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What Does “Pivot to Readers” Mean for Audio?

It sure means somethin'

So, this is going to start in one place to get to another. Stick with me for a second.

If you’ve been paying attention to what’s been going on in the larger media landscape, you might know that the broader industry has been going through some stuff. Multiple once-heralded companies have seemingly hit the ceiling of their respective innovations — BuzzFeed and Vice missed their projections, with huge questions of their prior achievements in figuring workable business models as a diversified bundle and within individual revenue channels — and layoffs across the board are to be expected. This episode is particularly alarming because it’s taking place in the area of the media industry where hope is supposed to come from; these aren’t the aging incumbents, these are the up-starts whose buzz principally emerges from the (previous) strengths of their business discoveries. As a reminder, this is all happening on top of broader, long-running unravelings: local news continues to wither (and are acquired by consolidating entities with questionable stances towards independent work, aided and abetted by FCC-instigated deregulation that would further hurt media entrepreneurship and diversification), the further dissolution of digital advertising as stable source of revenue with the continued dominance of Facebook and Google, and, you know, the whole rising anti-media trend in a certain (maybe large? maybe just disproportionately loud?) corner of the American socio-political psyche that’s facilitated by sheer media dominance from a particular clustering of wealth…

… wait, where was I? Oh right.

Anyway, in the face of all of this, there’s been a rallying cry for digital media companies to “pivot to readers” (best articulated, I think, in this piece by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson), which essentially means increasing a given media company’s reliance on extracting value directly from readers so that readers may be the prime provider of feedback in the feedback loop that drives the strength of the business. From a business model perspective, this largely translates to a greater reliance on two models: subscriptions (paying for unrestricted access to consume a good), or direct support (paying back after the consumption of a good).

Obviously, the spirit behind this pivot is a great thing, and an arrangement that should’ve happened a long time ago. But I’m wondering about what happens when more and more media companies shift towards either subscription or direct support: will it make it harder for a given reader to make choices on who to pay for and support? Is there enough money and people to go around, now and in the future?

Of course, I’m thinking about this within the context of podcasting as much as everywhere else. We’ve long seen considerable efforts in building out non-advertising revenue streams within the podcast industry — Maximum Fun and Radiotopia with their pledge drives, Panoply with Pinna, Slate with Slate Plus, Midroll with Stitcher Premium, and so on — but it’s worth considering a world in which there are exponentially more high-quality publishers aggressively asking audiences for money. What happens to the choice matrix of a podcast listener, already primed to be the kind of person who contributes cash to shows they love, when the number of choices increases drastically?

(If I knew how to build a quantitative model of a social system — indeed, if I knew how to use R at all — I would also want to layer onto this inquiry the overall podcast listenership’s growth rate, along with the fact that each podcast listener has a relationship with 5 or 6 shows on average. Unless we’re talking about “super listeners,” those freaks of nature, which have relationships with about 13 shows on average. Of that number, how many will receive dollars from a given listener of either type?)

Indeed, I’m already finding the support-and-subscription choices in my own life increasingly difficult. I don’t make a ton of money, but I do live in a city where the cost of living is relatively low, and so after paying for the stuff that I need (like food and internet and rent, etc.) and putting away some cash for future Nick (hopefully he’s doing better than I am), I generally have a little leftover to contribute to stuff I wanna support. At this risk of TMI, here’s how l break down the subscription and support rolls in my accounting:

  • The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post are fundamental to my work.
  • The New Yorker, Wired, The Atlantic, and High Country News, but only after finagling discount bundles.
  • Netflix, Spotify, Sling TV, Amazon Prime (which gives me Audible Originals, btw), and NBA League Pass are nice-to-haves, but damn are they core to my well-being.
  • I make some donations central to my value system: my local public radio station, the local New Haven newspaper, a couple of causes and non-profits.
  • And finally, the donations I make in the sheer spirit of supporting a creative project, spread across a couple of Patreons and some independent podcasts.

When I look at the number of podcasts I directly support in relation to the number of pods I actually listen to, it’s a really small percentage, and I constantly find myself in a position of wanting to toggle between shows I’m supporting in a given week (in a behavior circuit that’s not unlike my Fantasy NBA habits.) So, obviously, I’m an incredibly weird person, the kind of fellow who decides to spend his days thinking and writing about podcasts, and as such I don’t expect my behavior to be fully representative of many people. But I think my core decision-making problems carry over: I value a lot of the shows that I listen to tremendously, but I don’t have it in my wallet to directly support everybody. And whenever I do experience a nice bump in income stream, chances are, that’s going into my savings in anticipation for whenever the next recession hits, and probably not to expand the pool of podcasts I voluntarily support. I’m more likely to switch between the podcasts I support.

How will everybody else — the normal people, the Super Listeners — make choices to allocate their dollars? I’m going to thinking about that for a long time, I think.

Before I sign off, I just to make sure I establish this: personally speaking, I’m a huge believer in a consumer-oriented business model, and I’m an ever bigger believer in passing the responsibility down the chain to the reader. (Which is to say, you’re directly responsible for the existence of a thing you want to see in the world. Which is why you Hot Pod members are so great, because you are directly responsible for my professional existence. /brown-nosing.) It’s also worth noting that, personally speaking, I generally consider myself an advocate for podcasts, whose state of being a freely distributed media good has deeply enriched my life well before I started falling in love and then writing about podcasts, remaining mostly free. (Or easily accessible through other bundles that I already lean on in my life, as in the case of Audible and Amazon Prime.)

Alright, that’s all I got today.