Podcasting's Walled Garden Problem

If you know me well, you know I'm a tad bit into podcasts. I listen to 28 different shows regularly, with 40 other shows I pick and choose from when I have the time. If I'm not listening to an audiobook, chances are I'm devouring a podcast.

I've been in love with Podcasts since I discovered them over a decade ago. It's basically internet radio, except you're the DJ. Distributed through the ubiquitous RSS feed technology, they're easy to find, share, and consume.

But Spotify (and some other media organizations) are intent on changing that.

When Spotify acquired Gimlet in 2019, I felt a change in the wind. Despite saying they'd keep existing podcasts available outside of Spotify, I knew it was just a matter of time before that promise was broken.

And here we are now, in 2021. Two of my favorite shows, How to Save a Planet and Science Vs have both become Spotify exclusives.

The hosts made many announcements leading up to their show's move to Spotify, making it clear that you could still listen for "free", as long as you did it on Spotify.

Now two excellent scientific journalism podcasts are locked away behind a Spotify account, unavailable to those of us who refuse to have two different apps for podcasting or don't want to move all their podcasts over to Spotify. I'm particularly disappointed in How to Save a Planet, since it was the one show that helped partially reduce my climate anxiety. They covered all the great work being done to alleviate the worst aspects of climate change, and it was a legitimate bright spot in my week to hear about new technologies that might save the world.

All of this wouldn't be a particularly annoying problem if Spotify's app actually worked well for podcasts. There's no way to add custom feeds, which is a must-have for people like me who support my favorite podcasters on Patreon and have private RSS links that provide access to bonus content. To listen on Spotify, I'd have to maintain podcast lists on two different apps for no good reason.

And once you try to listen to a podcast on Spotify, you quickly realize it's a horrific experience. Podcasting is an afterthought for the developers of Spotify. They only recently added speed controls after years of having podcasts available, and managing the podcasts you follow and which episodes you want to listen to is an unintuitive experience.

Nobody would choose Spotify as their podcast listening app of choice, so Spotify has decided to acquire great shows and force fans to use their application in an attempt to fully capture the revenue stream for those shows.

Once you throw money into the equation, this all makes perfect sense. If a podcast is only available on Spotify (even if it's free), Spotify will receive all ad revenue for the shows since it can use its existing ad placement technology that was developed on the music side of the business. They want to control all aspects of the show in order to maximize their profit. You have to have a Spotify account to listen to the podcast, which makes it that much easier to turn a listener into a paying Spotify user.

Someone at Spotify must have run the numbers and shown that putting its shows in their walled garden and losing listeners is still more profitable than having it widely available. It's a downright shame, since many of the Gimlet shows they acquired are incredibly informative and contain information that will make this world a better place.

I fully expect this trend to continue, and probably accelerate. That's why I'm a huge proponent of paying for your favorite shows through sites like Patreon. Directly supporting artists with small monthly contributions reduces their dependence on ads and helps keep them independent.

If you have a favorite show, please consider regularly supporting them using whichever method they prefer. The consolidation of podcast networks and ownership will continue to create these walled gardens, leading to wonderful content being hidden from millions of listeners.

It's up to passionate listeners to support these artists enough that they don't have to sell their souls to the giant corporations just looking to milk them for ad revenue. Please do your part and keep the information flowing freely, just as it was intended to do.

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