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Followup to Luminary

Let me tell ya: the Hot Pod readership had a lot to say about Luminary, the “Netflix of Podcast” metaphor, and the notion of paid podcasting more broadly. Rolling off the momentum, I just wanted to go back over something.

More than a few readers, perhaps partial towards Luminary’s gambit, interpreted my piece as arguing that the company would not work — and that paid podcasting is, by and large, a bad thing. To be clear: that’s not my argument on both counts. As I mentioned in the column, I’m fundamentally not comfortable with predicting outcomes. But, generally speaking, I’m just curious about the company’s structural ability to beat the pure dead-lift of creating a generalized consumer-facing media platform from scratch.

And on the point about paid podcasting being bad for podcasting: again, not my argument. Personally, I believe there is some need for complementary paid business models in the podcast ecosystem, if only to take some risk out of the equation for certain kinds of show genres or creatives. (I am thinking, chiefly, of limited-run podcasts that are costlier to produce and harder to monetize on the head.)

But the thing about this is that such gambits need to be specific in the value they are offering. Which is to say, as a consumer, I need to know specifically what I’m getting when I pay $8/mo for access to your product when I can get broad alternatives — that are only free, but endlessly generating via the open system — just about anywhere else. That’s why, in one of my earlier forays into thinking through the prospect of paid podcasting, my preferred metaphor is Headspace, not Netflix.

There is another, perhaps more pressing issue: the cumulative burden of subscription businesses on the consumer over time. Over at Fast Company, the journalist Melissa Locker laid out an argument against paid podcasts that hinges on the following chunk:

One of the great things about podcasting thus far is the relatively low barrier to entry. Anyone with a microphone, a closet, and the ability to upload files to Apple Podcasts can have a show. These new flashy big money deals could leave a lot of smaller, indie, just-starting-up creators in the dark as podcast listeners have to pick and choose where they spend their subscription money. (Subscriptions to Netflix and a “Netflix of podcasts” would run around $20 a month, which is a lot to a lot of people.) This is the one time I’ll let the whole “anyone can start a podcast” thing pass, because, in this instance, the point isn’t that “podcasting is easy,” it’s literally that “anybody has the same capacity to compete on an equal playing field.” Lots of folks taken up that portion of the argument elsewhere; personally, I’m fixated on the consumer cost side of things.

In my own life, I have subscriptions for a wide variety of things spanning a wide variety of buckets: things like The Times and The Post and MalaysiaKini and the Wall Street Journal but also Stratechery and TrueHoops and some Kickstarters and my local public radio station but also Netflix and Hulu and also a few causes and a few Patreons. I sincerely do not know how much more I’m able to take — death by a thousand paper cuts! — and I swear to god if re-bundling doesn’t happen then we’re not going to be very happy seeing evolution play out its course.

Two more things:

  • Among the scenarios in which Luminary can actually achieve in its ambitions, I find myself coming back to the following idea: Podcasting, as we know it, is largely structurally defined by its potentially infinite supply. There is a path towards value in making a massive, unwieldy universe small and manageable.
  • Oh man. (Twitter) You know, I thought the Spotify-Gimlet-Anchor nexus was going to be the thing to spark Civil War-ish vibes in podcast-land, but, uh, I guess not.