Paid podcast subscriptions add another layer of complexity to an already cluttered landscape. But with the platforms resolved to simplify the experience, the promise of subscriber revenue from audio is now very real. Esther Kezia Thorpe takes a look at the key audio moments of the year as part of our Media Moments 2021 report.

2021 was the year the word ‘subscribe’ took on a different meaning in podcasting. Many of the larger podcasting apps, anticipating the release of paid podcasts, changed their wording to invite listeners to ‘Follow’ podcasts rather than ‘Subscribe’. The latter has been used for many years to mean ‘automatically download for free’, but has been seen as incredibly confusing by users who expect a subscription to cost money.

This seemingly small change laid the groundwork for what has been a big year. The list of publishers launching or expanding their podcast offerings continues to grow. But where the real excitement lies is in the potential for paid podcasts.

Show me the money

Although a YouGov survey found that 83% of podcast listeners said they were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ likely to pay in some way to access podcasts, this hasn’t stopped publishers experimenting.

A big limiter in previous years has been the complexity involved in offering paid podcasts. But with Apple launching Apple Podcasts Subscriptions over the summer, the game has changed again. Although the launch was plagued with bugs and design flaws, the platform – which is currently the most popular way for people to listen to podcasts – now offers publishers the ability to include extra perks like ad-free and bonus content, and early access. As well as a $19.99 access fee, Apple will also take 30% of revenue for the first year, and 15% for the years following.  

NPR, in partnership with PRX, announced that they would offer an ad-free version of their podcasts to paying subscribers via Apple. Listeners have the option to support a single show and buy ad-free access for a monthly fee, or they could become a member of their local NPR station and get access to all NPR podcasts ad-free. 

“We continue to feel very strongly that the content we produced should be freely available,” NPR’s Joel Sucherman told Hot Pod. “We continue to believe in the RSS standard and the open podcast economy. But we feel this is an opportunity for the super fans who really love particular shows to support them at the show level.”

German national weekly publisher Die Zeit took the opportunity to put a paywall around their podcasts on Apple over the summer. They added audio articles, and offered access to their 19 shows via the platform for €5.99 a month.

In other platform news

Hot on Apple’s heels, Spotify also announced a suite of paid podcast tools, which they released to 33 markets worldwide in November. It is also working on rolling out its Open Access technology, which will pair with existing subscription platforms like Supporting Cast, Acast, Supercast and Memberful. This makes publishing in one place possible, even for premium content, and opens up a world of possibilities for publishers wanting to experiment with paid podcasts without the hassle of extra workflow (cough…Apple).

2021 also saw the meteoric rise, and even faster fall of social audio app Clubhouse. It peaked at 10 million weekly active users in February, but its failure to prioritise release of an Android app excluded the vast majority of users outside the US. Sensing an opportunity, Twitter released its own social audio feature named Spaces to its platform in May. Having learned from Clubhouse’s mistakes, the feature is much better developed. As a result, Twitter has managed to poach Clubhouse’s exclusive NFL deal with 20 official NFL Spaces scheduled over the season.

To say Facebook is late to the audio game is an understatement. But 2021 is the year it chose to finally wake up to the potential of audio, for better or worse. It began rolling out its podcast product in June, allowing hosts to link their show’s RSS feed up to a Page, which then automatically generates News Feed posts for new episodes.

Substack also joined the podcast party this year. It announced in July that it was funding the launch of a new podcast network called Booksmart Studios, with the option of subscriber-only podcasts. A number of individuals have been given six-figure advances by Substack in order to launch shows on the service, according to Axios. “With the subscription model, you don’t need millions of listeners to make a podcast sustainable,” Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie said.

Another interesting development this year has been the continued popularity of YouTube for podcasts. In fact, in the US, YouTube is the most popular platform for podcasts. The pandemic has accelerated this, given the number of podcasters turning to tools like Zoom to create and distribute video podcasts. “If YouTube isn’t already part of your audio distribution strategy, then data from the Digital News Report suggests that it really should be,” commented Damian Radcliffe.

Other opportunities

At the moment, there seems to be very limited opportunities in audio briefings and digests. Google shut down its ‘Your News Update’, which was supposed to offer a personalised audio experience. Google called this a ‘streamlining’ of its offerings, but it points to some of the difficulties in offering customised audio news at the moment.  

Text-to-speech and audio articles have continued reaping rewards for those publishers making use of them. The Washington Post rolled out Amazon Polly, a service to transform text into lifelike speech, across its articles in spring. And McClatchy is testing ways to monetise the audio versions of its articles, running campaigns with pre-roll and mid-roll spots. The pre-rolls had a completion rate of over 99%, and the mid-rolls 75%, with click-through rates of 1-5%; a promising start.

One potentially game-changing development comes from the New York Times, which announced in October that it was experimenting with an app called New York Times Audio. As well as hosting NYT podcast, read-aloud journalism and Audm-produced pieces, this will also feature audio journalism from a curated set of publishers including BuzzFeed News, New York Magazine and Rolling Stone. “If The Times builds a standalone audio product that succeeds in attracting repeat listeners, it could mark a new era in the audio industry,” noted Medialyte’s Mark Stenberg. The reticence of publishers to rely so much on third party platforms and the overwhelming choice of podcasts make this a very interesting product to watch if they can offer audiences an owned, carefully curated selection of audio.

This article is an extract from our annual report, Media Moments 2021. For more on this chapter including case studies and key statistics, download it now for free.

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