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.