The podcast industry has been flooded with big money over the past few years, as companies and investors are trying to get into a fast-growing media business that has a lot of audience and revenue growth. (Spotify alone spends $ 500 million on podcasts and exclusive content.)
And yet, throughout this time, the industry's largest player has not made any major podcast business flow.
This player's Apple Podcasts app is the best podcast player, with 50 to 70 percent of the app market – and the time a neutral fan of the industry can come to an end. Bloomberg's Mark Gurman and Lucas Shaw report that Apple is talking to media companies about purchasing exclusive podcast rights.
This is not a surprising revelation. Podcasting is an area where Apple now exerts great influence. This is not to say that any new Apple podcast tasks would be a sure thing.
Why does it make sense
Back in February, I wrote about Apple's curious hands-off approach to the podcast explosion. This is a company that seeks to dramatically increase the revenue of the service, and is currently launching a new video service populated with exclusive content to join the popular subscription music service. The powerful position in podcasting is a handle that can be used to generate more revenue growth. Along the way, it can stop the effect of competitors spending a lot of money on becoming Netflix of podcasts.
The Bloomberg report says "Apple has not yet outlined a clear strategy" here, so it is quite possible that not even Apple knows exactly what the right move is about podcasting. I keep thinking that Apple just can't continue to introduce extra subscription services, but it continues to do so – Apple TV + will soon join Apple Music and Apple News + on the front page. So who will say that a standalone Apple Podcasts + service is not in our future?
That said, access to exclusive podcasts seems to be better used as an addition to Apple Music, especially considering it's the biggest music competitor, Spotify, does the same. Apple can also share the difference and offer a standalone premium podcast subscription that is aggressively associated with Apple's other media subscriptions.
The biggest problem for businesses that build premium audio content is the podcast's openness itself. The podcast world is filled with free podcasts that can be consumed in a podcast app, just as you can visit web pages in your chosen browser. While it is technically possible to secure podcasts behind a username and password in standard podcast clients, premium podcasts do not like that idea – they want you to use their apps, even if all the other podcasts you are listening to are in
I am facing this even with The Athletic, an excellent subscription sports journalism site that has an impressive selection of podcasts that everyone must become listened to only on their own app. I never listen to podcasts, even though I am a paying customer because they do not live where my other podcasts live.
This is the real advantage that Apple has: A huge number of Podcast listeners are already using Apple's app to listen to podcasts. Apple can use its home field advantage to make it easy for users to add Apple's exclusive podcasts to those they already listen to. It's never bad when your competitors face a serious obstacle to success that you can just ignore.
Why it may not work
The great thing about podcasts – and I say this as both a listener and a podcast creator – is that, like the web, is a free and open ecosystem of content. You can listen to podcasts in a podcast player. If Apple makes podcasts that can only be listened to in Apple's own app, it promotes a potential future where your favorite programs are spread across multiple services and swayed into different programs.
You may notice that this doomsday scenario is really nothing more than today's streaming video world (each service has its own app), and it's not that bad. The difference is that a tremendous amount of podcast listening is happening hands-free while people are driving or driving public transport or walking or driving. Podcast apps make it easy: when an episode is finished, the next episode (in a particular podcast or in a playlist of many podcasts) begins to play. When you commute, the last thing you want to do is to have to launch another app and navigate a new interface to listen to the next thing – but that's what would happen in a siled world.
Going exclusive may seem like a good deal for creators as well, but it has some serious downsides too. Well, if Apple wants back a truck full of money up to the front door, I can see why it would be easy to say yes. But if an existing creator or podcast moves to a prime service, a large portion of the audience won't follow them – it's just nature to convert from a free service to something that's paid. Worse, it's harder to get new listeners when you're behind a paywall. You can get sampled by subscribers to the service, but randomly curious people on the Internet will no longer be able to detect the podcast.
Popular podcasts also make a lot of money by selling goods and performing live on tour in front of large, paying audiences. These audiences will be much smaller after a program goes behind a paywall, and these revenue streams will fall accordingly.
Howard Stern made it work when he left the free radio to pay satellite radio, but most podcasts are not Howard Stern.
I also wonder if Apple can consider offering money to popular podcasts to hide the backing of a paywall. It's an approach that has been used by companies like Stitcher, who collaborated with a podcast I like a lot – "Hi from the Magic Tavern" – to create a spin-off podcast that was only available at Stitcher. This would be a way for Apple to get exclusive content without forcing creators to disappear completely behind a paywall.
While I see powerful arguments for Apple to buy exclusive audio content and drop it in the Podcasts app, there is every chance it won. Other companies have tried the same approach, and at least so far no one has really succeeded in breaking the power of the open, flexible podcast ecosystem.
And while Apple's power position in podcasting gives it a leg up, let's not forget that Apple has almost no experience of getting users to pay for exclusive content. Apple News + is at best a work in progress, and Apple TV + is still a few months away from launch. Apple probably has the money to make exclusive podcasts an experiment worth trying, but there are many reasons why it doesn't succeed.