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Supporting Cast: Slate’s bid to help publishers build membership programs

As the Swedish dust from last week’s Spotify acquisition-palooza continues to settle, there’s no time to wait. Slate, the veteran digital media company and purveyor of fine podcasts, announced this morning that it’s beginning to roll out something called Supporting Cast, a new technology service meant to help podcast publishers set up paid subscription layers or membership programs.

For some Slate superfans, what Supporting Cast aims to provide should sound familiar. The service was built off Slate’s experience creating and managing Slate Plus, its long-running membership program that provides paid users with additional content. (Which, by the way, has now grown to about 50,000 members.) That extra material includes exclusive podcast episodes, which has turned out to be a potent offering — former editor-in-chief Julia Turner once told me that there is “a ton of overlap” between Slate podcast listeners and Slate Plus members — but it is something that they have traditionally distributed with some difficulty.

“It is a pain in the ass for us, and more importantly, it’s a pain in the ass for users,” Gabriel Roth, Slate’s editorial director, told Digiday in a piece last summer on those complexities (complexifier?) of distributing exclusive audio. “What we have, essentially, is a customer service challenge.”

That customer service challenge, it should be noted, primarily revolves around the awkward requirements of jerry-rigged paid podcast distribution solutions, which generally demands users to consume episodes through a whole other podcast app, as a downloaded mp3 file for consumption off iTunes, or even as a desktop-listening experience. “We think people want to continue using their existing podcast players,” David Stern, Slate’s VP of Product and Business Development, tells me. “Listeners develop strong habits around their podcast apps, and are unlikely to use a second or third app just to get access to bonus content or ad free versions of one or two shows.”

To that end, Slate designed Supporting Cast to provide an on-boarding experience that lets audiences listen to exclusive content on their preferred app. It does so by automatically facilitating the insertion of premium feeds into a number of widely-used podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Downcast, Pocket Casts, and Podcast Addict. (Stern estimates that this specific collection of apps covers a majority of the market.) Users of more obscure apps can manually upload feeds themselves. Notable exclusions, however, include Stitcher and Google Podcasts, though that may change over time. Also: Spotify, which is a closed platform.

Supporting Cast steps into the open with two launch partners in tow: Critical Frequency, the podcast network founded by journalist Amy Westervelt, and 5by5, the nine-year-old technology-oriented podcast network started by Dan Benjamin. Slate expects to announce more partners soon, and they’re hoping to use this launch press push to stoke interest among potential clients. I’m told that they’re eyeing two target demographics in particular: (1) existing podcast networks that don’t have an existing registration system at this point in time — “We love Patreon, but they don’t support multiple shows, and they’re really trying to own the relationship with fans,” said Stern — and (2) independent podcasters who are looking for another stream of meaningful revenue and aren’t happy with any alternatives at the moment.

Interested publishers should note a few things:

  • The service allows publishers to build scenarios where multiple premium-tiered shows can be accessed by listeners with a single account, which is a pretty important user experience cornerstone.
  • Supporting Cast isn’t a self-serve platform at the moment, meaning that you’d have to request a demo, fill out a form, and manually work with the team to set up an account for now. Stern notes that Supporting Cast will become a self-serve solution soon enough.
  • Publishers using Supporting Cast will get a dashboard that displays all the usual dashboard things: subscribers, downloads, sign-ups, revenues, and so on. If you know how to use Stripe, Patreon, or Memberful, you’d probably know how to use this.
  • Speaking of Stripe: I’m told that Supporting Cast will support Mailchimp and Stripe integration, which is nice. More integrations to come.
  • Supporting Cast being a technology service and all, Slate will take a cut of the revenue. The company has worked out individual arrangements with its two launch partners, and I’m told that they’re still figuring out precise rev share splits. However, Stern did say that the cut will likely be “more than Patreon, certainly, but less than Apple Store.”
  • Slate was empathic in emphasizing that Supporting Cast is purely a white-label service. “Podcasters can customize the signup flow to match their brands. We don’t stick a Supporting Cast logo at the top of every page. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t treat these members as our users. They belong to the podcasters whose shows they support,” the press release noted.

The introduction of Supporting Cast couldn’t have been better timed. Spotify’s acquisition bonanza last week signaled the Swedish music streaming platform’s intent to become an all-consuming audio distributor, with podcasting being its primary vessel to take on the entrenched but valuable talk radio world. If the bet pays off, Spotify may well accumulate a considerable amount of power over the podcast ecosystem — a fact that worries more than a few publishers, big and small. (For what it’s worth, and I’ll explore this further in a later column, I feel like we need to explore these anxieties more specifically before we can properly assess the pros-cons of Spotify’s gambit. This take needs more time in the oven, though.)

Anyway, these worries appear to be at the very front of Slate’s mind. Here’s Stern in the press release:

This might seem like a strange moment to be launching a product that targets and depends on an open podcasting ecosystem. Spotify and Pandora have entered the podcasting market in force, with well funded new entrants close on their heels. Slate partners with some of these companies to offer our shows on their platforms, as we do with Apple Podcasts, Overcast, and Pocket Casts, in pursuit of the widest possible audience. But if one of these walled gardens comes to dominate the market, it’s likely to share a small fraction of its revenue with podcast creators, just as Facebook and Google share a very small proportion of the revenue they generate from content sites back to publishers.

We think that scenario would be bad for podcasters and bad for listeners. As an early podcast producer — we released our first show in 2005! — we believe a thriving ecosystem depends on openness, diversity, low barriers to entry, and lack of concentration. If podcasters can’t monetize their work adequately in the open market, they’ll have no choice but to offer their shows to one of these closed platforms—on terms that will worsen significantly if a platform achieves monopoly status. It’s clearly possible to produce great shows, sometimes quite profitably, in the current market, but as Slate Plus has shown us, podcasters need multiple sources of revenue. We hope Supporting Cast will enable more podcasters to build sustainable businesses that let them keep doing what they do best: making great, entertaining, informative shows.

Slate isn’t the only shop that’s working to seize an opportunity out of this environment, by the way. Just last week, my pals at Nieman Lab wrote a piece covering an attempt by Substack, the paid newsletter provider, to claim similar territory, and I’m fairly certain we’ll see more efforts at building tools to help publishers to find or scale up levers of direct power to serve as a check against the potentially distortive impacts of platform influence.

Now, it should be noted that direct support, whether as a subscription or membership or patronage model, isn’t anything particularly new in podcasting. After all, Radiotopia was launched on the strength of successful crowdfunding campaigns, and a number of noteworthy publishers currently rely on Patreon-facilitated support models to drive their businesses. (Though, recent reports suggest that storm-clouds are beginning to loom over Patreon, which, you know, yikes.)

But the problem is that, despite all those experiments (some of which are quite successful), the podcast industry, as a whole, remains overwhelmingly advertising-driven, and it’s always seemed like most publishers have tended to prioritize ad revenue over all alternatives. We don’t quite know what Spotify will do to the ad market just yet, but at the very least, it should drive more publishers to diversify and scale up other revenue streams. And initiatives like Supporting Cast is a reflection of just that.