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Matt Deegan: Apple’s New Subscription Podcast Features

Matt Deegan is the Creative Director of Folder Media in the UK and is responsible for the children’s radio station Fun Kids and is the co-organiser of the British and Australian Podcast Awards. He writes a free weekly newsletter on radio, podcasts and streaming. Subscribe (free) at https://onaudio.mattdeegan.com


We’ve talked about it a fair amount here over the past few months – the rumoured plan for Apple to introduce pay-options for podcasts in Apple Podcasts, and, well, it’s finally here. At the top of yesterday’s Keynote, Apple CEO Tim Cook dedicated 78 seconds to revealing the new features.

I mention the time partly to be mean, but also to point out the revenues of Apple’s hardware and services business are huge cash generators and no matter how important audio is to us, the big boys have much bigger fish to fry. What they’re introducing today in Apple Podcasts is eminently sensible, pretty well thought out and a great opportunity for some creators, but the reason it’s taken so long is that Apple have always had a better way to make a wheelbarrow load of dollars.

What’s spurred this on now? I imagine it’s the huge competition that they face in the audio space, and a need to reenforce podcast consumption on the iPhone and their other devices when Spotify is running amok in the sector.

So, what’s the deal?

Most of the info is on Apple’s site here. But the short version is:

  • Podcasters pay $19.99 to join a partner programme that will allow them to participate in subscriptions.
  • They create a ‘Channel’ which is one, or a number of podcasts feeds
  • They can add any of their existing podcast feeds to the Channel (or create new subscription only ones) and offer some benefits. These can include:
    • Ad free episodes, you upload ad-free audio and tag it against your RSS version
    • Exclusive episodes that you upload via Podcast Connect that will appear in your feed just for subscribers
    • Early episodes by uploading them and setting an Apple Podcasts exclusive go live date
    • More back catalogue. Sync your RSS feed, mark up the back catalogue episodes, then remove them from your RSS feed to leave them just for subscribers.
    • Free trial period opportunities for subscription-only channels.
  • You set the price for subscriptions. Apple take 30% from the first year of a subscriber’s payments, and then 15% going forward after that.

I think all of these features are pretty sensible and many exist in other places that have offered podcast subscription. All of these third party mechanisms have been a bit clunky, whether that’s Patreon giving you an extra RSS feed etc, or services giving password protected feeds. Consumers want this stuff in the same place that they’re used to getting it, so the Apple option is pretty frictionless for Apple Podcasts users – and the 30% Apple tax is fine to stomach for that ease of use.

However. And there’s always a however. At the moment there isn’t an Android version of Apple Podcasts – so if you’re plugging subscriptions it’s only Apple Podcast iOS users who you’re targeting. Android users, Spotify fans etc, won’t be able to get access to your subscription stuff.

Spotify have talked about rolling their own subs platform out. Please Spotify folk, and I know you read this, for the love of all that’s holy, please at least match these features. If you truly care about Creators, allow them to easily explain to their listeners that you can “subscribe to my podcast for $4.99 on Apple Podcasts or Spotify and access ad-free episodes and subscriber-only specials”. And not for “users here do that, and if you’re on this, do that” etc. Having to use different CMS’ to do the same thing is already a faff, please don’t make it EVEN harder.

However I would look at this Apple announcement and the already announced Spotify podcast subscription option together and think of podcasting as now both an ad-funded and a subscription-funded medium.

So, who does this work for?

I think primarily this is good news for podcast networks. If you have a load of podcasts on a topic, or appeal to a certain group, subscription means you can offer some benefits across a number of feeds. Ad-free listening is easy to deliver and that, spiced with some member-specials, would seem a solid package. For those networks where listeners feel especially close to hosts or organisations and want to support the work, it’s obviously an easy way to enable that too.

Radiotopia, PRX, NPR and Pushkin have jumped aboard I’d imagine for those reasons.

For single shows I think it’s a tougher sell – it’s probably a better way to ‘do a Patreon’ for core fans – but I imagine you’re likely to be competing with organisations offering a lot of content for a similar price. That might be a hard sell.

It’s also good news for people who have already been offering audio subscriptions, maybe through special apps. It is very difficult to reach people, explain your concept, get them to download an app, sample and then subscribe. It’s much easier to be available in a well-traffic’d app, even if you’re surrendering a 30% of your revenue in an Apple tax.

It’s no surprise therefore that the near-dead Luminary and kids app Pinna are part of Apple’s launch partners.

For big Creators – the Joe Rogans of this world – it does offer another opportunity. It potentially offers them a way to turn down big money exclusivity arrangements – so they can monetise through ads and subscriptions directly without the need to sign away their life to a platform.

So who doesn’t it work for?

I think this is the end for anyone in the business in providing subscription podcasts. Apple’s announcement is first, but Spotify and Facebook are not far behind. Though Supporting Cast are toughing it out for the moment.

I think it’s a challenge for Patreon for the shows that are using its system for functional benefits – like the special RSS feed. It probably won’t affect them for the podcasts using the platform for more general ‘support’.

It’s a challenge for podcast apps that aren’t Apple and Spotify. Something like Pocketcasts or Overcast could offer a similar thing, but there’s a lot of friction in getting podcasters to upload their stuff, again, to those apps. It will mean there will be a two tier app ecology – those with just the free shows, and those with both free and subscription shows.

This two-tier problem will also affect apps like BBC Sounds, who are keen to include non-BBC podcasts in their app later this year/next year. Not being able to replicate the subscription later will inhibit the ability for that app to be the default podcatcher for many users – something many at the BBC hoped for.

Final thought

One thing for Apple to remember is that Apple Podcasts is very strong in the US where iOS phones dominate. For US publishers the subscription offer is quite a no-brainer. For the rest of the world Android is the dominant mobile platform and in many places Spotify is the dominant podcast app.

This doesn’t stop non-US and particularly European publishers promoting an Apple Podcast subscription but it will give more of them a pause for thought. They want a system that is accessible by the majority of users.

Subscriptions will truly become a big opportunity for podcasters when something similar is available on Spotify and when Apple release Apple Podcasts for Android. That will cover more than 80% of podcast users.

Now all eyes are on Spotify. If they at least replicate Apple’s subscription features then it will truly mean a new day for the podcast sector. If they do the right thing it will mean true choice for how podcasters generate income for their shows – be that providing a free product, an ad-supported one or grow a subscription business. Something that’s essential for the medium’s growth.

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Matt Deegan

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