It turns out that most of my listeners have a strong preference for an ad-supported model compared to other options. … After weeks of consistent feedback from my audience, it’s now loud and clear that my vetting and sharing of sponsors is better received and a better fit.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, his listeners felt they preferred not to have to pay for what they were listening to. That’s nice when the choice is there.

During my podcast research period I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listening to podcasts. Save standout examples like Caliphate and The Dropout I can’t think of one podcast I would have even considered paying for.

Why not? Because just like news, there’ll probably be something else I can find, sufficiently engaging, that is free. This will only become a grander problem as time rolls on—just as has been the case with news.

To finish with Mike Raab’s words arguing subscriptions are the future of podcasting:

“The ignorance in this protest is that the pressure to create content that people are willing to pay for often drives up the quality of said content and the resources that producers can devote to it.”

Indeed.

News works only in a bundle of one

Simon Owens for What’s New in Publishing takes a look at some of the challenges behind bundling of news, generally into a third party app of some description.

These are essentially a “Netflix but for news” style take. A potential subscriber may not be interested in subscribing to the New York Times, the Independent and The Economist for example (see subscription fatigue), but if you could get all three in the one bundle, and the price is right, why not?

As it turns out there are a few good reasons why not.

Just from the reader’s perspective, there is the question of what is (and what isn’t) in the bundle. What if you don’t want the Independent but do want the Bangkok Post? Too bad. Will you be getting all the publisher’s material (generally no, more on that in a sec). Will you have to use an app to read the news? Most likely yes—a drag if, like most people your news reading habits swing between laptop, phone and tablet, meaning you’ll need the app on your phone and tablet and be out of luck on your laptop.

More importantly though, it seems the “rising tide floats all boats” doesn’t really apply to the publisher’s perspective. They routinely keep stories for their own subscribers. Mogul News referenced by Owens has its own team who:

“handpicks what articles to feature on the app from news publishers’ feeds…”

So not only are you only getting a subset of what the publisher deems you worthy of, but then, off that a subset again according to what Mogul’s team deems of interest.

You get what you pay for I guess.

Owen goes on to say:

“Why haven’t these apps seen mass adoption? Well, for one, a lot of publishers are willing to experiment with allowing their content to be aggregated in a paid bundle, but they have little incentive to direct their marketing efforts toward promoting the app.”

Yes, and why would they? They’re in the business of driving subscribers to their own product, not a third party app which bundles them alongside competitors and makes a margin for the effort.

The Netflix comparison holds some water, but there is a big difference. Log in to Netflix and you’ll see plenty of Netflix original content. This is a vast investment the company is making to get punters to sign on—by offering material that is not available anywhere else. And people are signing up by the truckload. Why would publishers release exclusive material to a third party app?

This is why the future for news subscriptions lies in a bundle of one, not many.

What is this?

Create Asia (yes, two words) is my repository for musings on what is happening in the online publishing subscription scene. I’ve a personal tilt to what is happening in Southeast Asia, but as media is a global business so are subscriptions, so I’ll just see where this takes me to.

This is very, very, much a work in progress.

Why Create Asia?

I have owned the domain name just about forever and it was one of the less silly ones I happen to possess. Nothing more.

Who am I?

My name is Stuart McDonald. Australian by birth, but based in Southeast Asia permanently since 1997.

I’m also the co founder of Travelfish.org, a Southeast Asia travel planning website. It was through trying to figure out subscriptions for that business that my interest in the field—and, more generally the survival of independent publishing—grew.

Why am I using a boring WordPress theme?

Because the world needs less distractions.

How can I be contacted?

[email protected] works.