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Pay Walls? Exclusives? Not All Podcast Companies Are Convinced.

Even as more companies test podcast subscriptions, some industry executives speaking at an investor conference Wednesday continued to express skepticism for how big a factor it will be in the long run. SiriusXM’s move to create a subscription podcast channel with Marvel on Apple Podcasts may wind up being a one-off. CFO Sean Sullivan said that while it may not be an experiment, SiriusXM is not exactly rushing to create other paid channels on Apple for its other podcasts.

“The distribution from Apple provides a great opportunity for fans that love that content and get advanced windowing and maybe some additional bonus features,” said Sullivan. “I don’t know that it's a trend that's needed, but certainly, Marvel is one of a kind in any case. We thought it was great to use the Apple platform to allow consumers to better engage with this content.”

SiriusXM announced this week that the Marvel Podcasts Unlimited subscription will include exclusive content and features, and users will get early access to some series. The channel will cost $3.99 per month.

Also speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference, iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman said despite the many paid channels debuting on Apple Podcasts, he still believes ad supported options will win out in the long run. “Listeners want it free and they want the biggest selection they can have, so this model appears to be working,” he said. “I know others are trying this restriction, to charge a premium for something that used to be free. That history of that in marketing is not great.”

Although iHeartMedia does not have any subscription offerings for its podcasts, the Black Effect Podcast Network – which iHeart is a partner in alongside syndicated radio host Charlmagne Tha God – is one of the subscription channels available on Apple Podcasts. Pittman also left the door open if it does turn out that consumers are willing to fork over money for podcast subscriptions. “Since we've got such a big library, no matter what models emerge, if there's a way for us to make money on it, we've certainly got the content and the promotional power and the monetization engine, which allows us to play there,” he said.

Split Views On Exclusives

Not all shows are offering subscription options, but some have instead gone exclusive to one platform. That is especially true of shows that have inked deals with Spotify. CFO Paul Vogel told the Bank of America media conference last week that keeping shows they produce from other platforms, or windowed for a period of time, boosts engagement on their own app.

“It helps bring people into Spotify,” said Vogel. “Some of the most expensive content is actually been the most productive for us in terms of cost per listing our cost per time spent metrics.” He said once a listener comes to them for originals and exclusives it allows Spotify to use their algorithms and promote other shows to keep the listener. “We’ve seen it in terms of the growth of podcast users, the growth and podcast engagement, and the growth in the number of people who we engage with podcast content,” said Vogel.

But with roughly 600 podcasts, the iHeartPodcast Network has taken a different approach, one that looks to distribute shows wherever there is an ear to be found. “If you look at the few people who've gone behind the paywall, it's not been good news,” Pittman said. “Serial used to be the hottest podcast and then it went behind the paywall and people sort of forgot about it. Joe Rogan went on to a highly publicized deal with Spotify. We don't know the numbers, but there were recent press reports that said his audience is actually down.” Pittman said advertisers also want the biggest audience they can find, and so do podcast producers.

iHeart President/COO Rich Bressler added that content partners want the same, saying their focus on having a big reach allowed the company to strike podcast deals with the NFL and NBA.

Going forward, Sullivan told Communacopia Conference attendees that SiriusXM remains focused on both acquiring outside shows – like it did with a $27 million deal to acquire 99% Invisible and the studio created by Roman Mars – as well as striking alliances with talent such as comedian Kevin Hart or political talk personality Megyn Kelly.

“You're going to see us do a multipronged approach to it,” Sullivan said. “We will participate in a focused and disciplined fashion for sure, because I think some of the prices in the marketplace are pretty heavy at this point,” he said.

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