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Follow-up to Subscriptions

On the "Things Already Work" argument

A few readers sent me this July 1st post from the blog Birchtree, titled “It’s Not ‘Netflix for Podcasts,’ It’s More Like ‘This Site Only Works in IE6.'” I didn’t catch the post when it was first published, but it hits some of the same ideas I was playing around with — though ultimately falling on the opposite side of the conclusion, I think, interestingly enough.

Do read the whole thing, but here’s the takeaway:

Maybe podcasting has been hampered all these years by the way things have always worked, but it’s also possible that the nature of podcasts has helped make them what they are today. People love podcasts, and it’s scary to mess with that.

I believe the “Netflix of podcasts” nomenclature is misleading. Netflix disrupted the video market by making it cheaper and easier to watch the movies and TV shows that you love, and to do it all form a unified interface. It’s already cheap to listen to the shows you love in the unified interface of your choice, and it’s pretty darn easy to find the shows you want. The types of services suggested by Stitcher and CastBox would make listening to podcasts less unified, cost more, and Mayne, just maybe be a little easier to subscribe to. You know, how Google Meet only works in Chrome for some stupid reason, or how many sites only worked in IE6 years ago.

I’ve heard variations of the “things already work” argument before, and I’ve shifted back and forth in my relationship to it. In the early days of Hot Pod, I generally believed in it. These days, though… ehhhh. I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about the shifting nature of constituencies and cohorts, along with how a penchant for the way things used to work often caters to a static view of who it’s supposed to be working for.

It has been said that the kinds of folks and things that got you here aren’t exactly the things that’ll get you to the next place. But the real rub of that statement lies in the question of who, exactly, the “you” is supposed to be here? In the specific context of the podcast ecosystem, is it supposed to refer to its original cohort of early adopters — or to the ecosystem composed of ever-shifting groups of creators and audiences?

Possible test questions:

  • Does the way things work now work for new groups of audiences? (Consider that the number of monthly podcast listeners in the United States is 73 million, or about a quarter of the population above the age of 12.)
  • Does the way things work now work for new groups of creators?
  • Does the way things work now work for new types of programming? (I’d argue that podcast advertising, as currently composed, is particularly optimized for perpetually-running conversational or interview shows.)

This isn’t to completely disagree with the piece, of course. There is a way in which a proliferation of subscription-first on-demand audio ventures could very well end up building a dumb Balkanized podcast world. I just think that the model can be deployed to do and produce things that the current system would be less inclined to do. I touched on this a little bit in this week’s column, when I wrote:

A prominent premium podcast platform is a more reliable source of money than advertising dollars to fund projects in the space. A strong subscription player can cultivate a better environment for creatively and structurally riskier projects. Its existence ensures the continuity of the podcast economy regardless of what happens on the advertising side of the ecosystem. And to be clear: I am very, very in favor of a strong subscription-first player in podcast-land somewhere down the line.

Again, this isn’t to replace what we have; it’s to complement it.

One other thing… When I wrote about grounding the starting focus of a hypothetical subscription-first on-demand audio in a specific need, let it be known: I’m not just talking about genre.

Also: the larger point I was trying to make about specificity is pegged to the notion that maybe it’s a better idea for early searches for product-market fit to be conducted with… more cost-friendly budgets. Just saying.