Podcasts in a World of Walled Gardens

Podcaster Joe Rogan signed with Spotify this week. The headline grabbing deal was the $100 million price tag Spotify paid for exclusive rights to the show. For Spotify, it makes sense – in a war with Apple with Amazon to get and keep subscribers, a show that is highly regarded and downloaded almost 200 million times per month is a prime asset.

But in signing up for Spotify, Joe Rogan’s podcast is, ironically, no longer a podcast. We don’t have a good word for this new animal – a licensed audio media thing. It would’ve been a radio show in the days of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, but that seems quaint when most of Rogan’s listeners don’t realize radio is still a thing.

The entire idea of a podcast was, and is, that the format allows anyone on any format with any device that play standard audio files to listen to audio content. It was a demographic idea, in the same way sites like this one, posted on the actual world wide web, were before Facebook locked its content to the outside world and demanded payment by personal data collection.

Of course, this idea of paid content is nothing new. If you want to watch all the seasons of Seinfeld, or some oddball show where celebrities in costumes try to sing, you need Hulu. If you want to watch Poldark, you’ll need Amazon Prime. You can’t watch Better Call Saul without Netflix.

This tie between media and its subscription service has left podcasting alone for the most part, with a few exceptions. But with nine figure deals at stake, you could now make that case that podcasting is just a rolling tryout for the big leagues of serious cash and professional production. And advertising, of course. Someone is going to have to pay the $100 million.

Where does this leave listeners? The same place it leaves viewers. Consumer choice will mean that the services to which you subscribe will shape what news and entertainment sources will reach you. Why does that matter?

If you are like most people, half of your friends and family have decided this whole virus thing is overblown and/or an affront to Jeffersonian ideals of freedom. The other half are very worried about a dangerous contagion our medical professionals are still trying to grasp and therefore may reappear only with Clorox in hand late in 2022.

This sort of divide will continue to happen, but instead of clear sides of an argument, all of our hours of content consumption slowly shape how we see the world. More concerning, of course, is that there will be no access to other opinions and other news sources unless you happen to subscribe to alternative sources. Your content will agree with you and you’ll agree with your content. Any other idea will be increasing foreign.

Seems obscure, but if you were on trial for producing methamphetamine, would you want Netflix subscribers or people without access to Breaking Bad on the jury?

The well rounded, educated view of someone that might have access to all the media available and all sides of an argument will belong only to those with the subscriptions. Subscriptions add up, and will increase each year as they become social necessities, much like your $400 per month iPhone family plan that would’ve been sheer lunacy in 2004.

Much like Europe in the Middle Ages, the wealthy will read Latin while others will be left out of the conversation. But instead of Latin, important conversations, new trends, new ideas – both entertaining and important – will continue to take place behind expensive walled gardens.

Exactly the scenario podcasts were meant to avoid.

Original content of FUTURE&tense.
Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash