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Is it the end of free podcasts?

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Listeners have been living in the land of unrestricted access to any podcast their ears desire. But new subscription plans are coming.

At its special Apple event last week, CEO Tim Cook announced the biggest change to Apple podcasts since its debut. Yes, there are pretty updates to the interface, but the real news is the launch of Apple Podcasts Subscriptions. 

Cook said the service will be available next month and “enables you to unlock new content as well as additional benefits like ad-free listening, early access and much more.”

Listeners can sign up for premium subscriptions offered by podcast creators. Those creators decide what your subscription buys you and how much it will cost. They could offer zero ads, extra episodes or exclusive access to a new series. Recode reported subscriptions will start at 49 cents per month in the U.S.

Creators could decide to offer shows that listeners can only access with a subscription. Or they could create shows that come with additional perks like early access or extra content.

Apple will keep a 30% cut and if you have a Family Sharing account, those subscriptions will be valid for up to six family members.

Not every creator may decide to offer in-app purchases or require a subscription but can continue to rely on ads alone for revenue. There will likely remain millions of podcasts on Apple that are absolutely free to the listener alongside those with subscription options.

Apple’s news release announced some of the premium content will come from the likes of NPR, Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries and The Los Angeles Times.

Apple will also introduce channels next month — groups of curated shows that it hopes will make it easier for listeners to find more content from their favorite creators.

The top two contenders in the battle for podcast listeners are Apple and Spotify. Right now, Spotify’s website says it’s the second most popular place to listen to podcasts in the world. But that may not be for long. eMarketer’s latest forecast predicts 28.2 million people will listen to podcasts on Spotify at least monthly this year, while 28 million will listen via Apple Podcasts.

So, it’s no surprise that the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Spotify may also launch a podcast subscription service this week. It apparently will not take a commission like Apple, though.

One leg up Spotify currently has over Apple is its exclusive deals with creators like popular podcast host Joe Rogan and the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground Productions.

When Michelle Obama’s podcast came out in July 2020, it was a Spotify exclusive. I grumbled at the thought of needing to download yet another app to listen since I like to keep my entertainment nice and tidy in my Apple ecosystem. Imagine my delight when just two months later, Spotify decided to broaden her podcast and make it available on additional platforms. I’ve been happily listening to it on my Apple podcast app ever since.

But President Barack Obama’s podcast he hosts with Bruce Springsteen, “Renegades: Born in the USA” is still a Spotify exclusive as is “The Joe Rogan Experience.” 

So if you want to listen, you have no choice right now but to have at least the free Spotify app on your phone.

This all takes me back to the heydays of satellite radio when people started paying for it just to hear their favorite radio host, like Howard Stern, who could (and can) be heard exclusively on Sirius XM.

Seems as if podcasts are taking the path paved before them by television streaming services. It may not be too long before listeners will need to decide whether they are willing to pay to hear their favorite shows. We may be able to pay for individual shows now, but the time could come when we will need to pony up for complete podcast streaming services in order to access any shows at all.

Did you know the word podcast is a portmanteau of pod (from iPod) and cast (from broadcast), according to the Online Etymology DictionaryApple basically opened eyes and ears to podcasting back in 2005 when listeners were tuning in on iPods, then the world’s most popular digital music player. At that time, iTunes had more than 3,000 free audio shows. Research from review site, Podcast Hosting puts that number at more than two million today.