Ads vs subscriptions: Where does podcasting's future lie?

Our CEO, Chris, recently appeared on the Y Combinator podcast to discuss why subscriptions make sense for podcasts, just as they do for newsletters.

Some key quotes from Chris:

“The podcast market that can be supported by advertising is small and sad compared to the audio market that could be supported if we had an effective way to pay for it.”

On direct relationships between publishers and subscribers:

“People love that, both the audiences that feel like they have this direct human connection, and the creators that feel like they have this sort of unmediated thing where they’re answerable directly to their audience, where they get to have intellectual freedom, where they get to be as weird as they want.”

And, just in case you’re interested, here’s how to use Substack for podcasting.

Photo by Claus Grünstäudl on Unsplash

We have a real logo now

We’ve been going for almost a year and a half with a logo that was designed by Chris, our CEO, in Photoshop in about 20 minutes. It’s not especially sophisticated. It’s an ‘S’ inside a notched circle that kind of looks like a dollar sign. Because Substack helps writers make money. You get it.

But now we have a real logo, done by actual designers and informed by more than a passing thought. If we really put our minds to it, we could probably write a 14,000-word essay about the development process and its deeper meaning, but, just this once, we’ll spare you.

The new logo is pretty simple. The icon is a bookmark, indicating a choice you make when something is worth coming back to. We hope to help create things worthy of your bookmark.

At the very least, we hope you don’t hate it.

(The image at the top of this post is by Aaron Burden; other people did the logo, though.)

How to use Substack for podcasts

It’s now possible to host and distribute paid and free podcasts through Substack. Your podcast episodes will be available not only through email and on your Substack site, but also in all the major podcast apps.

Our podcasting feature is in beta, so we’ll continue to improve it in response to user feedback.

Get set up

To set up a podcast through Substack, go to your Settings page and scroll to the bottom, where you’ll find a “Podcast Settings” section. Check the box beside “Enable podcasting beta.”

Once you’ve done that, you can upload cover art and enter the details of your podcast, including title, description, and categories. There are simple instructions to follow to ensure your podcast will appear in each of the major podcast apps (including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts). All you need to do is add your Podcast RSS feed URL (provided by Substack) to each of the apps. This takes less than a minute.

If you have an existing podcast, you can import it simply and quickly by following a few easy-to-understand steps. It takes less than five minutes. Your listeners can continue to access the podcast in the app of their choice and won’t know that anything has changed.

Start publishing

Now that you’ve enabled the podcasting features, in your posts tab you’ll see an option to create a “New episode.” Click on that.

Then you have two options: record audio directly into the Substack editor, or upload an MP3 file. Add a headline and whatever text you’d like to accompany the episode. Then click “Publish & Send Email”.

That’s all you need to do. The episode will then go everywhere: by email to your mailing list, on your Substack site, and into the podcast apps.

Private feeds

If you have paid subscriptions enabled, your subscribers can add a private feed of your episodes into their app of choice. Substack will email your subscribers a link that they then click on to select their preferred app. From there, it’s one more click to add the feed to their app. The process takes less than 10 seconds. The private feeds include all episodes you publish, both free and paid.

And that’s it.

You get a podcast that’s tied to a mailing list and published on your own website. It’s all free. As with newsletters, Substack only makes money when you make money, by taking a 10% cut of your subscription revenue.

Check out these podcasts on Substack:

Got feedback, questions? Please leave them in the comments.

Stand up for Luke O’Neil and against the owner of the Boston Globe

Last week, Luke O’Neil, an independent journalist, wrote a piece for the Boston Globe in which he expressed regret for not defiling political pundit Bill Kristol’s salmon when, as a waiter, he had the chance. He also encouraged restaurant workers to make life uncomfortable for Kirstjen Nielsen, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, the department responsible for separating children from their asylum-seeking families at the Mexico–US border.

Some critics, and Fox News in particular, were outraged. They instituted a pressure campaign via TV and Twitter, and the Globe caved. The newspaper’s billionaire owner was apparently displeased by Luke’s piece, so the paper took it off its website. (Luke, who is the publisher of a Substack newsletter called Hell World, lays out how it happened in his most recent post.)

Thankfully, the media critics of America then came storming to Luke’s defense, decrying the attack on editorial independence.

Just kidding.

While a Washington Post reporter at least covered the basics, media watchdogs did absolutely nothing – along with pretty much everyone else.

It doesn’t matter what you think of Luke’s politics, or even the tone he took in the article. (At first, the Boston Globe’s editors, who shared the piece on their social media accounts, sure seemed to like it.) If you care about a free press that can actually hold power to account, this should scare the hell out of you.

The newspaper business is dying. In its weakened financial state, and just as President Trump has declared the press the enemy of the people, the once-powerful industry is more prone than ever to abuse at the hands of interest groups. Any newspaper other than the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal has a tough time staying profitable in this climate, and so they’re being hoovered up by a tiny but privileged class of “saviors.”

These billionaire buy-outs may seem like the only way forward. The Washington Post has been doing good work under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, and folks at the LA Times certainly seem optimistic since biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the paper last year.

But this new status quo puts the power of censorship into the hands of the already powerful. For instance, after casino magnate Sheldon Adelson secretly bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, many of the paper’s top reporters left in protest, including an investigative reporter who was told he couldn’t report on Adelson. Sam Zell effectively killed the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, by loading it with debt and treating it like a real estate development. And in Hong Kong, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is turning the South China Morning Post decidedly pro-China.  

The man who seems to have ordered the takedown of Luke’s post, John Henry, presides over an investment portfolio and has a net worth of $2.7 billion. Henry’s ownership interests include the Boston Red Sox, the NASCAR racing team Roush Fenway Racing, the New England Sports Network, and the Liverpool football team. And yet, this powerful man with multiple potential conflicts of interests has been allowed to censor an opinion piece by a freelancer simply because Fox News threw a pissy fit. (The piece was removed, according to Boston NPR affiliate WGBH, “after review from Globe ownership”.)

This might all seem like a minor kerfuffle over a foul-mouthed freelancer, but it’s really a story about how media power and influence is increasingly being consolidated in a fringe wealth class, to the detriment of the public interest. That class has little interest in safeguarding the freedom and independence of the press. At minimum, some of its members have already proven willing to crush stories they don’t like.

And it should be obvious: even if you don’t share Luke’s politics, a world where feigned outrage on social media can cause billionaire owners to get out the ban hammer is bad for anybody who values press freedom.

The best way we can fight this trend is to support independent writers directly. That’s the only way we can be sure that writers like Luke can pursue the stories they care about most without compromise. Luke has been able to get stronger out of this debacle because he has readers who pay him directly by subscribing to his newsletter, Hell World. With Hell World, Luke needs to serve no one but his readers.

Funnily enough, the Boston Globe makes similar claims. “Support real journalism,” the advertising on its homepage says right now. “Our subscribers support a free press.”


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