Issue 226,  published September 17, 2019

What is a Private Feed Worth?

There’s a podcasting tech problem that you’ll be well aware of if you’ve ever tried to distribute or listen to a premium podcast feed. Indeed, it’s a problem that gets right to the heart of the medium’s DNA: RSS feeds, and the podcast apps that listeners use to access them, require openness — adding a login or authentication option to a feed to make sure that only paying subscribers can listen to gated content is currently incompatible with having said feed work in your average podcatcher.

Plus, since most podcast apps are directory-based and assume listeners prefer to browse and select from a catalogue UI, the option to manually add an unlisted feed tends to be clunky and off-putting to the less tech savvy. On top of that, there’s always the danger that this unlisted feed gets shared widely and attracts freeloaders, which the podcaster can’t really do much about without disrupting the experience of their paying audience.

Monetising the connection between podcaster and listener has become increasingly common in the last couple of years, and delivering bonus audio as a reward for regular payment is pretty standard. As a result, more and more third party solutions to this problem have been coming online, from Supporting Cast to Acast Access to Glow and others, and the proposed PodPass protocol (read my recent write up here) would see a direct fix that allows in-app authentication. Patreon also provides a patron-only feed option for distributing audio to paying supporters only.

A new venture has now joined the flood in this space: Supercast, a subscription podcasting product from the Canadian agency DoubleUp (they’ve worked with podcasters Peter Attia and Sam Harris in that capacity already; Attia is also a Supercast investor and early adopter). The offering is very similar to what’s already out there, with the emphasis on providing the podcaster with a private feed for each paying subscriber and a smooth onboarding process to get their feed into their podcatcher of choice. Supercast also puts emphasis on their analytics, and seeks to provide participating podcasters with plenty of data about what bonus content their paying subscribers engage with as well as preventing so called “feed fraud” when a private feed is shared more widely.

Aidan Hornsby from Supercast gave me a demo of the Supercast dashboard so far before launch, and there certainly seemed to be elements there that would address these issues. The part I’m missing, though, is pricing. Supercast can either integrate with a podcaster’s existing membership platforms (e.g. Memberful or Memberpress) and just provide the feed element, or they can run the whole transaction.

It’s fairly standard on platforms like Patreon for the podcaster to pay for the service via a fee levied per transaction, but Supercast is going for something different, Hornsby explained via email. They’re charging the podcaster a monthly fee per activated feed. So, if 100 out of a podcast’s 150 paying subscribers choose to access bonus content, you pay each month for 100 feeds.

I discussed with Hornsby the possibility of using Supercast for my own podcast, which I monetise with subscriptions via Memberful, and was told that, for me, it would cost $1.50 per month per activated feed, although with a discount offered should I become an early adopter and offer feedback on the platform in return. That would mean that if 150 subscribers activated their feeds, a podcaster would pay $225 per month for this service. (For the record, I declined and have no relationship with this outfit.)

When I queried this fee with Hornsby — it seems like a pretty steep rate to me, when compared with alternatives like Patreon, and easily outstrips what even a semi-pro podcaster needs to pay for other services like main feed hosting, sound libraries and so on — he responded that “we want to make Supercast affordable for podcasters at all levels and are working closely with early adopters during the beta period to gather data finalize the rate and scaling tiers.” He later added that this monthly flat per-feed fee “lowers as podcasters scale up their subscriber count”, discounting “with volume as the podcaster’s margin increases”.

Supercast sees this pricing as a competitive edge for their product over competitors. “The fixed rate model gives us an advantage over monetization platforms like Patreon, who take a percentage cut of the podcaster’s revenue,” Hornsby said. “This doesn’t doesn’t scale well for the podcaster: as their revenue grows, the platform takes more money.”

Curious, I asked for more detailed information about Supercast’s pricing model or tiers, but nothing more specific about what the actual charge would be for what type or size of show was forthcoming. It therefore remains unclear to me what the uptake for Supercast will be or how likely it is to grow a substantial user base, since I can’t evaluate its possible revenue stream.

You might have become aware of Supercast’s launch a couple of weeks ago when a Medium post titled “Howard Stern is Getting Ripped Off” appeared, in which Andrew Wilkinson from Tiny Capital (which invests in DoubleUp and Supercast) argued that “the transition from advertising to a subscription model is going to make podcasters billions of dollars and mint a ton of millionaires.” There are a lot of untested assumptions in that piece — including the one that because a lot of people happily listen to an ad on a popular podcast now, they will equally happily convert into paying subscribers in droves. Which, you know, is questionable. More recently, Tim Ferriss’s experience would, at minimum, suggest this is not always the case.

I think it’s safe to say that when a problem has long been prevalent, the solutions aren’t always so straightforward or simple. And particularly when it comes to a still-developing ecosystem like podcasting, it behooves the peddlers of solutions to mount their efforts in the spirit of complementarism, not superiority. The main text on Supercast’s website reads “Enough with the MeUndies ads,” which doesn’t quite suggest a good grasp of why advertising has been important for podcast creators, independent and corporate, for the length of time that the business has been around. A softer touch, along with a softer outlook on the world, is generally recommended.