Paywalls and prospects. I’ve always been curious about Stitcher Premium. There are several reasons for this. The first and most prominent is a matter of my inbox: over the past few months, I’ve seen an uptick in messages from creators asking about the pros and cons of working with the paywalled premium podcast platform. Some, I suspect, were driven to inquire by the presence of opportunity. Others, perhaps, were merely curious.
The second reason has to do with my ever-shifting feelings on the value of paywalls within the context of podcasting. I understand the strategic need for business model and product diversification over the long term. But I’ve always been skeptical about the upside for both listeners and creators. In terms of the former, I can’t get past the feeling that it’s incredibly difficult to get someone to pay for something that they can get free alternatives to. In terms of the latter, I tend to see it as a pathway with a high floor but low ceiling — which is to say, it’s a more stable deal, but the trade-off involves a hard limit in what you can get back.
The third reason is risk as it specifically pertains to Midroll. Indeed, the move to build a complementary non-advertising revenue stream is a smart one for the long term. But the short-term trade-off involves possibly incurring the distaste of Apple. The front editorial page of Apple remains valuable real estate for driving earballs, and it’s an open secret that access to said real estate is still very much a manual affair. It’s also been reported that Apple doesn’t really like it when publishers prioritize their own platforms and engage in acts of “windowing” — as in the case of Missing Richard Simmons, a Stitcher Premium collaboration, in which Apple abandoned marketing plans for that podcast after learning that it would be releasing episodes early on the paywalled Stitcher platform, according to Digiday. In my mind, any move to further expand Stitcher Premium’s power, then, is a move that brings the Stitcher-Apple relationship deeper into complication.
Anyway, back to the matter of my inbox. At some point over the past few months, I made a note to myself: once I get thirty inquiries on Stitcher Premium, I’ll hit up Midroll CEO Erik Diehn to lay out his thinking — and his pitch — on the service. It’s been thirty, so here’s a Q&A with Diehn.
[conl]Hot Pod: I’ve been hearing that you guys have been more aggressive over the past few months in signing up new shows for Stitcher Premium. Is this true?[/conl]
[conr]Erik Diehn: I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but if investing in more great new original content, hiring staff to help connect with more content creators and more listeners, and ramping up on the product side to make a better experience is more aggressive, then I suppose we are!
In truth, we’ve been working for a while on our premium offering, and as with any product, those investments can take time to pay off. Even though we are ramping up, our efforts have really just been a continuous process of growth and improvement. We’ve been steadily adding users, and as the pool of subscribers has grown, so has the budget for Stitcher Premium content. It’s true that we are now at a point where we can undertake some very substantial content projects — e.g. Wolverine — so I can understand the perception that we’re suddenly upping the game. But the reality is that we’ve been pushing just as hard all along, and we’re finally hitting a scale where that’s becoming evident to a wider audience.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Could you walk me through what, exactly, shows will be getting out of signing up to be distributed through Stitcher Premium? Let’s say I create a decently sized fiction podcast — what’s the incentive to go behind the paywall?[/conl]
[conr]Diehn: I’d phrase it less as the benefits for “signing up” to be on Stitcher Premium and more like this: what are the benefits that a creator, podcaster or publisher can realize from working with Stitcher to develop a premium offering?
Broadly speaking, one very obvious benefit is adding a new revenue source — subscription revenue — that is both complementary to and reduces reliance on advertising. Diversification of revenue is happening throughout the media landscape, and podcasting is no exception. The boom-and-crash cycles of advertising (digital advertising in particular) make growing a sustainable career or business in media risky, and paid models absolutely help mitigate that risk. Creating a premium offering through us is increasingly a reliable and sustainable paid model for podcast talent.
Beyond that, the premium model enables content types that this industry sometimes struggles to successfully support through ad sales — for example, fiction. Short-run series have a very finite window in which to generate ad revenue, but as a paid product can have a long and venerable life as part of a premium catalog offering. Integrating ads into fiction content effectively can be a struggle; with a paid model, they’re not necessary. As a result, our growing pool of premium revenue actually allows creators to get paid to bring things to life that might have never seen the light of day (or at the very least, never earned a dollar otherwise).
Finally, a premium offering is a great way for shows and creators to deliver something extra to their most devoted fans, deepening engagement and giving fans a way to directly support their favorite shows. We’re not alone in doing this — Kickstarter, Patreon, and even public radio all thrive on this idea — but it’s especially effective in podcasting, where great shows earn outsized fan loyalty and affection.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Setting aside Wolverine, what would you say are the best examples of successful Stitcher Premium campaigns?[/conl]
[conr]Diehn: This list has grown amazingly long; we have thousands of hours of original content available for Stitcher Premium now, and that’s before even considering the many thousands of hours of back catalog/archive content we have available. But if I had to pick a few:
- WTF: As a launch partner and a pioneer in the paid archive model, this collaboration remains one of the best we’ve entered in to. We’re also pleased that it’s expanded beyond the untouched back catalog; “Lorne Stories” is a great example of how archive content can be repurposed into an original special in a compelling way that really adds value for listeners.
- The Mysterious Secrets Of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium: We took a big chance (at the time) on this epic comedic fiction series from Jemaine Clement, and it paid off fabulously. This show gave us a blueprint for what premium original content could be, and it sent a signal to listeners that we’d be raising the bar with what we do.
- GWF, Bitch Sesh, and other shows with bonus episodes: We have a growing list of partner shows with highly, highly engaged audiences, and we’ve now demonstrated that an extra episode every couple of weeks can really deliver for both creator and fan. We also love that the exchange of value here isn’t limited to the bonus eps — all these fans get access to the full catalog of Stitcher Premium, so the reward they get for supporting their favorite show just grows in value every month.
- Comedy albums (Comedy Central and AST Records): Early on, these provided a large chunk of the catalog value for our comedy-centric Howl subscribers, but they remain a valuable staple even as the audience expands into new genres. We wanted to make sure we launched with content that was a good value, so bringing in content that was already only available in a paid model was an excellent way to do this.
- The Seth Morris Radio Project, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project Season 2, Hollywood Masterclass: We have produced so many really amazing and innovative shows for the Earwolf audience from our best Earwolf talent that it’s hard to list them all. We are at a point with Earwolf and comedy that I think we’re really fulfilling the promise of Premium, which is (as I noted earlier) helping creators get paid to bring amazing things to life that might otherwise have not happened.
- The BBC: I love that we have the full The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy radio drama in Stitcher Premium. It was hard to find for a long time, and now we’re able to bring to a whole new generation of listeners.
- Today, Explained, ad-free: I know we’re a partner in creating it, but I really enjoy this show. And I know we’re a major seller of advertising, but listening to shows ad-free can be a real joy in a world filled with commercial messages.
[conl]Hot Pod: I’m going to guess that you’re not able to publicly disclose the number of Premium subscribers. Can you gesture toward the broad size?[/conl]
[conr]Diehn: That’s correct, I can’t disclose numbers. I can tell you that we’ve hit or exceeded our growth forecasts for two years now, and we are funding projects like Wolverine because we have an audience that’s grown large enough to support projects of that scope.[/conr]
[conl]Hot Pod: Could you talk about the standard deal that shows get if they sign onto Premium? Or does it differ drastically from show to show?[/conl]
[conr]Diehn: These do indeed differ drastically by show. Some deals have been fixed fee; some are based on a share of subscriber revenue. In some cases we’re acquiring IP; in others, we’re just licensing it. But we think that overall, the deals are fair for all sides and providing real value to creators.[/conr]
[conr]Hot Pod: Anything else you want to add?[/conr]
[conr]Diehn: In a nutshell, Stitcher Premium let us build a direct-to-consumer, paid subscription business that provides real revenue to creators (and, obviously, to Midroll). It provides an increasingly large ad-free offering for those who prefer to go ad-free, and it enables and allows new content types and genres at a higher level of support and production than might be possible otherwise.
In our mission to build the best place for podcasts, it’s important for both audiences and creators to really make this offering work, and we’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.[/conr]
Tuesday morning news drop.
- The BBC has announced that Jason Phipps, currently the head of audio at The Guardian, will be the organization’s first commissioning editor for podcasts. (Not an American!)
- WNYC and PRI have announced that Tanzina Vega, reporter and columnist previously at CNN and The New York Times, will be the new host of The Takeaway starting May 7. Vega replaces John Hockenberry, who was accused of sexual harassment last December. Todd Zwillich had been serving as the interim host.
“The Daily is the new front page,” said Sam Dolnick, The New York Times’ assistant managing editor, in a speech last Friday during an event celebrating the podcast’s first year. It was a triumphant and somewhat straightforward affair, featuring a mix of Times folk, Daily superfans, and, of course, a number of podcast executives. The gathering also doubled as the pump-primer for the Times Audio team’s upcoming gamble: Caliphate, the limited-run series on the Islamic State hosted by Rukmini Callimachi, which will further serve as the Times’ first attempt at windowing. Subscribers will get the podcast early through the Times app at some point in April; everyone else will have to wait a few more weeks.
The notion of the daily news podcast as the new front page is an interesting one, especially when considered against the conventional wisdom that “the front page is dead” in the age of the social web, which was an argument beaten into me when I was first starting out in the media business, like, four years ago. (Feels like just yesterday, but also an eternity.) The dominance of the social web resulted in what you could describe as a furious atomization of media organizations to the point of non-identity. Within this environment, it’s hard for media entities to express their will as editors, as it’s hard to put your foot down and call something important when the sound of that foot-stepping is smothered by the editorial priorities of opaque, capricious, and vaguely pernicious social media algorithms.
You could argue that a good deal of the power underlying the daily news podcast, and The Daily in particular, comes from the way its structure reclaims the benefits of a holistic editorial identity. As a self-contained media bundle, the editorial team of any given daily news podcast still has the capacity to express judgment, discretion, direction. Within the relative linearity of a podcast episode, a “top story” is truly a top story, as it is fully backed by a consumption context in which the “top story” label means something. That meaning is derived from an established understanding of finitude and scarcity; there is only one story (or one small set of stories) we’re telling you today, and then it ends, because really it’s the biggest thing you need to know in a given morning, and everything else is rendered into something you have to fish out for yourself.
The Daily is paying off for the New York Times — someone was telling me that, beyond whatever advertising revenue it’s generating, the podcast is furthermore a strong piece of brand advertising for the organization. And sure enough, that’s going to have a ripple effect, in that we’re bound to see other companies to build stuff for the category. We already have a decently long list of other daily news podcast publishers: NPR’s Up First, Vox’s Today, Explained, BuzzFeed’s Reporting To You, The Outline World Dispatch.
But we will almost certainly see more in the months to come. ABC News just announced its own daily news podcast, “Start Here,” which will begin its run tomorrow, and from the sounds of the trailer, it sounds like it’s going to be “The Daily, but with these people instead of those people.” And I’ve heard of at least two more major media companies thinking seriously about commissioning their own takes on the genre.
It makes me wonder: what happens to the value of daily news podcasts when the space becomes saturated? I don’t know the answer to that. What happens when there is an abundance of front pages?
Significant digits. KPCC, the Los Angeles public radio station, closed out its first investigative podcast, Repeat, earlier this month, and as of Friday afternoon, the six-part limited-run series has reportedly brought in over 910,000 downloads. “I think we will be hitting that million download mark soon,” Arwen Nicks, senior producer of on-demand audio, told me.
That strikes me as a fairly successful podcast campaign, though it should be noted that KPCC is one of the biggest public radio stations in the country.
A couple of notes:
- A decent comparison would probably be Minnesota Public Radio’s 74 Seconds. According to this grantee information sheet, that show has brought in more than 1.2 million downloads since its release, making it “the most successful podcast MPR has produced.” However, this isn’t quite a good apples-to-apples comparison. 74 Seconds is an investigative podcast, conducted in semi-real time, that debuted last May and wrapped production in mid-August after 22 installments (not counting a trailer and “further listening” package that dropped in February).
- “I don’t feel like I have enough data to know exactly what worked and what didn’t as far as getting the word out,” Nicks said, when asked about major learnings from the project. “But my advice for anyone who is trying to get listeners is to get your show featured on NPR One. That was a huge push for us.”
- The team is currently working on KPCC’s next podcast project. It’s apparently top secret at this writing, with official details to be announced later.
For now, Nicks is no longer waking up in the middle of the night to check download numbers. She also notes that she’s rewatching ER, which she finds “really holds up.”
Speaking of investigative public radio podcasts…
- In The Dark, American Public Radio’s really good series from 2015, is back with a different case for its second season on May 1. Mark your calendars.
- Meanwhile, WHYY is bringing back Cosby Unraveled for its own second season, which will endeavor to “prepare listeners for Bill Cosby’s retrial set against the backdrop of the #MeToo moment.” Cosby’s first trial for sexual assault last summer ended in a retrial. That podcast will kick off tomorrow.
- Panoply will release its new serialized nonfiction narrative show, Empire on Blood, tomorrow. They’re doing the all episode-drop thing, which we should talk about at some point.
- Speaking of binge-dropping: tomorrow also marks one year since the release of S-Town. Cheers to Brian Reed, who can be found most recently discussing North Korean walls on This American Life.
No, Gimlet isn’t actually interested in buying NPR One. Went back and forth on including this one, but I received enough messages on the matter that it warranted at least a mention. Let’s bust this out in bullets:
- During a session at the RAIN Podcast Business Summit last week, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg was interviewed by Laura Correnti and Alexa Christon, hosts of the advertising industry podcast Adlandia.
- Adlandia has this recurring feature called “Kill, Buy, DIY,” which is pretty much what you think it is: a game where guests are made to name advertising or marketing or media thing they’d…kill, buy, or DIY.
- Anyway, Blumberg’s “Buy” was NPR One, because, well, the dude likes the app.
- Of course, this being 2018, context takes a hit when something travels. This tweet led to these tweets, which led to folks texting me on a Thursday afternoon about “this Gimlet-NPR One thing,” which then led to you reading this sentence right now.
To put a lid on it, a spokesperson wrote when contacted: “Literally just a compliment to NPR One for being a great app. We, of course, have zero plans at all. It was a hypothetical game!”
So there’s that. That being said, there are kerfuffles, and then there are the conditions that fertilize the growth of kerfuffles in the first place. You could say that this peculiar incident tells us something about Gimlet’s complicated — some would say polarizing — profile in the podcast ecosystem as the big venture capital-backed demogorgon out for global dominance. But you could also say that it tells us something about the anxieties that pervade certain corners around what’s changing in the ecosystem. It’s a strange episode, though a perfectly telling one as well.
Anyway, I imagine the thing that Gimlet is really focused on this week is the premiere of Alex, Inc on ABC, which marks the first of the company’s adaptations to hit the market. That takes place on tomorrow night.
Also, take a gander at this line from a Washington Post article previewing the TV show: “The network, known for producing shows like Reply All and Crimetown, reports that its podcasts are downloaded more than 12 million times per month, and StartUp has ‘tens of millions’ of downloads on its own.” It’s unclear if that’s global or just within the US, but for comparison’s sake, WNYC Studios pulled in over 42 million global downloads in February across 50 shows, per Podtrac. Gimlet had 13 active shows, 5 dormant.
Membership in the age of podcasts. So, there’s this thing called the Membership Puzzle Project, and it’s a research collaboration between the Dutch news site De Correspondent and New York University that’s working to pull together knowledge on how news organizations can best integrate membership strategies into their respective business models.
Last week, the project released a new report on how public radio — a system historically built on the strength of memberships carved out from its broadcast audiences — is grappling with the model as the world shifts towards digital modes of consumption.
The whole report is worth plumbing through, but I wanted to break out this chunk:
Podcasts have been successful partly because they offer a way to build new and deeper relationships with niche audiences. WFMU’s Ken Freedman explains: “I wouldn’t want to have a program about architecture on the air because it would turn off all the political people,” he says. “But if you do a podcast, you can work the Internet and find every last person on the face of the planet who is interested in architecture.” By taking advantage of on-demand behavior, public media organizations can create ongoing relationships with these niche audiences, in a new way.
But in the podcast world, the idea of the pledge drive simply doesn’t fit.
“No one would download it,” says Anne [O’Malley, WNYC’s VP of Membership].
Ken says he’s noticed a difference between loyalty to a podcast and loyalty to his station, although he doesn’t frame that difference as a bad thing. “One thing I started noticing about ten years ago: people would say ‘I love that podcast’ not ‘I love WFMU.’ They know of it [the station] because of a podcast. So there has been a huge upsurge in people who just know of us because of a particular program’s podcast.”
A few things:
- As my buddies at Nieman Lab pointed out, there exists a counter-example: “Slate has experimented successfully with urging listeners to subscribe to Slate Plus within its own podcasts.” However, it’s worth noting that Slate’s strategy there is largely built around additional podcast content for paid members, which isn’t a move that’s all that present in the way public radio stations operate their membership models.
- Better counter-examples can be found with the fine folks at Maximum Fun and Radiotopia. The former enjoyed a particularly successful drive last year, which I wrote about. That campaign, which took place over two weeks, led to the conversion of 24,181 new and upgrading members. Which is to say: ways to do it well have been done before.
- Ken Freedman’s perspective here highlights, in precise terms, the audience relationship challenge that comes with the shift toward on-demand: as a publisher, you are now in a position where you can build niche programming that’s able to connect with people far beyond your geographic bounds and well within the depth of that niche’s community — but among the notable trade-offs here is a situation where the identity of a show supersedes the identity of the publisher. I’d argue that this likely shifts the psychology of the ask involved in any sort of pledge drive.
- New York Media has acquired Splitsider from The Awl Network (RIP). Splitsider has a great “This Week in Comedy Podcasts” column that I frequently skim, and I’m excited to see the feature pop up on Vulture. (Wall Street Journal)
- Art19 now hosts podcasts from the following TV companies: NBC Sports, NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Entertainment, Bravo, Oxygen and SYFY.
- Speaking of Bravo: Connie Britton has been cast in Bravo’s TV adaptation of the Los Angeles Times and Wondery’s Dirty John. (Vulture)
- And speaking of Wondery: the Los Angeles-based podcast company has another collaboration with a Tronc-owned newspaper in the pipeline: Felonious Florida, with Broward County-area paper Sun Sentinel.
- First Look Media has a new podcast out to pair with Intercepted: Deconstructed, with the British political journalist Mehdi Hasan.
- Spotify has rolled out a voice-control feature. I’m not quite ready to say “Play God’s Plan” out loud in public, so you can keep it.
[photocredit]Photo by Holger Prothmann used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit]