Issue 203,  published April 9, 2019

Luminary’s April Launch: Things to Note

The paid audio content app, which has raised $100 million in venture capital pre-launch, announced last week that it will officially roll out to the public on April 23. This marks a slight change to the timeline originally announced in the startup’s shiny New York Times unveiling, which noted that the platform was “set to arrive by June.” The app will be available for download in the US, Canada, UK and Australia.

At launch, paying Luminary subscribers will have access to 24 out of the 40-plus exclusive podcasts currently planned for the service. That starting slate includes a mix of new projects — from folks like Adam Davidson, Topic Studios, Lauren Shippen, Guy Raz, Karamo Brown, Pushkin Industries, and The Ringer — and existing podcasts like Love+Radio, Roads and Kingdoms’ The Trip, and Wondery’s Hollywood and Crime that are moving behind the paywall full-time. Some of those existing properties will continue to be available on other podcast platforms until the end of May. You can find the full launch list here.

Some operating details to refresh your memory:

  • The service is slate to cost $8 a month for its exclusive roster.
  • The exclusive Luminary shows will provide an ad-free experience.
  • The platform will also be usable as a standard podcast app. Which is to say, it can be used to consume podcasts from the wider open ecosystem. Presumably, the free stuff will not be an ad-free experience, because that would probably trigger a legal SNAFU.

Here’s the big idea: venture-backed and polarizing, Luminary is set to test the question of whether people will pay for podcast-style audio content at scale. I say “podcast-style audio content” in all its convoluted glory, partly because of the conceptual and practical controversies surrounding the service — should audio content staged behind a paywall still be called podcasts? Is that a cynical co-opting of a term? What’s with the aggressive anti-advertising messaging? — but mostly because consumers have already proven that they will pay for on-demand audio content at scale, as with the case of context-specific services like Audible (audiobooks) and Headspace (meditation exercises). With Luminary, the specific question is whether folks will shell out cash for general and entertainment audio programming, which is a vaguely similar question of whether people will pay for general web #content in the age of the Internet.

As I’ve argued before, the fundamental question with Luminary is whether it can beat an entire universe of free alternatives by financing sufficiently buzzy projects and/or convincing users that they’ll have an easier time finding good podcast-style programming on its closed platform than on the sprawling, chaotic open ecosystem. Also, they’d have to keep beating the open universe consistently and perpetually, because it’s one thing for a listener to pay eight bucks to binge on, say, Leon Neyfakh’s upcoming project, but it’s a whole other thing altogether for that person like the other stuff enough to continue paying eight bucks over a longer timeline.

Much of this, obviously, will come down to programming and marketing achievements over time. (On the latter, I’ve been hearing word from readers about ad spots appearing all over place: on Facebook, on host-read midrolls on various podcasts, on the side of a bus in downtown LA.) The stage is set; let’s see how much programming and marketing success $100 million can buy you.

On a related note… From the great Sara Fischer over at Axios: “The Athletic, a subscription-based digital sports media company, is launching a multi-million dollar podcasting business. Over 20 exclusive, ad-free podcasts will debut behind the company’s subscription paywall on its app and website on Tuesday. The podcasts will be produced in-house by a team of 12 new hires.” We already saw hints of this when The Big Lead reported last month that The Athletic was acquiring the Count The Dings podcast network.

Two things to note: (1) the way to read this is as a move to deepen the value of a subscription to The Athletic; and (2) as a subscriber, I’m curious to see how the listening user experience works within the context of the app. And as always, this is an appropriate time to raise the question of whether the use of the word “podcasts” is relevant within a paywalled context…

Anyway, we’re staying on the Luminary thread, but shifting gears a bit. This week, Caroline is kicking off a series on various different experiences and realities of making money in podcasting, and the first story involves a look at an independent creator who is developing a show with Luminary.