Pondering Podcast Pricing

Podcasting grew out of the internet and the internet’s most common model for making money is "free-to-access but comes-with-adverts". So it’s not surprising that most of the podcasts I listen to include adverts.

Stuart Goldsmith’s podcast Comedian’s Comedian doesn’t include adverts; unlike so many of the (non-BBC) podcasts I listen to it relies solely on asking listeners to give money. Goldsmith’s approach is (unsurprisingly given his oh-so-secret past) much more like the type of thing you’d get from a street performer. "Here", he says, “I’ve done a thing, you decide how much it’s worth to you?”.

By not going down the advertising route (whether by design or not) this podcast has ended up in a place which I find quite interesting. Without advertising the only choice is to ask consumers to pay for the product, but rather than making a product, setting a price and perhaps allowing the invisible hand of supply and demand to dictate whether that price should rise or fall, Goldsmith puts all of the control of price into the hands of his consumers.

This is similar in some ways to the pay-what-you-want model used by people like Louis CK or famously by Radiohead for their In Rainbows album. However, the difference here is that you already have the product before you need to decide whether to pay or not. There is no chance of buyer’s remorse. Also with podcasts there’s an expectation of new content flowing from the producer regularly, and so actually they’re a lot more like a service than a product. The question isn’t so much "do you want to own this thing" but is more “do you want this thing to continue”.

This creates a different kind of relationship between producer and consumer. Rather than just producing something we want, this podcaster needs also to convince us that we should also pay for it. Not as a way to access the product but almost as a way to say thank you.

When Goldsmith asks us for money he doesn’t present it as paying for a product. The product is always "free"; what we’re doing is “donating” and he makes it clear that the idea is that those who can afford to pay are paying for those who can’t. This immediately begs the question: How able am I to pay? It’s not just a question of wealth but also a question of self-perception. How do I compare to the rest of the audience? Am I one of the richer ones? How do I feel towards those people? Should I help them out? Would I feel differently about paying if I felt sure that they were all much poorer than me? These are not simple questions and the answers may be different for each different person asking them.

Also, whilst he will occasionally suggest amounts, Goldsmith’s more common request is for you to judge a donation amount for yourself. "Give me what you think it’s worth" he says. But what is it worth? What’s it worth to me? What are these hour-long interviews, on a subject that’s dear to my heart, really worth? If I was suddenly forced to pay would I stop listening? If not then how much would I accept paying before I did stop? Should I pay that? Half that maybe? The questions go on.

I have to date listened to over 140 episodes of the podcast. Does that change my feelings about paying? Is there a tipping point where I start to think "OK, well I’m starting to feel like I’ve got a lot out of this". Is there even a point at which my ability to pay coupled with the number of episodes I’ve listened to means that the resulting “price-per-episode” would be insultingly small? Would that motivate me to pay something or actually make me feel slightly embarrassed to give anything at all?

Maybe this is all a bit crazy, maybe that’s why most people have fallen into line and included advertising in their podcasts. The idea of putting this weight of responsibility on the consumer to answer these questions and decide to pay a fair amount is perhaps too off putting. Far easier to use the established method of getting money from a company and selling the attention of your audience to them instead.

That is a shame though because if it could be made to work this kind of system holds a lot of promise. It’s more transparent, it’s somehow more honest. It directly connects the consumer to the producer and it is based entirely around the relationship between the two being good. It puts a huge onus on the producer to make something which is worthy of payment but also it really encourages the consumer to be mindful of the value they're getting.

So many of our purchases are done without enough thought, or without enough information. So much of the stress of buying things is down to that one missing piece of the puzzle, the answer to the question "what will it be like when I own that". Also so many of the “free” digital products and services we use are paid for in ways which aren’t transparent, and are not particularly well understood. When there is a lack of knowledge or understanding in those kind of exchanges there will always be worries about the motivations of the different parties involved.

One of Goldsmith’s genius moves is that he always concentrates on thanking those who have already given. I don’t know how much deliberate psychology is going on here, but this is clearly an excellent way to both normalise the idea of giving in the mind of his audience and give the clear message that "other people are paying, so maybe you should too". It’s impossible to know how well this is actually working, but from the sounds of things, for this podcast at least, it’s not going too badly.