Podcasts – Pay to Play

I love that little button on the podcast app that allows you to skip 15 seconds ahead. I am an expert at skipping advertisements in podcasts. It doesn’t matter if the advertisement is at the start of the podcast or interspersed throughout the episode – I will find a way to skip through it. Even if it’s an endorsement by the podcast host, I can usually anticipate the impending promotion by their tone of voice. It doesn’t matter if it is an advertisement for a product I like, I am there for the content and nothing else. Cheap stamps, comfortable socks, or a $30 discount off Blue Apron… I am not interested right now.


Maybe I should be though…

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day (an Irish sports podcast that keeps me up-to-date about soccer, rugby, and some Gaelic sports – all of which tend not to get much air-time on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption) when the host gleefully announced that the show had some ‘big news’. My interest was peaked – a big guest, I thought. Or maybe a live-show…

No, it turned out they were announcing the latest change to their business model, under the guise of some ‘big news’. Instead of having to endure those 30-second car insurance advertisements, they will be shifting towards a ‘freemium’ model. From now on, listeners will have access to one free show each week and the option to join the ‘world service’ – a premium daily podcast service for $80 per year.

The podcast industry is changing and someday we will look back in disbelief at the decade where endless amounts of high quality content was accessible at virtually no cost to the consumer.

If you weren’t aware of podcasts before 2014, there is a strong possibility that the hugely successful show Serial grabbed your attention. The spin-off of WBEZ’s This American Life reinvestigate the case of a high school student who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The show had over 5 million unique downloads, and since that time, the podcast industry has continued to grow. 21% of Americans have downloaded one in the last thirty days – that is the same amount of people that use Twitter!

And while you may not consider podcasts to be a particularly social technology, it is worth pointing out that many listeners of a podcast view themselves as a community. The listeners of a specific podcast often view themselves as part of a club, and they often communicate with the hosts and other listeners on social media in a way that consumers of other mediums do not.

And not everybody is as likely to skip those advertisements! A recent study by NPR found that advertising through podcasts is highly effective and that 75% of listeners would be willing to take action based on a sponsored message.

It is not just advertisers benefiting from the rise of popularity in podcasts. Newspapers are using podcasts as way to supplement their core business. The New York Times Associate Editor Sam Dolnick recently said that “In text, reporters are just grey bylines that most people may not even notice, but in audio, our reporters become personalities, your friends, your guides, and we think the loyalty that engenders will draw people deeper into the New York Times ecosystem.”

Instead of trekking around every suburban Barnes and Noble, well known authors are opting to doing their press tours though guest appearances on popular podcasts. Some authors are even developing their own podcasts to entice the prospective reader to purchase their latest novel. In the era of binge watching, Cable TV shows are creating podcasts to satisfy their viewers’ need for more and alleviate the inconvenience of waiting a week for the next episode.

But many large advertisers are still nervous about committing serious marketing dollars to the podcast medium. It is possible to measure the number of downloads for podcast, but marketers don’t know if the user skips the advertisement or if they even listen to the entire episode. In absence of these key indicators, hosts tend to plead with listeners to “subscribe, rate, and comment” in order to boost the podcast in the iTunes charts – a tool used to determine where marketing dollars will be spent.

The pressure is on the creators of podcasts to diversify and find additional sources of revenue. No longer satisfied with advertising revenue alone, podcast creators are likely to explore ways of monetizing their listeners’ need for high-quality content. Podcasts such as “WTF with Marc Maron” have started charging its users to access archived content – a model that works particularly well for the in-depth, interview-style podcast, but not for my daily Irish-centric sports podcast.

Marc Maron.jpg

Obama appearing on “WTF with Marc Maron” – one of the few archived WTF Podcasts that you do not have to pay to listen to.

Many argue that race is on to create the Netflix of podcasting – Amazon’s audiobook service is said to be exploring new “short-form” programming platform. Given the amount of podcasts I listen to, I am starting to wish I had engaged a little more with those advertisements and that the industry was not drifting into this new pay-to-play phase, with high-quality content hidden behind paywalls.





  1. Nice post. I’m actually surprised that podcast have lasted as long as they have. After all, Podcasts are named after the “iPod” (I’m presuming), which have dropped considerably in importance. In fact, it was removed as a major category on Apple’s site in 2015. Yet, podcasts seem to continue to be attractive in a number of settings. The “freemium” models can be difficult to get right, though.

  2. I’ve recently gotten into the podcast game (better late than never?) and I have to say I am very pleased. To be honest, I’m one of those people who doesn’t skip past the advertisements and I think part of that is because I don’t even realize that it is an ad. Of the podcasts, I listen to it seems as if the products or services they are advertising are highly compatible with the content, so it doesn’t even really seem like I’m trying to be sold something. That being said, I don’t think the freemium evolution would bother me too much, but I am definitely not a devoted podcast listener.

    Additionally, I think podcasts are providing a great service to people who are on the go or are interested in learning about new things but don’t necessarily have the time to read the newspaper. It is a great source of information and I do understand how a community could be formed through listening (I certainly remember my roommates bonding over Serial my sophomore year)

    Great insight on a subject I don’t think people have put enough thought into. Thanks!

  3. JoshLArtman · ·

    Really neat post! I’ve listened to a number of podcasts over the years, and I usually begrudgingly listen to the ads. I’d never thought about it before, but you’re totally right – many podcasts these days are so high-quality, it seems a bit ridiculous that we’re getting it all for free. Very excited to see where this medium goes in the future!

  4. joeking5445 · ·

    Great post Paul! I am an avid podcast listener and tend to talk to much about them in social environments. I am guilty of pressing the skip 15 second ahead button as well. I agree that we may look back on this time not knowing what we had. One interesting podcast that I listed to called CodeBreaker (about Tech) puts a hidden code in their podcast every week. The listener must pay attention to the entire podcast to decipher the code. If you decipher the code, you are able to download the next episode instead of waiting for the next release date. I thought this was an interesting strategy as I do not skip over ads when listening to this podcast. I hope that podcasts take a more creative way towards engaging the listener vs. going towards a freemium model.

    1. Joe, just reading this comment know – that is really interesting, I haven’t come across this, but I will check it out.

  5. Ciaran_Cleary · ·

    Good post Paul, I really enjoy podcasts, and I have been an avid podcast consumer for a while. It is the best way to commute/do busy work, which we all have to do at some point. I listen to a lot of sports podcasts as you mentioned and unlike you, I often do sit through the ads for a couple minutes because it isn’t as painful as radio like commercials. Also, I often do take advantage of the deals offer with $20 off Seatgeek or self-promotions like 15% off merchandise. Podcasts, to me, have become a great way to dive deeper into topics whether its sports, politics, or long stories like serial. Best podcast I have listened to is “Revisionist History” series by Malcolm Gladwell.

    1. Thanks Ciaran, agree with you completely – Revisionist History is brilliant!

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