The dystopian paywalled future

~Do you like what you’re seeing here? Before we get into today’s letter, please to take a couple of minutes to fill out this readership survey I’m running about this newsletter at the moment — the responses so far have been really interesting and I’m going to be reshaping things a bit in the coming weeks in light of what people tell me, so make sure you send me your reckons~

I’ve been thinking a lot about exclusive or paywalled podcasts at the moment (not least because one of the places where I make audio has just started doing this). It’s a simple idea — instead of a show being free to the user and monetised by adverts, some or all of it is restricted just to those who pay a direct subscription fee. Audible do it, Slate do it, Digiday does it, as do many others. (I wrote a bit about this back in January with regards to the related concept of “windowing”, when the content is temporarily behind the paywall and then later released for free, usually for the purpose of acquiring more first-time sign ups for the paid platform, cf Missing Richard Simmons and other similar launches.)

I’m not the only one intrigued by this proposition as a potential alternative revenue stream for podcasts. “Stop Trying To Monetize Your Podcast With Ads!” is a headline that caught my eye this week, in which article the author makes a strong case for why advertising revenue is never going to scale sufficiently for smaller podcasters to make a viable income, and that membership patronage is a much better route. Superficially, this seems to make sense: podcast listeners are remarkably loyal consumers (which is why advertisers like them) so why shouldn’t creators cut out the middle man and enter into a direct commercial relationship with their audience? There are mutual benefits — listeners get ad free episodes or extra content, and podcasters get a regular income stream that is actually tied to the thing they make, rather than contingent on factors governing the advertising market or connected to other peripheral products.

Lots of podcasters do this on crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, but bigger media outlets tend to build their own proprietary membership systems, and after the fee fuss there at the end of last year, I’ve become aware of more independents following suit. This is where there are problems, though. It’s already harder than it should be for people to get podcast episodes delivered to their device on the regular, and introducing a paywalled element makes the tech that much more complicated. There are different routes to try: some, like the New York Times, have their own mobile apps for distributing paywalled content; others put embedded players on their website behind a log in pop up; still others like Slate heroically try and deliver private RSS feeds so that paying subscribers can still use their third party app of choice.

None of these are frictionless — Slate’s Gabriel Roth recently said that trying to deliver subscriber-only podcasts “is a pain in the ass for us, and more importantly, it’s a pain in the ass for users” — and there’s no one good solution yet. That article also contains this depressing sentence: “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.” I can see how this would happen: I’m a Slate Plus subscriber myself and it took me a good half an hour to get a podcast app to allow me to add my paid subscriptions.

I have no doubt that someone will crack this at some point. However, when they do, I expect it will be because they’re paid a generous salary to work on it by a big network or media company, and what they make won’t be something open source available to the smaller independent creators who stand to benefit the most from a good membership system. The conflict between the free, available-to-all basic RSS tech that underpins podcasting is increasingly at odds with the way the medium is developing technologically, and I’m not sure that it’s going to benefit everyone equally.

Thanks for reading that somewhat depressing screed. I’m thinking of replacing the second weekly subscriber-only email with more industry discussion or possibly reviews of single podcasts, as those are by far the two most popular suggestions in the survey so far (apparently nobody liked my playlists?). If you have strong feelings about this, please tell me.