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Can Apple get you to pay for podcasts?

The world’s most popular podcast app gets subscriptions

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

Beth Silvers credits paid subscriptions for making podcasting her full-time job. She and Sarah Stewart Holland host Pantsuit Politics, a show that tries to turn political punditry into “grace-filled conversations.” The two of them launched the show in 2015 and then started experimenting with subscriptions two years later, first on their own website in the form of monthly contributions, and then, not long after, on Patreon. 

Three years later, they now have over 4,000 monthly subscribers who pay anywhere from $5 to $100 per month, employ a full-time listener-turned-employee, and fully focus their time on the show. Their revenue is now equally made up of advertising and memberships. “It was still a big risk [when we switched to Patreon],” Silvers says. “We weren’t quite at a sustainable point. We thought to get to sustainability, we’ve got to invest more time here.”

Now, the women are trying something new: Apple Podcasts subscriptions. They’re among the first creators who’ve signed up to try the service, which allows podcasters to offer paid subscriptions from within the Podcasts app.

The most popular podcasting app putting its weight behind subscriptions could be monumental. Apple has the chance to popularize paid subscriptions by making it easy to listen and subscribe in one place, and it could influence the industry to shift slightly away from its dependence on advertising at the same time. Plus, unlike other solutions, Apple will also allow listeners to try these subscriptions for free for a limited amount of time, giving people a chance to preview what they’re paying to access. Apple’s not precious about the content podcasters offer there, either. Shows and bonus content don’t have to be exclusive to the platform, and they can mix free and paid content.

Apple Podcasts’ subscription product will let creators decide how much to charge for content.
Apple Podcasts’ subscription product will let creators decide how much to charge for content.
Image: Apple

“When Apple does [subscriptions], it’s like flicking a switch,” says Jacob Weisberg, CEO of podcasting network Pushkin Industries, which author Malcolm Gladwell co-founded.

Even David Stern, the CEO of Supporting Cast, which runs a competing podcast subscription platform, sees Apple’s entrance as a turning point for the industry. “The number one challenge we have in getting podcasters to consider working with Supporting Cast is simply that people aren’t used to the idea of a paid podcast,” he said in a blog post earlier this week. “Apple’s push into premium content will help the industry understand how much revenue they are leaving on the table by not giving their listeners something to pay for.”

The potential upside for podcasters is huge. Apple Podcasts is the biggest podcast listening platform in the world, and listeners won’t have to leave the app to sign up.

But the service does come with trade-offs. Most crucially, podcasters have to pay a flat fee of $19.99 per year to even offer subscriptions, and they then give Apple a 30 percent cut of revenue for each subscriber’s first year and 15 percent for the years following. Patreon, in contrast, takes up to 12 percent of creators’ revenue. Apple Podcasts is also only available on iOS devices, which most of the world doesn’t use.

Apple could make paying for podcasts mainstream

Those may be tough terms for podcasters, but it might pay off. Apple Podcasts’ marketing potential is massive, and it should make it far easier for hosts to promote a subscription. Right now, podcasters who offer exclusive or bonus content often do so through private RSS feeds, which require listeners to input a link into the listening app of their choice — a feature that some apps, like Spotify, don’t support. Podcasters might have to walk them through this process, and if someone cancels their membership, it generally falls on the podcaster to make sure their RSS link access is revoked. Getting listeners to pay also usually involves convincing them to sign up for another platform, like Patreon, a far bigger hurdle than tapping a button inside the app they’re already using.

This is why the Pantsuit Politics team signed up for Apple Podcasts’ subscriptions, especially considering a majority of their listeners are on Apple Podcasts.

“We like giving our listeners options, and we feel like there are people who probably would like our bonus content who just don’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring Patreon out,” Silvers says.

But they’re going to have to get creative with how they advertise their perks. Patreon is more fully built out to support creators who want various benefits. In Pantsuit Politics’ case, subscribers not only receive bonus content, but also a community on Patreon itself where they can chat about episodes and participate in a book club where Silvers and Stewart Holland ship the books they plan to discuss. Silvers and Stewart Holland also receive their listeners’ personal information, like addresses, which help them decide where to tour. Their listeners’ emails, which they also receive, allow them to send FYIs about ticket sales or other content, like YouTube Lives.

The hurdle of signing up for an extra service might be too much for some listeners

“We all just love convenience, like we love our stuff to just be in one place,” says Jessica Cordova Kramer, the CEO of Lemonada Media, which plans to use Apple Podcasts’ subscriptions in addition to existing subscription services. “And yes, there’s an extra hoop to jump through if you’re using something that’s outside the listening ecosystem.”

Apple doesn’t yet seem interested in building the social aspect of podcasting communities, so if podcasters want to advertise their Discord or Patreon, they’ll have to shout out those perks and ask listeners to contact them for access — another hurdle. Apple also won’t give podcasters their listeners’ emails, names, phone numbers, addresses, or any personal information, so Apple ends up mediating all interactions and keeping the data. Apple does say it’ll give podcasters aggregated, anonymized analytics about their listeners, like where they’re based, but these tools likely won’t wholly replace the benefits of having subscribers’ emails or names.

“Having the Discord in our community has been so rewarding to us, the hosts, and the people that have joined it. Without being able to foster that ... is almost like a blocker for the Apple subscriptions,” says Matt Kolowski, a host of a show about movies called 70mm, which has around 140 subscribers on Patreon. “I’d really love for them to realize that a sense of community is such a huge part of creating a fun podcast experience.”

In a comment to The Verge about Apple’s push into subscriptions, Patreon’s chief revenue officer Kerri Pollard specifically called out its community features as a selling point. “We know creators see the value in our offering that serves them and their communities first, and will continue to use Patreon,” she says.

Community has become so important, in fact, that even Facebook justified its push into audio and podcasting this week because of it. The company says 170 million people on Facebook are connected to a page that’s linked to a specific podcast, and more than 35 million people are members of fan groups around podcasts.

Some podcasters say, more than anything else, their subscribers value community

Another factor for podcasters to consider: more platforms means more administrative work. RSS promised one feed for all the apps, but the ecosystem of subscriptions isn’t shaping up that way. Kolowski and his co-hosts upload bonus and early access content to Patreon; their usual shows to their hosting provider, Anchor; and if they participate in Apple Podcasts, they’d need to separately post uploads there, too. If Spotify gets into the subscription game, they might have to manually upload content there as well — although being on Anchor, a Spotify company, might pay off in that way. 

“Ultimately, I don’t really want like four places to upload a podcast to because selfishly, I don’t want to have that kind of legwork,” Kolowski says, adding that most of his show’s listeners are on Pocket Casts, not Apple Podcasts.

But for larger networks, Apple Podcasts’ subscriptions might be the right fit at the right time. Pushkin Industries is launching its first subscription program, PushNik, through Apple Podcasts, with plans to eventually make the bonus and exclusive content available on other apps. Pushkin CEO Weisberg helped Slate launch Slate Plus, a subscription program that includes ad-free podcasts, years ago, and says, at the time, there were no easy solutions for publishers. 

“It was so clunky to get the private RSS feed into whatever player you use,” he says. “It’s just a lot of steps, and to me it was really difficult, and the thing that I was always banging on about at Slate was we’ve got to reduce the number of clicks to get the bonus content for subscribers.”

Apple’s subscriptions solve that. Of course, in the years since Slate launched Slate Plus, Patreon has sprung up, as have other companies like Supporting Cast, which Slate launched to help other podcasters set up memberships. They don’t solve the one-click problem, but they at least provide the infrastructure and tech support to keep a subscription business running.

For these networks, a 30 percent initial cut that eventually goes to 15 percent might be worth it. Extra money is extra money. But for the smaller podcasters who’ve focused on community and creating a fan base of engaged listeners, Apple might not provide enough — especially if a show reaches a global audience that’s more Android-based than iOS. But it seems almost certain that with Apple supporting and caring about subscriptions, more people than ever before will be paying for shows.