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Paid podcasts are here: What publishers need to know

As it becomes easier than ever for independent creators to put their podcasts behind a paywall, expect more and more listeners to hit podcast paywalls.

There have been paid podcasts in some form for many years now, but the current “paid podcast revolution” marks a new milestone — the biggest platforms for listening are making paying for podcasts easier than ever.

Here’s a recap of what happened: During its annual spring event, Apple announced both subscriptions and a radical redesign to the Apple Podcasts app. The app, depending on what data you are looking at, is either the most used for podcast listening or second, behind Spotify.

It is “the biggest change to Apple Podcasts since its debut”, said Apple CEO Tim Cook. With newly redesigned show and episode pages, listeners will now “follow” new podcasts (a big change in wording, probably for the better) and will subscribe to paid ones.

The new app will also have “Channels” to group shows from the same creators together and search with categories. A “Smart Play” button will help listeners automatically start episodic shows from the latest episodes, while playing serialized shows from the beginning of each series.

Apple also updated the Apple Podcasts Connect dashboard for podcasters, which rolled out right after the event. Unfortunately this has been something of a disaster, with a lot of podcasters reporting bugs, disappearing shows and no official comment on the matter from Apple.

The redesigned Apple Podcasts app by Apple

How are paid podcasts going to work on Apple podcasts

To understand how the new offering by Apple might be revolutionary, let’s look at how paid podcasts have worked until now. 

First, you need to host your podcast on a service that enables private RSS feeds (here are a few: LibsynBuzzsproutTransistorCaptivateAcastSupporting Cast). A podcaster distributes that feed directly to the listener who has paid for access. Private feeds are not available in the public podcast directories and each feed is unique.

After a listener pays for access to the podcast, usually via a recurrent subscription, an e-mail arrives containing a unique private RSS feed. Podcast apps, such as Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, Overcast, Castbox and others, offer private RSS feed as an option. Spotify does not.

It’s a multi-step process with several technologies included.

The new Apple Podcasts subscription is a one-click process. Apple has the payment information of its customers and can easily charge them. 

Starting in May, Apple podcast listeners in more than 170 countries and regions can sign up for premium subscriptions that include a variety of benefits curated by creators, such as ad-free listening, access to additional content, and early or exclusive access to new series. 

Paid podcast episodes will be directly uploaded to the new Apple Podcasts Connect system, so podcasters do not need to have private feeds.

Apple managed to convince some top podcast producers to jump onboard for the launch. Big  names include Pushkin Industries, Radiotopia from PRX, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, The Athletic and Sony Music Entertainment.

There are a few caveats for podcast creators: 

Apple will not give podcasters the e-mails of subscribers, and podcasters can only communicate with their followers and subscribers through the Apple app. 

Apple will also take a 30% cut of each first year subscription and 15% for following years. To access the new premium tools, podcasters will be charged $19.99 per year.

Paid podcasts on Spotify

Less than a week after the Apple announcement, The Wall Street Journal reported that Spotify will introduce its counter-offer to podcasters, and, unlike Apple, will not charge them. 

According to the report, Spotify will allow users to set their own prices and will not take a percentage from the subscription fee. In order for Spotify to avoid Apple’s own iOS fees for apps, subscribers will be taken to the Spotify site to pay for their subscriptions. 

At the moment, not much further information is available, though in its announcement during its Stream On event, Spotify did say  it would be enabling new models for monetizing the work of podcasters, such as paid subscriptions. 

Introducing a paid subscription via Anchor.fm, the Spotify-owned hosting and distribution tool, seems to be the most logical choice. As you can see on the image below, Anchor has become a popular destination for both new and more established podcasters.

Podcast host changes by Podnews

With both Apple and Spotify going head to head in the paid podcasts field, it is safe to say it will no longer be unique to come across a paid podcast offering and as it becomes ever easier to set up a premium offering, expect more and more podcasters to go for it.

Paid podcasts and media

There are several ways news media executives and managers can think about this industry change.

First, there is a clear economic incentive for any medium and smaller player in the field to introduce a subscription. Just think about the economics of pageviews compared to subscriptions — it is the same with plays and downloads of your podcasts. If you are not reaching millions of users, subscriptions make more economic sense.

Second, it is easier for podcast-only media to introduce subscriptions, because they do not have to integrate the whole user experience into their broader digital subscription strategy. 

Media outlets with already established digital subscription models, however, are going to have a hard time working out how to use both the offerings of Apple and Spotify. So far, we simply do not know whether there is going to be an option to connect any of the features to an existing paywall.

Third, having a closed premium audio experience in a mobile app of your own still seems to be the most convenient option for publishers. Sure, your subscribers will have to listen to the premium offering in another app, but you can build your own experience and not to wait for Apple, Spotify and other tech giants to remember you exist. It is not their highest priority.

Finally, all that said, this is a perfect time to come up with a paid audio strategy of your own.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.