Why podcasters are selling subscriptions through third-party vendors

The header image shows an illustration of a microphone with money falling down on it.

As more podcasters offer subscriptions around their shows to build a more direct relationship with listeners and an additional revenue stream, many podcasters are looking beyond Apple and Spotify’s subscription platforms to third-party vendors like Supporting Cast and Supercast.

“We are seeing an appetite for subscriptions, But we need more competition than just Apple in the market,” said Sony evp and co-head Steve Ackerman.

The main reasons for this are threefold: more access to listener data, not being beholden to one platform in particular and more favorable revenue share deals, podcast executives told Digiday. Apple and Spotify don’t share data like subscribers’ email addresses or credit card information with podcasters. Apple takes 30% of subscription revenue from podcasters. Spotify takes 5%.

Supporting Cast and Supercast share listener data with podcasters, giving them the ability to directly reach out to listeners. Supercast charges a flat fee of 59 cents per subscriber a month, said Jason Sew Hoy, co-founder and CEO at Supercast. Supporting Cast takes on average about half the cut that Apple does, said founder and CEO David Stern.

Being able to access more data was “absolutely a part of why” Crooked Media chose Supercast to host their subscription business, which launched last week, said Dariush Brizuela-Nothaft, svp of community & partnerships at Crooked Media. Crooked uses their own Stripe account on their website to take subscription payments. They get access to analytics on who is listening to what episodes, and can make content decisions based on that data,  Brizuela-Nothaft said. He declined to share how many people had signed up for Crooked’s three-tiered subscription around its “Pod Saves America” franchise.

However, the issue with launching a subscription somewhere other than Apple or Spotify is friction. Most podcast listeners are on the Spotify or Apple Podcasts app. Buying a podcast subscription on those apps is straightforward, and can be done in just a few clicks (especially on Apple Podcasts, and for those who use Apple Pay).

The challenge with other platforms is listeners have to click through to a podcast’s show notes and find a link to a landing page, or go directly to a podcast’s website to sign up. It’s also why nearly all the podcast networks interviewed for this story (other than Crooked Media) sell subscriptions on Apple or Spotify in addition to supplementing it with other third party platforms like Supporting Cast or Supercast.

It can also mean more work for the publisher, said Stern at Supporting Cast. “They have to be diligent about putting the link in their show notes, and about reading the URL where they can subscribe [in the podcast],” he said.

But that doesn’t seem to be a huge concern for podcasters.

New subscription platform deals

Betches Media is introducing a subscription offering with Supporting Cast, Slate’s podcast membership business, next month to coincide with a relaunch of its website. Betches CRO David Spiegel said driving listeners to the website is an advantage – it brings more eyeballs to its pages.

The partnership “gives us more flexibility with pricing, bundling and a range of different options. It also gives us more control of the relationship with the customer… from retention or for messaging or marketing or giving them incentives to other parts of our business,” Spiegel said. “We could message every U.S. subscriber in Chicago and say, ‘Hey, you have live coming in three months, before it goes live to the public, here’s a special pre-sale’,” he added.

While most of Sony’s subscribers come through Apple, the company also works with Supporting Cast and Patreon as additional subscription platforms, said Sony’s svp of business development & ops Emily Rasekh.

Sony averaged 10% month-over-month growth in its podcast subscriber count, and 150% year over year., Rasekh said. The company introduced podcast subscriptions in 2021, but in the past year put them into two buckets: individual subscriptions for always-on chat shows and a bundle called The Binge for limited-run, narrative shows and true crime shows with new series every month. This two-pronged offering has helped it grow its overall subscriber base, said the Sony execs who declined to share by how much exactly.

The number of subscribers on Supercast’s platform has tripled in the last year, according to the company.

Subscriber downloads at Supporting Cast were up 205% from April 2022 to April 2023 and paying listeners were up 180%, Stern said. In the last six months, the company has launched subscriptions with networks like QCode, Tenderfoot and Kast Media and works with over 1,000 podcasts. Vox Media is launching a subscription with the company soon, Stern added.

While Stern declined to share how much revenue their podcast partners are making, he said, “We have a lot of subscriptions on the hundreds of thousands of revenue per year, and a growing handful that are in the millions of dollars a year.”

NPR also works with Supporting Cast to sell its NPR+ bundle of 17 shows to 34 U.S. markets. NPR plans to roll the bundle out nationwide by early 2024, said Joel Sucherman, vp of audio platform strategy. The bundle launched last November to a limited number of markets. NPR also sells individual show subscriptions to 16 of its podcasts (up from six shows last year) through Apple Podcasts or the NPR+ website (though “Planet Money,” “Planet Money Summer School” and “The Indicator” are packaged together into a single subscription).

The bundle has led to an influx of new member sign-ups to support NPR’s member stations. On average, 64% of those signing up for an NPR+ bundle are new members, said Leda Marritz, NPR+ program manager. She declined to share how many NPR+ or individual show subscribers NPR has. Single subscriptions have more than doubled compared to this time last year, Marritz said. Bundles, the NPR execs noted, are trickier to sell on Apple or Spotify (Spiegel also echoed this).

A small bright spot

Digiday asked podcast execs if this influx of podcast subscription launches is due to the current slowdown in podcast ad revenue, with CPMs and budgets contracting (a recent report found U.S. audio ad revenues fell 5% in Q1 2023 year over year). But all the executives interviewed for this story said there was not a direct correlation – more so an evolution of their growing podcast businesses.

Podcasters aren’t aiming for large conversion rates, however. Even a small fraction of listeners converting into subscribers appears to be the goal for most.

“We originally modeled out that if just 1% of our podcast listeners become subscribers there is a legitimate business. For some of our shows we are well ahead of that pace, others are not there yet,” Sucherman said.

Sony considers a 2-5% conversion rate “healthy,” Rasekh said.


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