The Podcast War Has Begun

The Podcast War Has Begun
Photo: THOMAS SAMSON / Contributor, Getty Images

Apple’s new Apple Podcasts Subscriptions service, essentially Patreon for podcasters, costs creators $27.99 a year and lets the podcaster set prices for special subscription offerings including exclusive content and early access. To many amateur podcasters, myself included, this is a big deal. It means we might one day get paid for our vapid mumblings. But the fact that Apple is doing this at all, and doing it now after years of slow and steady growth in podcast popularity, is important in ways that aren’t yet clear.

Begin, the podcast war has.

Aside from the audio file, podcasts are just RSS feeds. They’re dead simple to aggregate, leading to nearly as many podcast apps and providers as there are podcasts. This means the true value of a single platform to any podcaster is quite simply the monetisation options available, be it massive payouts to well-known hosts to micropayments via a service like Patreon. While most podcasters won’t be seeing Joe Rogan money, many do have a dream of maybe being able to buy a $6 footlong once a week. And Apple Podcasts Subscriptions comes the closest to making that Subway dream a reality.

Here are the big questions: Why is Apple adding Apple Podcasts Subscriptions feature to the Podcasts app? And why is it allowing creators to charge subscribers for content? First, it lets Apple monetise content it gets for free and, in a vague sense, doesn’t even have to pay to host. Apple Podcasts Subscriptions costs creators $27.99 a year and subscription payments are split 70/30 with Apple getting the smaller side. Popular podcasters get a better deal, 85/15, but given the sheer number of podcasters who have been hungering for something like this, Apple will be raking in millions in subscription fees sooner than later.

While it does look like a boon for podcasters, the service also creates a walled garden. If you build a feed for Apple Podcasts, for example, you need to cull the subscriber-only content from your storage service, be it Anchor, Libsyn, or Soundcloud. In other words, you’re now creating two RSS feeds, one for regular apps like Spotify and Podcasts, and another one for Apple. Or — and this is important — you go all in and simply create a feed for Apple Podcasts.

According to the product description, Apple will host subscriber audio in its own servers but, again, you’re creating special content for Apple users, essentially locking other users out of all that you have to offer.

There’s a problem with this lock-in. For two guys chortling into a microphone about movies or sports, Apple’s offer is more than generous — it’s more than they made before. But good podcasts cost money and time, and the most popular podcasts are either part of a wider network — National Public Radio’s excellent library, for example — or have thus far created an economy based around merchandise and Patreon subscriptions. Changing over to Apple’s service is a big gamble.

Apple Podcasts Subscriptions are important. No one else really comes close when it comes to allowing anyone, from 100 listeners mouse to a million monthly listener behemoth, equal access to subscribers. Being on the strongest podcasting app in the world is a boon to most creators. But podcasts are meant to be free, man, and this is anathema to that creed. In the end, I’m sure we’ll all sign up, but after the slow erosion of music and film revenue through similar sweetheart deals, what the service will do to podcasts in a very real sense bears exploration.

It’s not too late for other podcast aggregators to follow Apple’s lead and, as services like Substack have proven, people like to pay people for things. The only concern is that when you start subscribing to podcasts on Apple’s services versus any other service, what happens to the competition? While none of us will shed a tear if the hundreds of aggregators all disappeared, as history has shown, competition (in this case, the competition to pay podcasters enough to live or at least buy a sandwich) is always better. And Apple is great at making sure competitors will always play catch-up.