Issue 245,  published February 11, 2020

Pay to Snooze

Pretty much every night, I take a train journey north along the coast of Norway. As a chronically bad sleeper, I’ve tried a lot of different things to make it easier for me to drop off. Some were a disaster — turns out, pillow sprays make me sneeze — but eventually I worked out, as many have done before me, that having something to listen to helps me tune out of my own thoughts for long enough to fall asleep.

For several years, I used podcasts for this, often relistening to the same episodes over and over again as the familiarity helped to enhance the calming effect. (This has several times made meeting certain podcasters awkward; I don’t want them to know that I regularly use their voice as a means to achieve unconsciousness but also want to express my gratitude for their help.) But most podcasts were just too interesting to work for this sleepy purpose — as their creators intended, I wanted to stay awake and listen all the way to the end.

That’s where the Norwegian train comes in. It’s a “Sleep Story” offered by the meditation app Calm. It’s taken from a book called Night Trains by the author Andrew Martin and is read by the voice actor Erik Braa (gamers might recognise his voice from World of Warcraft or the Assassin’s Creed franchise). Braa reads Martin’s description of the train journey between Trondheim and Bodø in northern Norway slowly, his voice set over the sound of rain and of gently clanking carriages. Suffice to say, I’m rarely still awake when, after 30 minutes, the train arrives at its destination.

I bring this up here because I think Calm’s Sleep Stories — as well as similar “sleepcast” features in apps like Headspace and Meditopia — throw light on a perennial question we have in the podcast industry. Will people pay for podcasts? This is something we’ve been chronicling in Hot Pod for years now, whether it’s via what CastBox was doing in 2018 or the “Netflix for Podcasting” wars of 2019, or the ongoing growth of tools like Supporting Cast and Glow that enable podcasters to offer their own premium feeds.

Despite these high profile experiments and the bonus episode culture created by crowdfunding tools like Patreon, I think it’s safe to say that the majority answer to that question from across the industry is “no, not really.” It’s why advertising has dominated podcast monetisation up to this point, and why the (contested) definition of the word “podcast” has such a strong association with being free to air. Even the podcast-like series made by Audible and kept behind their paywall have always been framed as either a way of hooking users in for the subscription, or as a nice bonus for existing subscribers. You pay for the audiobooks, and the podcasts come with them. It’s not a podcast subscription platform.

Something that Nick wrote in our 2020 preview floated back into my head when I was loading up the Calm app the other week: “All audio plays compete for the same global pool of earballs”. This came up in the context of comparisons with the Chinese on-demand audio market, which — according to the partial understanding we have of it in the English-speaking sphere — is dominated by “pay for knowledge” platforms like Ximalaya FM, on which millions of users are happily paying for podcast-like audio content.

When APM’s Marketplace covered this trend back in September 2018 as part of a package on the “FOMO industry”, there was a flurry of excitement from those interested in reading across from China to the US and keen to predict a surge in subscription podcasting. As our own coverage of Chinese podcasting showed, there’s a lot more to the space there, but I think there was a general sense from outside that this kind of scaled subscription business couldn’t exist in the US now that (for lots of reasons) a consensus has emerged around advertising.

Yet the proliferation of sleepcasts in wellness apps make me wonder if this is really true, or if it’s just a matter of shifting the narrative. There are many excellent ad-supported sleep focused podcasts — of which Drew Ackerman’s Sleep With Me is probably the best known — yet people who don’t spend their free time wondering about the boundaries of types of audio are also happy to use and pay for sleepcasts elsewhere.

Whenever I talk to people who aren’t involved in podcasting in any way, I’m struck by the degree to which audio is just… audio to them. A podcast app is one outlet among many where they might find things they like to listen to, alongside places like Libro.fm, Youtube and yes, meditation apps like Headspace or Sam Harris’s Waking Up.

Calm was valued at $1 billion in February 2019. What it offers is audio, whether or not those who work primarily in radio or podcasting choose to think of it that way. My favourite train journey story is 30 minutes of monologue backed by a soundscape and it could easily be distributed via RSS; the only difference is that I’ve paid for the app where it resides.

The question I think that those interested in growing podcast subscription platforms have to ask is why people will pay for Calm but not necessarily the premium tier in a podcast app. Part of that has to do with podcasting’s history, of course, but also I think the self help and wellness space that these apps reside in. For me, the apt comparison for Ximalaya FM is something like Skillshare or Masterclass, and I think there’s something of a similar effect with meditation and sleep aids too. Even in the age of Netflix, there’s a sense that self improvement and education is worth paying for while entertainment should be free.

All of which is to say: there are a lot of people out there who absolutely will pay for paywalled audio content, especially if it’s part of a package that promises to improve their life in some way. It’s just not clear if that’s something that can be successfully emulated when the product is called a podcast rather than a meditation.