Why walled gardens (almost) never work

Platforms keep trying to box podcasts in, but the BBC has a chance to succeed for everyone

What did you watch on TV over the weekend? Whatever you watched, chances are good it was only available on one app. Whether it was Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or ITVX, almost every broadcast outlet has created a walled garden for their content.

We got used to podcasts being freely available, free of charge, on all platforms. But this has started to shift over the last few years as the stakes have been raised, the costs have spiralled and the potential revenues have rocketed. 

One dictionary definition of a walled garden is a closed platform or ecosystem wherein the provider of the platform has total control over the content, applications and/or media, and restricts access as it sees fit with the end goal of creating a monopoly.

Author and academic Cory Doctorow has been speaking out against walled gardens for some time. He says this is tantamount to a digital lock, reverse engineering in pursuit of interoperability, creating vertically integrated walled gardens that aid the tech or broadcast giants and leave consumers with few alternate choices.

If your content only lives in a walled garden, unless you can find a way to get attention to your podcast, to reach an audience who is not on your platform, via social media or marketing or even word of mouth, then you are only serving the audience you have. The Spotify music model relies on you staying on their platform once you have built all your playlists, but it’s much harder to get loyalty for long-form content. You need to seed a podcast into the right community and build your audience out from there, driven by the content itself. While marketers plan to increase their spend on podcasts this year, they will look for the podcasts that give them the most reach and new audience for their product. Exclusives such as Joe Rogan still make sense for Spotify as long as the podcast ad money helps pay the music rights on the other side of the business.

However, last month Sahar Elhabashi, Spotify’s new vice president of podcasts, said the business has new priorities. They are to grow on-platform consumption; create more monetisation opportunities for creators; earn greater creator loyalty by helping them make more money and find new fans; and to make more money from ads by expanding the reach of the company’s own shows outside of the platform. As a result, Spotify will start distributing some of its exclusive shows on other podcast apps. Armchair Expert is one such show, but others will likely follow.

The Webbys crowned SmartLess as Podcast of the Year recently. An entertainment chat show hosted by actors Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes, Amazon paid around $80 million (£64 million) for it in 2021. What does it get for its money? A week’s exclusive on the show before it appears on other platforms. A week. And a chance to partner on other shows SmartLess Media makes. But the creators were smart enough to realise they needed the show to be everywhere for them to continue to build the brand. That means a six-part HBO Max series following the podcast on a brief US tour. Amazon wants you to pay to listen to SmartLess early on the Wondery app, but knows that being everywhere will make it famous and drive revenues. 

Companies that have designed their business around subscription have used podcasts, outside of their paywalls, to drive revenue. Tortoise Media recently admitted that it was podcasting that was the profitable part of their set-up, which is primarily a member-only news service with live events. But it’s their widely-released and award-winning podcasts such as Sweet Bobby and Hoaxed that they are best known for. Sports outfit The Athletic, acquired by the New York Times, has made its podcasts free while paywalling its written journalism. The NYT itself does the same, while The Daily podcast remains free and all-conquering.

Luminary launched in 2019 with $100m in backing and deals with the likes of Oprah, Lena Dunham and Trevor Noah. It aimed to create a premium audio space where subscribers could access ad-free, exclusive programming featuring big-name talent. So far it’s been through three CEOs and several strategies, and its shows haven’t exactly become the next Game of Thrones. It has recently tried to diversify into music, but it’s not been a great advert for walled gardens. Or paywalls. Or walls.

The BBC has been experimenting for some time with the idea of using BBC Sounds as a walled garden - albeit a free one. It started with the shows that were most popular on third-party sites, including Desert Island Discs and Friday Night Comedy, which appear elsewhere after a four-week windowing period. So not so much a walled garden, more a gnome-armoured patio. This is in addition to a range of shows that are, however, BBC Sounds exclusives. Podcast listeners are loyal and engaged with their shows, and don’t respond well to being told exactly where they have to listen. Like radio listeners before them, they don’t like change. 

Listening to podcasts for free and listening to them on a platform of the user’s choice has become ingrained, and any shift from this norm is not going to be frictionless. It does mean that both tech and broadcast organisations need to work harder to grow their own products. The News Agents is very much advertised as a Global Player podcast, but is available on all platforms as it builds audience, reputation and revenues.

It’s a balance for the BBC as to how important it is for listeners to consume its shows and how important it is for them to be spending more time on BBC Sounds. The BBC will argue that Sounds will give listeners a better experience and guide them to more content they will like from across their networks. From my BBC experience, it’s also very much about ensuring the BBC gets credit back and is seen to be adding value for licence-fee-payers.

While some may be critical of the BBC for walling off content, don’t underestimate its ability to change user behaviour. The BBC has the influence to encourage podcast sampling like nobody else, and that acts as a gateway for the entire industry. 50% of the UK doesn’t listen to podcasts yet, and if anyone can shift those numbers, it’s the biggest broadcaster with the largest reach.