The Future of Podcasts

There’s been some interesting activity around podcasts lately.

Apple has been giving podcasts some added attention. Rather than simply ignoring podcasts, they’ve moved them out of iTunes and into their own app. The iOS Podcasts app had a rocky start but it’s turned into a decent app, and it’s got a great radio-dial metaphor for podcast discovery.

The 5by5 network, one of the biggest tech podcast networks, has been going through some changes. I don’t know Dan’s business model but I do know he’s been losing some of his top podcasters. John Gruber left and immediately continued his podcast with a different network, Mule Radio Syndicate, so there was obviously something going on behind the scenes here. And Marco Arment and John Siracusa both ended their regular podcasts recently, but have continued appearing on other shows (both on 5by5 and other networks).

There has been a proliferation of tech podcasts all using the advertising sponsorship model. Core Intuition, Debug, all the Mule Radio shows, 5by5′s shows .. When I started listening to 5by5 podcasts, there was one ad per show. Now in some shows there are 3 or 4 ads.

But not everyone wants ads in their podcasts.

Think about the Mac tech community. The people that are producing these podcasts. Do you think they watch ad-supported TV or listen to ad-supported radio? I’ll bet they don’t.

Radio is ad-supported. People that don’t want to listen to ads can subscribe to one of the many ad-free commercial radio services.

The web is mostly ad-supported, but we’ve been seeing a trend of sites moving behind paywalls.

TV is ad-supported, but there’s the option of buying seasons on iTunes.

In almost every way we consume media, there’s the ad-supported option, and the for-pay option. But not with audio. We pay for subscriptions to magazines, to newspapers, to TV, to all kinds of things. But there’s no periodical audio subscription.

This was initially where I expected iTunes to go with the new Podcasts app. Open up the option to sell podcasts, and let major radio shows like the Howard Stern show sell their content through it.

And Marco Arment has been talking about building a podcast app, and has recently been tweeting about experiment with payment services. He’s disrupting the textual periodical model with The Magazine, so it’s possible he’s going to go the same direction with audio.

I’ve floated this idea with a few people and the reaction has been universally negative. It seems nobody I’ve spoken with is willing to pay money to subscribe to podcasts. I don’t understand that myself – $0.99/month for 4 hours of entertainment (4 episodes of a weekly podcast) a month seems like a pretty good deal to me, and a podcaster with 20,000 listeners goes from making peanuts off the ads to making some serious money (and the entity running the podcast network does all right as well).

Would you pay a few dollars per month to have high quality ad-free content to listen to on your commute? Is this really an unserved market? I don’t know for sure, but I think so. And if it is, who will get there first? Apple? Mule? 5by5? Marco?

I hope it’s Apple. As much as I’d like to see Marco succeed with yet another venture, Apple has the pull to bring in the really great content and really take this model mainstream.