Podcasts have resisted the pivot to paid, but there are signs that things are changing.
On April 23, Luminary, a venture-backed app that has raised $100 million, will launch an ad-free podcast model that will cost $7.99 per month. Note To Self, a WNYC podcast that ran its last episode in June, is relaunching on Luminary.
“As a creator, it’s hard to get a production off the ground if you don’t know you have a steady income,” said Manoush Zomorodi, host of Note To Self and now co-founder of Stable Genius Productions. “Sponsorship is keeping us afloat, but it’s not enough to sustain a growing team.”
Zomorodi spoke to Digiday about the future of podcasting, whether subscriptions can work and the missing pieces that might be key to the real success of podcasts. Answers have been edited for clarity.
The pivot to paid is happening all across digital media, but podcasts have remained free. Do you think people will pay for an app to listen to podcasts?
We risk hitting an inflection point where people are sick of subscribing and paying for things. But I don’t think we’re there yet. Tech needs to get more intuitive to get people listening to podcasts and not just for people who are good with gadgets. And then, podcasters never get any marketing. My name is on a billboard at the corner of Houston St. and Lafayette [for the Note To Self relaunch.] That’s amazing.
But most people still use Apple to listen to podcasts. Can you see podcasts exist in a non-Apple, paid environment?
I don’t know if [subscriptions for podcasts] will work, but if you’re a John Cameron Mitchell fan, you’re psyched and you’ll pay your $8 to hear what that man is making. That’s the key to it. The billboard doesn’t have show names. It has people’s names on it. It’s about the relationship with the host.”
It’s still a niche medium, though. Do podcasts have any stretchability that goes across platforms?
For anyone running their own business, the concern is long-term financial stability. [Stable Genius Productions ] is looking beyond podcasts. We’ve leaned more into topics like tech, society, business, culture, work and ethic. I want Stable Genius to be a clear entry point for people, whether they want a guide on how to deal with kids and screens or understand ethical investor models. Stable Genius is going to be about podcasts and, potentially, newsletters. Not sure if it’s going to be videos or not. It has to be about ways to get people together and presenting information that’s digestible, clear and actionable.
Ad models aren’t working for digital media the same way as they used to. Does the podcast ad model still work?
When [a publication] scales, fake news, data collection and micro-targeting happen. Quality drops. Podcasts have proven that when you have high-quality content delivered in an intimate way, the relationship between creator and consumer is extremely strong. We have stories of people who have made changes to their lives because of our work. I don’t want to scale just that and make videos. You have to have a personal voice that touches the narrative. We’re about slow growth and making sure we deliver what the audience says they want. We want to believe that you can make a living on deep relationships with fewer listeners rather than having to scale and have a relationship with the consumer that is on the surface and fickle. The return on our ads is far bigger than on some podcasts that are much bigger.
So you still like the ad model?
I have two fantasies: One is that people will pay a premium to be on a small and intimate community-based and ethically oriented shows like ours. People are not just listening; they are making changes to their lives based on our shows. The second fantasy is a curated ad network, where you know that if you heard an ad on our show, it has a Stable Genius seal of approval and it sticks to the values of the content that we make. We’ve done as much research as we can on where the sourcing is. I don’t know if it’s possible but it’s my fantasy.