Podcast Paywalls Don’t Actually Serve Listeners
Podcasting had a banner year in 2018. The medium had “explosive” growth in listenership, according to Edison Research, which found that more than half of Americans now say they’ve listened to a podcast.
Several trends contributed to that growth – from Hollywood adaptations bringing more attention to top podcasts, to the snowballing popularity of short-form daily news shows like The Daily, to improved accessibility through platforms like Spotify.
So, if podcasting is finally approaching its “mainstream” moment, is now really the best time to start building walls around the content?
That seems to be what a handful of publishers and technology providers are doing, although they certainly wouldn’t describe it that way. It’s worth asking whether these moves are what’s best for listeners.
Publishers lock down content
Last month, the BBC blocked access to its podcasts from Google, affecting listeners who normally find BBC-produced shows through Google Podcasts or other Google properties. The news agency said the block was due to technical and licensing reasons, but that rationale didn’t hold up to scrutiny, and it’s left some to wonder if BBC is simply trying to redirect more traffic through its BBC Sounds app.
Meanwhile, the much-hyped podcast subscription service Luminary finally launched this week, introducing another “Netflix for podcasting” to the market. Luminary is a both a podcast player that offers access to free shows like any other app, as well as an $8 per month ad-free subscription service where listeners can find original shows from celebs like Lena Dunham, Trevor Noah, and Karamo Brown.
Other publishers aren’t playing nice. The New York Times and Spotify have both said they won’t publish their shows to Luminary, meaning users won’t be able to find some of the medium’s most popular shows, like The Daily, Reply All, and Homecoming, on the app. Even individual creators are pulling out. The Joe Rogan Experience, possibly the most popular podcast out there, has reportedly said it won’t be on Luminary.
Spotify, in particular, likely has a competitive motive: they’ve been on a spending spree of late, acquiring podcasting tech (Anchor) and creators (Gimlet, Parcast) to build up their own network.
An inherently open medium
All of these stories drive at an existential conflict that sits at the heart of podcasting. The medium has traditionally been open and distributed. The content is published through a simple RSS feed, meaning listeners can find it via any platform that supports the technology. The low barrier to entry also means it’s fast and easy for independent content creators to create, distribute and build a following around their show.
Still, despite its skyrocketing popularity, podcast discovery remains a big problem for the medium at large – it’s not very easy or intuitive for listeners to find new shows.
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?
Exclusive, members-only platforms like Luminary also present a challenge. Exclusive podcasts are nothing new; individual creators have given fans the opportunity to pay for access to premium feeds for years. But the “Netflix for podcasting” model is controversial because it creates more walled gardens that listeners have to traverse to find shows. And, if listeners are forced to pay for access to “Hollywood” talent like Dunham, Noah and Brown, will they have enough left over to support independent podcasters who don’t have the promotional backing of a corporate network to grow their show?
How does any of this help grow the industry at a time when it’s finally starting to break through to the mainstream?
What’s right for listeners?
It’s not hard to see this leading to a future for podcasting that looks a lot like today’s streaming TV options – “dozens of different paid-streaming services with different, fragmented catalogs battling it out for your time,” as The Verge editor Nilay Patel wrote on Twitter.
“I don’t want to spend my time figuring out, ‘The thing I want to watch is on what thing?’” he said. “That drives me crazy. I don’t want to spend even half a second deciding, ‘Where do I find the movie “Fletch”?’ I get really irritated by that sort of thing. ‘Is it on Netflix? Is it on Hulu?’”
Creating that level of frustration among consumers in a medium that is only just beginning to find its footing would do podcasting no favors. It’s also premature: Mars drew the analogy to broadcast TV, which had decades to build consumer need and interest to the point where they would pay for premium content, like HBO. “I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts,” he argued.
I’m inclined to agree. That’s not to say that podcast publishers shouldn’t be experimenting with different business and payment models. It is a fast-growing industry, and it’s fair to explore new and creative ways to both deliver content and get paid for it. But that experimentation should always reflect how and why people listen to podcasts in the first place.