The past week was bookended by two major developments pertaining to the rise of podcast subscriptions on the platform level, between Apple’s head-turning announcement last week and Spotify’s big detail push this morning. There’s a lot baked into each piece on its own and in relation to each other — too much for me to go over comprehensively — so I’m only going to go over what I think are the most important beats.
During its spring event last Tuesday, Apple announced Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, a new set of features that will give podcast creators the opportunity to create premium or freemium subscription products for their shows over the Apple Podcasts platform, still widely understood to be a major driver of all consumption in the medium even as Spotify cranks up the competition for listen share. Creators can set their own pricing, and they’ll be able to sell subscriptions to individual shows or a group of shows. Those tools are expected to roll out to the general public next month.
No beating around the bush here: This is a potentially tectonic development, given Apple’s historical status as a highly influential though fairly hands-off ward of the podcast ecosystem.
From a platform standpoint, the story of the last few years was defined by Spotify actively taking a hatchet to Apple’s position as the default center of the podcast universe while Apple mostly stood still. Strategically, Apple Podcasts was thought to be in a tricky in-between space: Podcasting wasn’t big enough to warrant much focus from the trillion-dollar corporation housed in a spaceship, but the notion of Apple potentially losing its dominant position over an increasingly hot media category — one that it had inadvertently cultivated — is certainly troublesome.
The way I see it, Apple Podcasts’ push towards facilitating subscriptions is both a smart hedge and perhaps one of the few things the platform could do without directly distorting the balance of the open podcast ecosystem on the one hand and getting into an all-out podcast arms race with Spotify on the other. (Both companies are, of course, currently duking it out in other arenas, including music streaming and app store governance.)
However, Apple’s actual podcast subscription features are somewhat surprising in their shape and terms. To begin with, Apple will charge podcast creators $19.99 per year simply to use those features, and, on top of that, the platform will take an eye-popping 30% cut of revenue from each transaction that it facilitates in the first year of usage. The cut drops down to 15% the following year onward. That strikes me as a prohibitively high cut — doable and possibly worthwhile for established, diversified publishers but likely kneecapping for smaller shows or podcast creators just starting out. (The revenue cuts, by the way, mirrors the terms for the Apple App store, which, interestingly enough, is a key piece of the broader debate over said app store.)
Similarly tough is Apple’s stance towards who owns listener relationship. Put simply: Apple does, according to the Apple Podcasters Program Agreement, which means that creators and publishers who build strong premium or freemium subscription programs over the platform won’t be able to directly communicate with listeners other than through the podcast episodes themselves. This adds dramatically high friction for publishers who might want to migrate away from the platform for whatever reason, which, certainly, is part of the point if you’re sitting in Apple’s position.
Some podcast creators will likely find other points of concern in the offering. For one thing, paid podcast products built using Apple’s tools will only be limited to distribution over the Apple Podcasts platform, which means publishers that really want to build comprehensive subscription programs will have to replicate work to get those paid episodes distributed through other platforms. This isn’t necessarily a biggie, given that some alternatives, like Supporting Cast and even Spotify (which we’ll discuss in a bit), tries to make it easy to deliver premium feeds to listeners on whatever app they use, but it’s still annoying, especially if you’re a publisher thinking about Android as much as Apple. Furthermore, open-podcasting advocates might feel uncomfortable with the fact that the distribution of paid episodes through the Apple subscription feature will not be done over RSS, but through a closed system that’s specific to Apple Podcasts. Plus, there are mentions in the Program Agreement about things like the platform potentially creating automated transcripts of episodes for machine-learning purposes, which might spook some people, though, frankly, worse things probably happen all the time in every other digital platform you use.
Anyway, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the upsides, which are potentially considerable. Over at Stratechery, Ben Thompson predictably did the best job I could find laying out what exactly publishers stand to gain competitively from using Apple Podcasts Subscription. In short: The ease with which payments are facilitated over the closed Apple architecture — combined with the sheer number of people already locked into the Apple ecosystem — has the potential to drive more sales and reduce the level of churn. In the past, existing direct podcast revenue options were generally contingent on listeners being tech savvy enough to navigate RSS feed uploads. Things are better these days, with some vendors offering smart-linking solutions, i.e. tap the icon of the app you use and we’ll automatically set it up. Still, there’s better flow, and then there’s butter flow, which is what Apple is offering here.
One semi-counterargument to consider at this point. There’s something to be said about the differences between a listenership built out of people who would crawl through the unpleasant experience of navigating RSS feeds to access your show and a listenership built out of people converted from a more frictionless experience. From that standpoint, I’m willing to argue that Apple Podcasts Subscription tools seem well positioned to convert casual listeners into paid subscribers or members — which is to say, fans at the margins. Shrewd publishers would presumably benefit from mixing things up a bit to figure out the casuals and the more engaged.
Okay, so, that’s Apple and its subscription play. Let’s move on to the Swedes.
It’s funny: Spotify had previously announced its own premium subscription tools during the Stream On event back in February, but Apple received the lion’s share of the buzz around podcast subscriptions following its announcement last week, making it seem like Spotify was on the back foot with this particular frontier.
Which maybe they are, at least to some extent. After all, Spotify’s the insurgent working to wrestle dominance away from Apple, and then there’s the whole thing about the audio-streaming app still being pretty much beholden to Apple’s app governance. (I’m generally afraid of Scott Galloway, but his take on Spotify needing to vertically integrate into hardware at some point in the future strikes me as a right one. On a separate note, the Car Thing looks pretty interesting.) Plus, Spotify’s been fast and furious with new podcast-related announcements and roll-outs, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for missing or under-counting this subscription tool thing the first time around. They throw out a lot!
Anyway, Spotify released key details around its own podcast subscription tools earlier this morning, and they make for a fascinating contrast to Apple. First and foremost, those features will be made available to podcast publishers through Anchor, deepening that division’s position as the central creator hub for the company’s growing podcast play.
Like Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, these tools will give podcast creators the opportunity to build premium or freemium subscription products for their shows. However, in a key point of differentiation, Spotify’s tools will let creators distribute those paid listening experiences to other podcast platforms in addition to Spotify. (This means, interestingly enough, that Spotify more directly competes with the likes of companies like Patreon and Supporting Cast than Apple does.)
There are three other key points of differentiation worth noting. The first is price-setting. Podcast creators will only be able to choose from one of three monthly price points to set for their subscription products: $2.99, $4.99, or $7.99. That’s pretty constraining, frankly, and in contrast, Apple offers more flexibility.
The second is the fees. For the next two years, Spotify won’t be charging podcast creators a fee to use its subscription tools, and creators will be able to pocket full subscriber revenues minus payment transaction fees. However, the company plants to introduce a 5% fee for access to these tools starting in 2023, which is still considerably lower than Apple’s 30% cut in the first year and 15% cut in subsequent years.
One quick additional detail on this: The Wall Street Journal reported last week that, in regard to these tools, “users of Spotify’s iOS app who subscribe will be routed to a website for the transaction, meaning that Apple won’t take a cut of that revenue.” This was confirmed this morning. Since subscription fulfillment won’t happen within the app itself, it potentially introduces some friction to transactions — and may give some edge to Apple Podcasts here.
The third has to do with listener ownership. It’s my understanding that podcast creators using Spotify’s subscription tools are expected to be able to control and maintain direct relationships with their listeners. I haven’t been able to get much detail on this, so it remains to be seen whether this means control over the subscriber roll, but either way, this seems to suggest a level of portability there that isn’t present with the Apple Podcasts Subscription option. The company also says that it’s building out something called the Open Access Platform, which will give publishers with a paid subscription base managed on other platforms — say, Patreon or Supporting Cast — the option “to deliver paid content to their existing paid audience using Spotify,” something that wasn’t previously possible.
Spotify’s tools are expected to roll out to creators in the U.S. and internationally in the coming months, but an initial group of twelve podcast creators will have access to the tools starting today. The company has also set up a waitlist to gradually open access to more creators and publishers moving forward.
At face value — and this read should be open to revision as more details come in and I get to see more of the actual experience flow — Spotify’s subscription offering may well come off as being more creator friendly relative to Apple. But I imagine podcast creators already worried about Spotify’s broader effects on the open ecosystem will see these seemingly creator-centric terms and be compelled to ask: What’s the longer-term trade-off here? What does a podcast-creator ecosystem that’s more dependent on Spotify from a facilitation standpoint mean for the open standard?
Indeed, those are the right questions to ask.
The Big Picture
As much fanfare as there may be around Apple and Spotify’s push into premium subscription tools, it’s important to note that direct revenue is far from a new concept in the podcast world.
Today, it’s easy to identify several podcast publishers with robust membership programs, including Slate, Maximum Fun, Radiotopia, and Relay FM. (Fun fact: Gimlet Media tried building one out in its earlier years, which I believe came with the benefits like a dedicated Slack group and merch.) It’s similarly easy to identify successful individual podcasts operating off membership support, a prominent example being Chapo Trap House. Furthermore, in recent years, there was an increasing sense that the direct-revenue-driven podcast category was only poised to naturally grow further, as evidenced by a growing class of new solution providers like Supporting Cast and Glow, the latter of which was recently acquired by Libsyn. (Another fun fact: The newsletter platform-publisher Substack is technically part of this cohort, since it has very minor private-podcast-distribution capabilities.)
It’s not immediately apparent to me if Apple’s and Spotify’s podcast-subscription tools will radically reshape the podcast industry, at least in the somewhat revolutionary terms these developments were discussed in certain corners over the past week. A few reasons apply. Podcast advertising seems likely to remain the dominant revenue channel for the industry. Not all podcasts or podcast publishers are built for direct revenue. Most operations with strong existing paid listener bases will probably look at these new options and won’t see much reason to transition over; you can still distribute premium RSS feeds to Apple Podcasts, and Spotify’s upcoming Open Access Platform feature means that premium feeds can soon be distributed over the closed platform. The general queries lobbed at the growing glut of VOD streaming services and paid-newsletter businesses apply here: Will there be enough consumer dollars to go around? In any case, both Apple and Spotify seem to be largely framing these subscription pushes as being complementary additions to everything that currently exists.
But I do think they will bring change, likely of a more incremental or iterative sort. At the very least, they’ll inject a nice level of newness and novelty to the way the podcast business is currently conducted. Podcast advertising isn’t going anywhere, but its opportunities are also thought to be getting increasingly commoditized and removed from smaller shows, so having more integrated subscription tools around may be a catalyst for more upstart businesses and new kinds of business formations. A true subscription-first podcast business remains elusive, for example, but it might have a better chance at surviving now. Maybe these tools can help The New York Times more directly drive digital subscribers with its audio division. Apple and Spotify driving more attention to subscription tools may well shift consumer expectations, normalizing the notion of paid podcasts — and further growing the pie as a whole.
There are tons of new possibilities here now than were there before, and that only strikes me as chiefly being a good thing on aggregate.
A few more things…
➽ Spotify also announced that the platform will begin opening up its Spotify Audience Network, the audio advertising marketplace powered by its Streaming Ad Insertion product, to select independent creators using Anchor starting May 1.
➽ Subscriptions weren’t Apple’s only podcast-related announcement of note last week. It also announced a big redesign to the baked-in Apple Podcasts app pegged to the iOS 14.5 update deployed yesterday, which includes a new look, new features, and some quality-of-life improvements meant to modernize an app experience that has long been stuck in the 2000s. (Having spent some time playing around with the refreshed app yesterday, I’d say: still needs more modernity.) There was one other Apple Podcast development that stood out to me: a new taxonomical aspect on the platform directory called “Channels,” which emphasizes show groupings on the publisher level.
➽ Very small thing: One curious detail in the Apple announcement is the fact that Luminary will be a launch partner when those subscription tools roll out. A lifeline, perhaps?
One last thing on Spotify…
This relationship is going to be complicated, isn’t it? Spotify’s mini-player integration on Facebook — the so-called “Project Boombox” teased last Monday — is rolling out this week in 27 markets, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Japan, with more regions expected in the coming months. Spotify’s official blog post on the matter touts the player’s enablement of social discovery and is further interesting for its emphasis on the fact that the player covers both music and podcasts.
Which makes Ashley Carman’s scoop over at The Verge yesterday a little awkward. She confirms that alongside the Spotify player integration, Facebook is apparently building out its own in-app podcast player as part of its intent to bring podcast distribution onto the platform in the coming months, pegged to Facebook Pages.
When Facebook officially announced its various audio intentions last week, its corresponding blog post was somewhat vague when, while discussing upcoming podcast distribution on the platform, it said “within the next few months, you’ll be able to listen to podcasts directly on the Facebook app — both while using the app or when the app is backgrounded.” Whether this referred to the Spotify mini-player integration or that Facebook was building its own in-app player was unclear at the time, and I wrote as much in last week’s issue.
Spotify declined to comment on this specific development.
In any case, my general feel for this subject remains the same: Facebook is best kept at arm’s length.
99% Invisible Sells
Roman Mars’ beloved show about the hidden design of the world — and one of the true exemplars for open indie podcasting — is no longer independent.
Yesterday, SiriusXM announced that it has acquired Mars’ production company, 99% Invisible Inc., which publishes 99% Invisible and What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, the project Mars started with the law professor Elizabeth Joh in 2017. The company will be sorted into the Stitcher brand, which the satellite radio giant acquired from E.W. Scripps last year for around $300 million. Stitcher, of course, is the major podcast publisher that operates a broad portfolio of podcasts like Freakonomics, The Sporkful, and Office Ladies, along with a few genre-specific content divisions, including Earwolf, the long-running comedy umbrella, and Witness Docs, its recently established documentary unit.
This effectively ends Mars’ relationship with Radiotopia, the non-profit podcast collective he co-founded with PRX in 2014 that publishes 99% Invisible and Trump Con Law. Tiny bit of trivia here: There will be at least one connective tissue that can be traced between PRX and Stitcher at this time in the form of Sarah van Mosel, Stitcher’s Chief Revenue Officer, who once led sales for Radiotopia as the Chief Podcast Sales and Strategy Officer at Market Enginuity, which works with PRX on the business front.
According to the press release, the acquisition brings Mars and the entire 99PI team into Stitcher, where they will continue to produce 99% Invisible and Trump Con Law and develop new podcast projects. It also notes that their podcasts will continue to be available across all platforms in addition to SiriusXM-owned and -operated services, which includes the Stitcher, SiriusXM, and Pandora apps. (For now, I should say. This free flow could very well change in the future, should strategic imperatives shift.)
The terms of the acquisition were not publicly disclosed, though in a blog post published yesterday, PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman noted that Mars will be personally donating $1 million from the sale to Radiotopia over the next four years, so I suppose you can speculate from there.
99% Invisible Inc. is just one company, but its sale to SiriusXM has enormous symbolic ramifications for the podcast community. Since its creation just over a decade ago, 99% Invisible has been a prominent point of inspiration for those who believe in the promise of open, independent podcasting, with Mars setting a strong example in building out a successful and distinctly independent middle-class media operation that exists in a fluid space between for-profit and non-profit media. Mars’ approach has been a huge part of modern podcast lore, one flavored by his own origin story: a straight-edge punk turned public radio and indie podcast icon. With this sale, independent podcasting is losing one of its strongest practitioners and advocates, and those worried about the viability of mid-sized independents — particularly during a moment of intense structural shifts — probably have good reason to get even more worried. (RIP, my inbox.)
Is the podcast space losing something with this? Yes, certainly. While some might uncharitably joke that 99% Invisible has been a little stale of late, I happen to feel like the production had entered a really interesting space over the past three years, particularly as it began experimenting with elevating key talent and building new projects around them. There was, of course, the fashion-focused Articles of Interest led by Avery Trufelman, which produced two seasons before Trufelman decamped for Vox Media. And more recently, the podcast released According to Need, a miniseries led by Katie Mingle that dug deep into the systems and services (or lack thereof) set up in Oakland to support the area’s rising unhoused population.
Those seemed, to me at least, like foundational pillars of a whole new identity for 99% Invisible, one that might truly speak to Mars’ indie record label sensibilities. And while its sale to SiriusXM doesn’t automatically negate this future, it does radically reshape the show’s possibilities even in the best possible outcome, given the general incentives of a corporate overlord. One imagines that SiriusXM is probably tighter around things like episode orders and intellectual property ownership — this is a good point to note that Trufelman now holds the IP for Articles of Interest, a transfer that happened prior to the sale — which in turn may well affect the way in which 99PI staffers relate to the show over the long term.
Mars’ reasons for selling to Stitcher were spelled out pretty clearly in The New York Times’ write-up from yesterday. He told the Times’s Reggie Ugwu:
What does it mean that Facebook is getting into audio? Or that Apple is changing the ‘subscribe’ button to a ‘follow’ button? I don’t know and I don’t want to figure it out. I feel at sea in this business in a way that I haven’t up to this point. Everyone is trying to crack this question of how to get people to pay for premium audio…
… I’ve been devoted to independent podcasting for a really long time, and I still believe that there’s a role for that in the world… But my role right now is something different, which is to spend more time on the show and on making things that I love.
Ten years is a long time to run anything, and no matter how successful you get, it’s a completely human and expected thing to get tired shouldering all that weight, especially as an independent operator and triply so as some sort of symbolic figure. (I deeply empathize, having cycled in and out of tiredness with this newsletter over the past seven years, and I tend to think about this whenever I read about the current boom in newsletter solopreneurs. I happen to be in one such tiredness cycle right now, though maybe that’s just because it rained all weekend.) All of which is to say, to me, this move makes complete and utter sense for Mars specifically. If the bag presents itself, and you feel this way, take the damn bag.
But the decision to sell to SiriusXM in particular is surprising to many, given Mars’ past indie ethos. The satellite radio giant has spent great sums over the past year repositioning itself as part of modern digital audio conversation, but it’s still widely thought to be a distinctly old-school radio company… with all the cultural and managerial baggage that implies.
In his own Twitter thread announcing the move yesterday, Mars seemed to preempt this read. “Whatever cliche you have in your mind about what happens in an acquisition with shows moving to other networks, this isn’t like that,” he wrote. “A bunch of people from the PRX and SiriusXM/Stitcher teams worked together with good intentions to transform a show that needed to evolve for the sake of its creator, and I am grateful for that.”
His belief here will have to stand up to corporate history. “[SiriusXM’s] vision for audio is so much different than not just Roman’s, but a large number of people in podcasting,” a media executive who has dealt with the satellite radio giant for years told me yesterday. “SiriusXM is about creating cheap content with high marketability. That’s a model that works for them. But they will look at Roman’s operation — which they now own, and gut it. Completely.”
➽ Bloomberg reports that AT&T is exploring a sale of Rooster Teeth, the Otter Media subsidiary digital entertainment company that specializes in gaming, fandom, and pop culture areas with a sizable podcast operation, which includes first-party production and third-party partnerships.
➽ Meanwhile, The Daily Beast reports that Bari Weiss, the controversial former New York Times opinion writer, is “close to inking a deal to launch a major podcast project” and, additionally, has apparently brought on fellow controversial former Times staffer Andy Mills to work on the production.
➽ From The Verge: “Audio social platform Clubhouse is partnering with the National Football League for some exclusive programming during the upcoming NFL draft, the company announced Sunday. This is the first sports partnership for Clubhouse.”
Unpacking NPR’s New Subscription Plans
It’ll take years to parse through the full ripple effects of all these subscription-themed podcast announcements, but one thing’s for sure: These new affordances are already radically reshaping how bigger organizations are viewing the direct-revenue opportunity.
One major example: National Public Radio, the entity that sits at the center of the public radio ecosystem. As Apple rolled out its subscription announcement last Tuesday, I obtained an internal email indicating that the NPR Board has approved a plan to move forward with building out new paid podcast-subscription products with the purpose of “creating new revenue streams for public radio and driving membership to NPR Member stations.”
According to the email, two main product ideas are at the heart of this effort. The first is a single-subscription option at the show level, described as follows: “Listeners can purchase subscriptions to sponsorship-free versions of individual NPR podcasts that can be accessed across a range of listening platforms.” The second product revolves around access to a broader sponsorship-free NPR Podcast bundle that comes attached to station membership at a certain level. (There’s also a brief mention of member stations eventually being able to use these product infrastructures to “offer listeners paid subscriptions to their station podcasts as well.”) It was emphasized that these subscription products are purely optional for the listener and that they will be able to continue accessing NPR Podcasts for free with sponsorship messaging, as has always been the case.
The email also noted that NPR will be a launch partner for both Apple’s podcast subscription tools and similar tools that Spotify eventually announced today. “Research indicates that very few of NPR’s 24 million monthly podcast listeners are supporting public radio today,” it wrote. “Paying for a subscription will be an easy way for them to do so, in the apps in which they are already listening. Together, Apple and Spotify represent more than half of NPR podcast listening.”
This subscription effort marks a crucial shift for public radio. Up until this point, public radio’s gains in podcasting have largely been centralized within a few individual, successful entities — NPR, of course, along with a select few stations, including WNYC — in a way that’s potentially destabilizing to the system as a whole. (I’ve written about this at length in the past; start here.)
To get a better sense of this new push towards NPR subscriptions, I spoke with Joel Sucherman, NPR’s Vice President of New Platform Partnerships. This interview, conducted last Friday, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hot Pod: Walk me through the big idea behind this subscription effort.
Joel Sucherman: Let’s start at the very top. Podcast subscriptions fit squarely into the NPR Strategic Plan, and into two of our four pillars specifically: diversifying and growing our revenue models, and realizing the power of the local-national network for an on-demand future.
We look at this as an opportunity to create new revenue streams that can help fund the creation of new shows and support the ambition of existing ones while also funneling money from subscriptions into supporting the entire public radio economy. This is an opportunity, I think, for us to share the benefits and revenue of the success we’ve had in podcasting in a way that we hadn’t been able to do as much as we’d like to previously.
HP: Could you explain what the subscription products embedded in this move will actually look like?
Sucherman: Sure. Think about it this way: You can support a single show — say, Code Switch or Planet Money — and buy a subscription to a sponsorship-free version of that show at a monthly amount, and/or you can become a member of your local NPR station at a certain level and get access to all the NPR podcasts, sponsorship free, as part of this bundle.
We think there’s room for both those cases. If you happen to love a specific show and you choose to directly support it, even though it’s not part of the broader membership, we’re still sharing some of that revenue with member stations. And we’re also working towards an idea of a broader NPR podcast bundle covering an entire catalogue of shows that would only be available as a benefit of membership. Think of it as a little bit like PBS Passport in that, if you become a member of, say, WAMU or WNYC at a certain level — which we haven’t really set yet; there’s some work to be done there — you will have access to all NPR podcasts in the NPR bundle sponsorship free, with other benefits to come. The stations will be receiving almost the entire amount of that membership.
I also want to reinforce the idea that this is not a hard and fast paywall. We’re still very committed to the overall mission of public radio, which is to make our content freely available wherever and however people choose to tune in. We’re not contemplating things like making one or two episodes of a show for free and then shutting the doors at that point only for subscription. We continue to feel very strongly that the content we produced should be freely available. We continue to believe in the RSS standard and the open podcast economy.
But we feel this is an opportunity for the super fans who really love particular shows to support them at the show level and for us to be able to open a dialogue with them in various ways. Maybe educate them a little bit on the public radio system as a whole and the fact, if you’re a podcast-only listener, there’s this thing called your member station in your community that does all these great things. And perhaps you should really think about the benefits of membership to that station.
HP: How are you determining the revenue splits?
Sucherman: We’ve been working with the board on formulas that would deliver money to the right place. Our goal, ultimately, is to lift all boats to make sure NPR podcasts are supporting member stations more than they ever have before.
HP: I’m curious about your thoughts on the terms around Apple Podcasts Subscriptions. They take a 30% cut of the subscription revenue facilitated by the platform in the first year, 15% from the second year onwards, and more importantly, you don’t own the data. How do you view that tradeoff?
Sucherman: So, Apple has been a great partner to NPR over the years. They’ve been a great supporter of the open ecosystem, and the fact is, it’s undeniable that so much listening to podcasts continues to be on Apple Podcasts. They also have years of experience of processing back-end payments, satisfying frictionless transactions, dealing with customer service. Although maybe fewer people are buying individual tracks or records these days via Apple Music, it’s still a fact that those transactions are so easy, and take seconds to do, that it’s a really powerful thing to happen on that platform. That’s no small thing. And while people are looking very closely at percentages — and everybody wants to throw stones at Goliath — the back-end services are a really important part of this.
Now, you also asked about the data. Certainly, data is the lifeblood of membership. We want to make sure we stay in touch with listeners, and we want to be able to know their member station affiliations when they come onto NPR platforms so those stations can be in touch with them.
Our goal is to reach as many people as we can. That is still the public radio mission. And look, if you watch a home improvement show on cable TV, they don’t necessarily know who you are, but it’s still important to increase the number of people consuming the program.
The fact that the [Apple] data will be opaque to us… We’re working towards a way to continue getting to know those listeners, and we’ll employ whatever techniques at our disposal — I’m just spitballing here, but it could be additional promos or offers for newsletters, could be discounted swag at the NPR store — in order to keep in touch with people. There are many ways to try and figure out if a listener has an affiliation with a member station and, if not, to introduce them to that station.
HP: It’s my understanding the NPR podcast-subscription efforts will be stretched across the various platform distribution points: Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, whatever Spotify’s subscriptions tool will be called, and so on. Given that each distribution point will have different terms — Spotify, for example, says it won’t be taking a revenue cut for now, nor own the customer data, supposedly — how do you think about balancing or making decisions between those different points?
Sucherman: This is a really important point — we don’t consider them different distribution points. We’re thinking about things in terms of how we can make these subscription offerings available on any platform, whether it’s Pocket Casts or Google Podcasts as well.
Would Apple have its own way of doing it? Yes. Would Spotify have its own way? Yes. We’re also working with a vendor to build the back-end integration for this idea of buying NPR podcasts on other platforms as well, because, ultimately, we want people to be able to buy subscriptions to single NPR podcasts anywhere podcasts are found.
HP: What’s the rollout timeline for these offerings?
Sucherman: We’re pretty clear in terms of determining details on the cuts between NPR and member stations. We have a webinar next week where we’ll go through this in great detail with member stations, but we’ve been working with the NPR Board for months to make sure it’s equitable and it meets the goal of lifting all boats.
In terms of rollout, Apple has talked about its launch next month, so we will be there at the beginning of that service. And we’ll be, over the course of the summer, starting to work towards making single NPR podcasts available on other platforms. And by the end of the year, we hope to be ready with the NPR podcast membership bundle.
HP: Between the experiments around this subscription stuff and bundling Consider This with local and national content, the public radio ecosystem is going through some fundamental changes in terms of power and structure. Let’s say I’m a small-to-middle-sized public radio station. Let’s say I’m skittish about these shifts. How would you assure me about my place in the public radio universe?
Sucherman: I would say that, for the first time, you as a member station will be getting a share of revenue from NPR Podcasts. And you, without having to create additional content yourself and building out your own podcast business, can use the stable of NPR podcasts to help create opportunities for more membership in your community. This is an opportunity to engage in an on-demand world in ways you might not have had the ability to do previously.
I also want to say: I know the focus of this conversation has been around subscriptions, but sponsorship is still the engine of our digital platforms and we don’t expect that to change. Sponsorship is very important to ensuring we have the resources available across the company, and I truly mean that. It’s expensive to cover the world the way NPR does. So while there’s a benefit of sponsorship-free listening for those who really love the shows and want to support the shows, sponsorship is still the primary means of support for NPR podcasts.
Calling all this an experiment is exactly right. We have fingers in the air and are paying close attention and making best guesses and judgments and working closely with our station partners on making sure that we’re working in concert for all to benefit.