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Podcast Subscriptions Are Harder Sell Than Ever Says iHeart’s Conal Byrne.

Podcast subscriptions have gotten easier than ever to launch. As more shows dip their toes into the paid model, the head of iHeartMedia’s podcasting business says he remains unconvinced it is something that consumers want, especially now as soaring inflation has people reassessing their household expenses.

“It has not proven out yet that people want to pay for podcasts. That has gotten harder in the economy we're in now for the average household that has what, eight or nine subscriptions,” said Conal Byrne, CEO of the iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group. During an Advertising Week panel earlier this month, Byrne said he believes the growth of podcasting can be attributed to the fact that it has been widely available, and free to listen to, and putting shows behind paywalls or with early windowed releases have yet to demonstrate value to the consumer.

“This was actually a new way to tell a story,” Byrne said. “It didn't just work because the tech worked or it was free. I think it actually felt like a new way to have a conversation and tell the story that for my money is what drove this explosion.”

When Apple Podcast Subscriptions launched last year, Tenderfoot TV was among its first partners. TenderfootTV has not released any subscription numbers, but Apple Podcasts said in December that it had the fourth-biggest paid podcast channel in 2021. And earlier this year TenderfootTV launched its first podcast that will initially only be available for subscribers. The daily show, This Day In Crime, is produced with Resonate Recordings.

Tenderfoot TV President Donald Albright says his experience with the paywall has benefits that can work alongside the ad-supported model.

“I think it's additive to the entire ecosystem, and it can benefit everyone involved,” Albright said. “The promotion that goes into a subscription show can actually boost the overall number of audience for a show. So advertisers shouldn't get shook up about a podcast that has a subscription offering, unless it's completely behind a paywall.” For publishers, he said that subscription dollars help monetize content that may not yet have the support of marketers, telling the crowd of advertisers and buyers they remain a critical part of the equation. “Advertising is still the lifeblood of the industry by a longshot,” Albright said.

Shelby Schenkman, a talent agent at UTA Audio, agreed, saying that is especially true for the host-read ad format. “There will always be host-read ads with creators speaking into your ear, so I think that that is really where everything will stem from,” she said.

Uncomfortable Buyer Or Brand UnSafe?

Marketers’ growing focus on brand safety is undeniable, but as podcasting continues to bring new voices – especially from creators of color – Byrne urged the ad community gathering to consider what is really “unsafe” and whether a show simply includes “it's uncomfortable” content.

“That's not unsafe content, that’s just content that doesn’t look or talk like you. That's different,” Byrne said. He said as iHeart has launched networks like Black Effect and My Cultura during the past few years, it has led to some “really interesting” conversations with brands as they have tried to the bridge the gap. “It's not without its frustrations, but we're getting there,” Byrne said.

Albright said part of the solution would be to have more diversity across the table among media buyers, saying it needs to acknowledge what podcasters have—that minorities are underrepresented. “Put more Black people in those rooms who are making those decisions of how you're spending that money,” he urged. “I’m in a lot of rooms closing deals, and I’m the only Black face in there.”

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