Pete Curley doesn’t like podcast ads. In fact, that might be an understatement.
“I fucking hate ads,” Curley says. “Podcast ads make me want to dive through my plate glass window.”
More than a decade ago, Curley cofounded HipChat, a collaborative communication platform that was eventually subsumed by Slack. Now, his love of podcasts and vendetta against the ads that interrupt them has led to a new project. On Tuesday, Curley launched a service intended to generate revenue for podcasters separate from advertising. It’s called Podhero. Yes, it is an app. Yes, it is a subscription service.
Podhero is a pivot from Curley’s previous app, Swoot, which was a podcast player with social elements baked in. It was mildly successful, garnering around 15,000 users. Some of Swoot's social features were carried over to Podhero, like the ability to recommend shows to friends. But Curley’s pitch for Podhero is very different. He sees it as a sort of centralized Patreon for podcasts.
The listener pays a $6 monthly fee, the bulk of which goes to the creator. ($1 of that is an “optional” fee that Podhero takes as a cut, so subscribers can pay just $5 a month if they prefer.) The money then gets split evenly between all the podcasts a user is subscribed to. So Marc Maron gets the same slice of your dough as that rambling guy from your improv class that you pity-followed. The idea is to make it easy for listeners to support all the creators they want at once.
“I always have this with charities,” Curley says, “where I want to donate to a charity, then I start looking into it and I'm like, ‘Ehh, they kind of spent a lot of money on administrative stuff' … and then I'm doing nothing and I'm just a piece of shit. And that's exactly what happens with [supporting] podcasts. We just end up doing nothing.”
To aggregate podcasts into the app, Podhero uses Apple’s podcast API, a set of tools provided by Apple to developers who want to build podcast player apps. Any show that is available on the open internet via an RSS feed will be discoverable in Podhero, but podcasts that appear exclusively on a streaming service like Spotify won’t. When/if the money starts rolling in, Curley says that Podhero will reach out to podcasters to send them their share of the earnings. If a creator doesn’t respond, Curley says Podhero will essentially just hang onto that money until they can establish contact.
“Our model is just kicking down the door with a shotgun to shoot money at the podcasters, whether they want it or not,” Curley says.
As aggressively optimistic as Curley’s ambitions may be, he’s also launching Podhero into a bit of a minefield. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has stalled the entertainment and media industries. Even before the current crisis, Podhero’s predecessors have failed to revolutionize the podcast landscape in the way Curley envisions.
There’s Patreon, of course, a platform that often requires an absurd amount of extra work from the creator and doesn’t make it easy for the consumer to purchase subscriptions in bulk. Luminary, an $8 monthly subscription podcast service with exclusive original shows, has floundered since its release and has sought additional rounds of funding just to stay afloat. Branch out slightly from podcasts, and the $1.8 billion kerplop that is Quibi shows that for radical new subscription-based media platforms, success is a long uphill slog.
“The hit rate for new podcast businesses in the app space has not been great,” says Nick Quah, who created and writes Hot Pod, a weekly newsletter about the podcast industry. “And I think that speaks to the general trend that we're seeing there. We're seeing bigger platforms coming in and solving problems that smaller startups can’t solve.”
One of those big platforms is Spotify. The company has secured exclusive rights to massive shows like The Joe Rogan Experience and The Ringer in order to attract their armies of listeners to Spotify’s network, where the company can use its font of user data to tailor ads for each individual listener. Some, like Curley, see strategies like Spotify’s as a doomsday scenario, citing concerns about privacy and monopolization. But ads can also be seen as fundamental to the success of podcasting as a whole.
“The fact of the matter is that you're going to have advertising,” Quah says. “You always need to find a way to monetize smaller shows, and there are always incentives for smaller shows to try to find ways to access more pools of money.”
For Podhero’s charitable business model to work, it relies on two very big asks from listeners: to sign up for another subscription service, in order to pay for something they could get for free elsewhere. Still, Curley sees a world where Podhero becomes self-sustaining and podcasters give "like and subscribe!" callouts to the app on their shows.
“If this works and we don’t fuck it up or whatever, I do believe that the company that figures out how to monetize podcasts in whatever form, whether it’s Spotify or us, that’s at least a $30 billion company,” Curley says. He’s quick to add, “I don’t have particular aspirations for that … It’s not about money, I just want to build something great.”
Correction June 8, 11:00 a.m.: Language at the end of this story has been changed to clarify that users don't have to switch to Podhero for the service to work, they can continue to listen through their preferred podcast app.