Through the window

Things to listen to #2

I want to talk about windowing this week. For the very first time this strategy has actually worked on me, and I’d like to analyse why. First, a bit of background.

Like lots of terminology in media, exactly what “windowing” means shifts a bit according to who you’re talking to. (Here I would like to pause to thank the people who disagreed with the “what a podcast is and is not” segment in last week’s letter, I enjoyed hearing from you, but I still think I’m right.) In some areas, windowing means releasing via different mechanisms, like a film being available to stream for a limited time before it comes out as a download or on DVD. Wikipedia even has this helpful definition:

But in podcasting, it has come to mean “releasing some episodes on a paywalled site or app ahead of making them freely available via all distribution platforms”, ie there is a “window” in which they are only accessible to people who have paid for a subscription/signed up for your site/downloaded your app. Sometimes the early-release episodes are ad-free, and sometimes there are also extra bonus episodes that stay behind the paywall permanently.

Lots of people have been doing a version of this for quite a while — it’s pretty common, for instance, if you fund your podcast via Patreon to release backer-only episodes from time to time and to offer early access to the regular ones as a perk for paying supporters. Windowing for podcasts gained attention in 2017, though, with the release of Missing Richard Simmons. That podcast released episodes a week early to Stitcher Premium subscribers, and given that it was structured a bit like a whodunnit (even though, spoiler alert, nobody dunnit and it was not a good show, hear why here), the aim was clearly to incentivise subscriptions from people desperate to get onto the next instalment straight away.

According to this Digiday article, Missing Richard Simmons “drove record numbers of new subscribers” to Stitcher Premium, and — more interestingly — caused a mini rift with Apple, who decided not to give it any iTunes store promotion after they realised they weren’t getting the first release of the show. This is the part that fascinates me because as far as I can tell windowing in podcasting is mostly an attempt to get listeners off the market dominant free platforms (Apple Podcasts) and onto more niche, paid-for ones (Stitcher, Audible, Spotify, etc). This is good: it might finally force Apple to be a bit more proactive about the giant podcasting market they've accidentally ended up curating, and in the meantime, it gives creators a non-advertising revenue stream that can make it easier to run a budget.

And yet, until last week, I had never been won over by a windowing strategy. None of the shows that I had come across using it, big or small, had tempted me to sign up for early access or bonus episodes. I liked it in principle but hadn't participated in practice. But then I started listening to Slow Burn, a podcast about Watergate from Slate. It's a good documentary show, well written and imaginatively produced. It's also part of the Slate Plus membership scheme, and if you sign up, there are twice as many episodes available. Reader, I signed up.

I think they planned Slow Burn like this from the very start — the windowing wasn't a late addition as the show neared release, when someone in marketing started coming to the meetings, but was rather baked into the format. (This would make sense, given that Slate Plus has included podcasts for a few years now, and they recently announced that podcasts account for 25 per cent of revenue.) The publicly-available episodes follow a conventional documentary format, with archival clips and interviews woven into the narration, and then the extra episodes mirror them, with host Leon Neyfakh himself interviewed about his Watergate research by another Slate staffer. The latter also often include longer versions of interviews that were clipped down to a single line in the main show, or indeed that were cut altogether.

I'm not sure that I would have signed up to receive Slow Burn early, but I was willing to pay to get the whole show. Because that's what Slate has done here: they've made a 16-episode podcast series, and then only released half of it for free. It also helps that it’s a really good, deeply researched show with both an educational and a contemporary resonance. So I think what I’m concluding here is that windowing will work on me if a) your show is really good and b) you are confident enough in how good it is to leave half of it permanently behind a paywall. I think this is in step with other trends in the media: the New York Times has got people buying subscriptions by the bucket load, because it is publishing things people want to read and not giving much of it away for free. People will pay for quality things as long as there is no way of also getting them for free, even if they are on the internet! Who knew.

Speaking of subscriptions and paywalls: thank you for signing up to receive these letters! At the moment, I have an early bird offer running of $5 a month or $50 a year, so if you know anyone who you think would find them interesting, encourage them to get on the train now, because after 13 February the ticket price is going up to $7/$70.

I’ll finish up with five links to podcast-related things around the web I’ve come across and which you might find interesting.

  1. Podcast Listeners Really Are the Holy Grail Advertisers Hoped They'd Be (Wired)

  2. The economics of the podcast boom (CJR, from 2015)

  3. Why radio continues to leave television standing (Telegraph)

  4. A Podcast of Their Own for Women in Music (Atlantic, from 2016)

  5. The Walk — hoping to break the mould (Financial Times)

PS Here’s a piece I wrote for the New Statesman about the political resonances of Slow Burn.

That’s all for today. I’ll be back next Tuesday with more — email me on in the meantime if you have any thoughts about what you might like me to cover in future.