A fair price for podcasting

Paid podcasts may be the outliers, but there’s nothing wrong with them

How do you put a price on creative work? Although creating art simply for the joy of it is a noble and worthwhile pursuit, at the end of the day, everyone needs to make some money, if only to keep a roof over their head.

I was talking to my partner about this a few days ago, who was bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t listen to Ricky Gervais’s latest podcast, Absolutely Mental, without forking out some cash. She listened to the first episode on Spotify – which was put out for free as a teaser – but the full season was only available on a paid basis.

Her argument was that, when there are countless hours of free podcasts out there – not to mention other media formats – why would anyone expect people to hand over 15 bucks just to listen to them?

It’s an argument that I’m familiar with, as it’s one that comes up in publishing and journalism with some frequency as publishers struggle with dwindling ad revenues and the need to diversify their revenue streams. However, while some brands have proven very successful with a subscriptions-based strategy, it’s an intimidating prospect for many – particularly those that are rolling it out for the first time.

If you (or indeed your peers) have historically provided content at no cost, making the jump to charging for it can be a daunting prospect. It’s tempting to succumb to the ever-present impostor syndrome that most creatives feel, telling yourself that your content somehow isn’t worth charging money for, and that even if you did, no one would pay for it. 

The biggest barrier to this is that unless you have a built-in audience who are already following you and your work (like Gervais) then getting the word out in the first place might be tricky; people can’t pay for a podcast if they don’t know it exists, after all. It’s certainly not advisable to charge for your very first podcast, unless you’re supremely confident that it’s going to be an overnight sensation.

There are some, of course, to whom that doesn’t really apply; Ricky Gervais presumably feels he can get away with charging $15 per season as he is one of the most popular podcasters in the world, not to mention a globally recognised entertainer. He has a big enough profile, and enough fans clamouring for more content, that he knows people will be willing to pay to hear him talk. 

Many podcasters get round this somewhat thorny dilemma by producing additional bonus content and charging for that instead, keeping the ‘main’ podcast free of charge. This is a perfectly viable approach, but on the other hand, so is taking a stand and charging for your show. If you’ve poured your heart and soul into creating a masterfully crafted immersive audio fiction podcast, why should you have to put it out for free simply to fit the status quo? 

However, all of this got me thinking about what constitutes a ‘fair’ price for paid podcasts. While it’s true that many may baulk at the idea of paying for content at all when they can get endless amounts of it for free elsewhere, the Patreon model proves that, if you deliver content which resonates with an audience, people will part with their money for it in significant quantities. 

So with this in mind, how much is a reasonable price to charge for podcasts? The exact answer will be variable, but let’s take Absolutely Mental as an example. $15 per season may seem like a steep fee, but when you consider that season one contains over six hours of content, that starts to look a bit less outrageous. That’s cheaper than the cinema, and certainly more affordable than paying for a ticket to see one of Gervais’s live performances

You could attempt to entice listeners with a cheaper price, but this also means relying on economies of scale; if you drop the price of a season from $15 to $5, unless you can net three times as many paying customers, you’ll actually be worse off than with the higher price. 

Generally speaking, around 10 bucks seems to be the sweet spot in terms of providing value for money while still leaving the possibility of a decent return – but making that jump can be hard for a free podcast. It’s worth pursuing though, particularly for those with a small but highly engaged fanbase. If you’re unsatisfied with standard podcast ad-funding models, and you can’t commit to producing bonus content for a Patreon page, paid podcasting may be the right way to go; if Ricky Gervais can do it, then so can you.