When Apple and Spotify launched their premium subscription podcasts earlier this year, some feared that the tech giants will end up dominating the market and stifle the growth of projects on a smaller budget.
But NRC, a Dutch publisher that has historically relied on a subscription model to finance its journalism, considers this a positive sign. After all, it means that podcasts are moving away from purely relying on ads and consumers are willing to pay for quality content.
For a media brand that does not give its journalism away for free, podcasting has always been a challenge for NRC. To make it viable, the publisher uses audio as a new way for people to discover its work and subscribe to other products, according to Elske Schouten, deputy editor in chief at NRC, speaking at the Virtual Newsroom Summit.
In October 2020, the publisher launched its own app NRC Audio that not only hosts all of its podcasts but also guides listeners towards third-party content that the publisher recommends. The app is free and is also part of the basic subscription plan to add value and help prevent cancellations (churn). With an average of 2.5m monthly downloads and a 120 per cent year-on-year increase in downloads, the platform is doing pretty well.
Giving the writers a voice - quite literally - also helps the readers to discover who is behind the story, create a relationship and engage with other content. And that is not only true of younger audiences, NRC sees growth in listeners over 50, too.
Hosting podcasts on its own platform gives the publisher access to audience data that Apple or Spotify would be reluctant to share, although it still hosts four of its podcasts on these platforms.
"We are seeing right now that the podcasts we only publish on our own platform tend to average around 50 per cent of the numbers we are reaching on the public platforms, so that’s really encouraging. [It shows] that people will want to consume audio as part of their digital subscription and that they are also willing to do so on our platforms," says Harrison van der Vliet, deputy editor at NRC, who also spoke at the event.
Towards personalised recommendations
Like with NRC, the trend in the podcasting world towards personalised, subscription-based services can be seen elsewhere. Last year, Amazon Music bought Wondery, an independent podcast production app, for $300 million. Wondery uses personalised features to recommend other podcasts that the user may enjoy, similar to Netflix.
Although the app is currently free, users who subscribe for $4.99 per month can get ad-free episodes, as well as early access to shows and bonus content. Although it is based in the US, Wondery has already entered the UK market with its show British Scandal, hosted by former BBC Radio 1 presenter Alice Levine.
The discoverability challenge
But even with Amazon’s backing, the UK market is notoriously hard to penetrate as the audio production is largely dominated by the BBC and its Sounds app.
Crowd Network, a podcast company based in Manchester formed by four former BBC executives, is attempting to disrupt the podcast market by monetising the podcasts they create and own through sponsorships, advertising, merchandise and live shows.
CEO Mike Carr says: "The UK market is different to the US market. The sheer volume of content that is produced by the BBC, their marketing advantage, and the fact that consumers are directed towards BBC Sounds, which hosts only BBC podcasts, makes the discoverability of new titles a real challenge.
"You will only make revenue from your podcast if the audience is in the region of 20,000 downloads per week – this figure will put you in the top five per cent of podcasts. That revenue is still not guaranteed."
Despite this, he believes that subscription-based services will be beneficial:
"Primarily the subscription services being brought by Apple and Spotify are a good thing for podcasters. It will take some working through but it is available for anyone who produces a podcast, so there will be some companies who make it work and some don't.
"I think the audience is ready to pay for the presenters and shows they love, but you have to build that loyalty first."
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