Should We Keep Podcasting Free?

In last week’s Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Hunter Wall of Homebrew suggested that podcasts should be put behind a paywall. He stated that a $30M commitment towards building an audio paywall could equate to the Netflix or Hulu of podcasts and result in a major opportunity.

Our company, DGital Media creates on-demand audio and is a partner with premium brands and creators like Recode and Peter Kafka. We are responsible for production, audience development, and monetization. In my role as EVP of Digital Sales and Strategy, I’ve given a lot of thought as to the relative merits of subscription and ad supported podcasts. Should premium content like Re/Code Media be placed behind a paywall or should it be ad supported and therefore free to listeners? My experience leads me to believe that the free podcasting model is a crucial part of the still developing ecosystem. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Podcasts are really fun to listen to. They are, as it turns out, really fun to create and hobbyist are a big part of the industry’s development. For every Serial, This American Life, and Recode Media with Peter Kafka, there are thousands and thousands of hobbyist that are contributing audio content. These hobbyist creators are also passionate advocates for the space. They help with promotion and word of mouth awareness for other podcasts. In this moment, the podcasting industry doesn’t have bots or amplification tools like Taboola to manufacture scale. Other content creators are vital to promotion and a mass movement towards putting content behind a paywall could stunt the category by demotivating the groundswell of enthusiasts that not only create but also consume podcasts.

2) Podcasting is a progressive digital content strategy because most listening happens off of a publishers home site and on distribution channels like iTunes, TuneIn, Soundcloud, etc. Brands like Recode have been able to use podcasting as a way to disseminate deep and enriching content across device and the social web and promote back towards a fixed destination. Importantly, they’ve been able to use their audio content as a place to promote premium experiences like their high profile conferences. The podcasts are not only directly monetized but they can be used as a marketing vehicle for other brand priorities.

3) In a different part of the interview (and unrelated to podcasts) Mr. Wall said that 1M active and passionate users might be worth $100M to a company but owned distribution channels and apps already exist in the podcasting space. They’ve all raised lots and lots of money but it’s been hard for them to achieve critical scale because of the friction involved for users when compared to the native iOS client (and soon to be released Android client). Would their businesses be demonstrably different if they only existed to publish exclusive content? Maybe. Maybe not.

Of course, the space is evolving dramatically but what we’re seeing more so than anything is a need from publishers and creators for highly professional content strategies, production, audience development, and monetization. A company that executes on those elements will be able to choose how it monetizes its content. That’s the opportunity that we’re filling at DGital Media.