Issue 303,  published April 27, 2021

Unpacking NPR’s Subscription Plans

It’ll take years to parse through the full ripple effects of all these subscription-themed podcast announcements, but one thing’s for sure: These new affordances are already radically reshaping how bigger organizations are viewing the direct-revenue opportunity.

One major example: National Public Radio, the entity that sits at the center of the public radio ecosystem. As Apple rolled out its subscription announcement last Tuesday, I obtained an internal email indicating that the NPR Board has approved a plan to move forward with building out new paid podcast-subscription products with the purpose of “creating new revenue streams for public radio and driving membership to NPR Member stations.”

According to the email, two main product ideas are at the heart of this effort. The first is a single-subscription option at the show level, described as follows: “Listeners can purchase subscriptions to sponsorship-free versions of individual NPR podcasts that can be accessed across a range of listening platforms.” The second product revolves around access to a broader sponsorship-free NPR Podcast bundle that comes attached to station membership at a certain level. (There’s also a brief mention of member stations eventually being able to use these product infrastructures to “offer listeners paid subscriptions to their station podcasts as well.”) It was emphasized that these subscription products are purely optional for the listener and that they will be able to continue accessing NPR Podcasts for free with sponsorship messaging, as has always been the case.

The email also noted that NPR will be a launch partner for both Apple’s podcast subscription tools and similar tools that Spotify eventually announced today. “Research indicates that very few of NPR’s 24 million monthly podcast listeners are supporting public radio today,” it wrote. “Paying for a subscription will be an easy way for them to do so, in the apps in which they are already listening. Together, Apple and Spotify represent more than half of NPR podcast listening.”

This subscription effort marks a crucial shift for public radio. Up until this point, public radio’s gains in podcasting have largely been centralized within a few individual, successful entities — NPR, of course, along with a select few stations, including WNYC — in a way that’s potentially destabilizing to the system as a whole. (I’ve written about this at length in the past; start here.)

To get a better sense of this new push towards NPR subscriptions, I spoke with Joel Sucherman, NPR’s Vice President of New Platform Partnerships. This interview, conducted last Friday, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Hot Pod: Walk me through the big idea behind this subscription effort.

Joel Sucherman: Let’s start at the very top. Podcast subscriptions fit squarely into the NPR Strategic Plan, and into two of our four pillars specifically: diversifying and growing our revenue models, and realizing the power of the local-national network for an on-demand future.

We look at this as an opportunity to create new revenue streams that can help fund the creation of new shows and support the ambition of existing ones while also funneling money from subscriptions into supporting the entire public radio economy. This is an opportunity, I think, for us to share the benefits and revenue of the success we’ve had in podcasting in a way that we hadn’t been able to do as much as we’d like to previously.

HP: Could you explain what the subscription products embedded in this move will actually look like?

Sucherman: Sure. Think about it this way: You can support a single show — say, Code Switch or Planet Money — and buy a subscription to a sponsorship-free version of that show at a monthly amount, and/or you can become a member of your local NPR station at a certain level and get access to all the NPR podcasts, sponsorship free, as part of this bundle.

We think there’s room for both those cases. If you happen to love a specific show and you choose to directly support it, even though it’s not part of the broader membership, we’re still sharing some of that revenue with member stations. And we’re also working towards an idea of a broader NPR podcast bundle covering an entire catalogue of shows that would only be available as a benefit of membership. Think of it as a little bit like PBS Passport in that, if you become a member of, say, WAMU or WNYC at a certain level — which we haven’t really set yet; there’s some work to be done there — you will have access to all NPR podcasts in the NPR bundle sponsorship free, with other benefits to come. The stations will be receiving almost the entire amount of that membership.

I also want to reinforce the idea that this is not a hard and fast paywall. We’re still very committed to the overall mission of public radio, which is to make our content freely available wherever and however people choose to tune in. We’re not contemplating things like making one or two episodes of a show for free and then shutting the doors at that point only for subscription. We continue to feel very strongly that the content we produced should be freely available. We continue to believe in the RSS standard and the open podcast economy.

But we feel this is an opportunity for the super fans who really love particular shows to support them at the show level and for us to be able to open a dialogue with them in various ways. Maybe educate them a little bit on the public radio system as a whole and the fact, if you’re a podcast-only listener, there’s this thing called your member station in your community that does all these great things. And perhaps you should really think about the benefits of membership to that station.

HP: How are you determining the revenue splits?

Sucherman: We’ve been working with the board on formulas that would deliver money to the right place. Our goal, ultimately, is to lift all boats to make sure NPR podcasts are supporting member stations more than they ever have before.

HP: I’m curious about your thoughts on the terms around Apple Podcasts Subscriptions. They take a 30% cut of the subscription revenue facilitated by the platform in the first year, 15% from the second year onwards, and more importantly, you don’t own the data. How do you view that tradeoff?

Sucherman: So, Apple has been a great partner to NPR over the years. They’ve been a great supporter of the open ecosystem, and the fact is, it’s undeniable that so much listening to podcasts continues to be on Apple Podcasts. They also have years of experience of processing back-end payments, satisfying frictionless transactions, dealing with customer service. Although maybe fewer people are buying individual tracks or records these days via Apple Music, it’s still a fact that those transactions are so easy, and take seconds to do, that it’s a really powerful thing to happen on that platform. That’s no small thing. And while people are looking very closely at percentages — and everybody wants to throw stones at Goliath — the back-end services are a really important part of this.

Now, you also asked about the data. Certainly, data is the lifeblood of membership. We want to make sure we stay in touch with listeners, and we want to be able to know their member station affiliations when they come onto NPR platforms so those stations can be in touch with them.

Our goal is to reach as many people as we can. That is still the public radio mission. And look, if you watch a home improvement show on cable TV, they don’t necessarily know who you are, but it’s still important to increase the number of people consuming the program.

The fact that the [Apple] data will be opaque to us… We’re working towards a way to continue getting to know those listeners, and we’ll employ whatever techniques at our disposal — I’m just spitballing here, but it could be additional promos or offers for newsletters, could be discounted swag at the NPR store — in order to keep in touch with people. There are many ways to try and figure out if a listener has an affiliation with a member station and, if not, to introduce them to that station.

HP: It’s my understanding the NPR podcast-subscription efforts will be stretched across the various platform distribution points: Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, whatever Spotify’s subscriptions tool will be called, and so on. Given that each distribution point will have different terms — Spotify, for example, says it won’t be taking a revenue cut for now, nor own the customer data, supposedly — how do you think about balancing or making decisions between those different points?

Sucherman: This is a really important point — we don’t consider them different distribution points. We’re thinking about things in terms of how we can make these subscription offerings available on any platform, whether it’s Pocket Casts or Google Podcasts as well.

Would Apple have its own way of doing it? Yes. Would Spotify have its own way? Yes. We’re also working with a vendor to build the back-end integration for this idea of buying NPR podcasts on other platforms as well, because, ultimately, we want people to be able to buy subscriptions to single NPR podcasts anywhere podcasts are found.

HP: What’s the rollout timeline for these offerings?

Sucherman: We’re pretty clear in terms of determining details on the cuts between NPR and member stations. We have a webinar next week where we’ll go through this in great detail with member stations, but we’ve been working with the NPR Board for months to make sure it’s equitable and it meets the goal of lifting all boats.

In terms of rollout, Apple has talked about its launch next month, so we will be there at the beginning of that service. And we’ll be, over the course of the summer, starting to work towards making single NPR podcasts available on other platforms. And by the end of the year, we hope to be ready with the NPR podcast membership bundle.

HP: Between the experiments around this subscription stuff and bundling Consider This with local and national content, the public radio ecosystem is going through some fundamental changes in terms of power and structure. Let’s say I’m a small-to-middle-sized public radio station. Let’s say I’m skittish about these shifts. How would you assure me about my place in the public radio universe?

Sucherman: I would say that, for the first time, you as a member station will be getting a share of revenue from NPR Podcasts. And you, without having to create additional content yourself and building out your own podcast business, can use the stable of NPR podcasts to help create opportunities for more membership in your community. This is an opportunity to engage in an on-demand world in ways you might not have had the ability to do previously.

I also want to say: I know the focus of this conversation has been around subscriptions, but sponsorship is still the engine of our digital platforms and we don’t expect that to change. Sponsorship is very important to ensuring we have the resources available across the company, and I truly mean that. It’s expensive to cover the world the way NPR does. So while there’s a benefit of sponsorship-free listening for those who really love the shows and want to support the shows, sponsorship is still the primary means of support for NPR podcasts.

Calling all this an experiment is exactly right. We have fingers in the air and are paying close attention and making best guesses and judgments and working closely with our station partners on making sure that we’re working in concert for all to benefit.

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Sucherman, again, is NPR’s Vice President of New Platform Partnerships.

I run this thing.