Slate is announcing a new service called Supporting Cast, which lets podcasters and podcast networks offer members-only versions of their shows.
If that idea sounds familiar, it should: Ad-free shows and bonus audio content have been a core part of Slate Plus for years. In fact, our members-only podcast offerings are the single largest reason Slate Plus has grown to nearly 50,000 subscribers.
Now we’re making it easy for other podcasters to launch membership programs of their own. We’re proud to announce two podcast networks as launch partners: Critical Frequency, whose membership program you can check out now, and 5by5, which will be launching next. Two independent podcasts, Burn It All Down and The Sports-Casters, will also be rolling out membership offerings built on our platform shortly. More shows and networks will be coming soon.
If you’re a podcaster and you’d like to join our invite-only beta, reach out via supportingcast.fm. Your membership program could be up and running in an hour or two.
Supporting Cast isn’t the first platform that enables podcasters to set up membership programs and deliver paid audio. The existing options have been good for podcasting and for podcasters. But they don’t offer some of the features that we built for Slate Plus and that we’re now making available to everyone.
First, we wanted to offer the best possible onboarding experience for listeners. With Supporting Cast, fans can join with just a credit card or Apple Pay and an email address, and there’s no password for them to remember (or forget). Members can get paid content inside the most popular podcast players, avoiding the need to install a second app just to access gated podcasts. (Most Slate Plus subscribers get their member podcasts via their podcasting app rather than Slate’s iOS app.)
There’s no need to copy and paste private links into a field buried deep in a podcast player. Most members will be able to subscribe to their personalized feed in a couple of taps, as in the animation below. If they’re joining the program on a desktop or laptop computer, we’ll text the link to their phone, the device where they actually listen. (Several of these features aren’t even supported by Slate Plus yet—they will be soon!)
Then there are the distinctive features that matter to larger podcasters. Supporting Cast lets you set up membership programs for networks, so that multiple shows and feeds can be accessed from a single member account. Podcasters can customize the signup flow to match their brands without a Supporting Cast logo at the top of the page.
Perhaps most importantly, we don’t treat these members as our users. Their relationship is with the podcasters whose shows they support, not with us. We won’t contact them (except on behalf of our clients), and podcasters who leave Supporting Cast can take their user data with them. Soon, we’ll offer integrations with existing registration and subscription services so that publishers can serve members-only audio to current paid subscribers.
What do we think this could mean for the broader podcast landscape? Listeners might worry that we’re helping put their favorite non-Slate podcasts behind a paywall. On the contrary, we expect that the free podcast ecosystem will remain huge and vibrant, and that Supporting Cast will help it to expand. Slate Plus hasn’t led to a wholesale walling off of Slate’s podcasts, but it has provided a significant revenue stream that allows us to further invest in content. (In 2017, funding from Slate Plus allowed us to launch Slow Burn, our most popular podcast to date.) Some shows aren’t attractive to advertisers, as many advertisers steer clear of potentially controversial political content. Tape that could be of interest to passionate fans is often left on the cutting room floor. Most importantly, we believe that some audio is worth paying for—and perhaps there would be more podcasts worth paying for if there were a better a way to offer gated content.
This might seem like a strange moment to be launching a product that targets and depends on an open podcasting ecosystem. Spotify and Pandora have entered the podcasting market in force, with well-funded new entrants close on their heels. Slate partners with some of these companies to offer our shows on their platforms—as we do with Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and many other podcasting services—in pursuit of the widest possible audience. But if one of these walled gardens comes to dominate the market, it’s likely to share a small fraction of its revenue with podcast creators, just as Facebook and Google share a very small proportion of the revenue they generate from content sites back to publishers.
We think that scenario would be bad for podcasters and bad for listeners. As an early podcast producer—we released our first show in 2005!—we believe a thriving ecosystem depends on openness, diversity, low barriers to entry, and lack of concentration. If podcasters can’t adequately monetize their work in the open market, they’ll have no choice but to offer their shows to one of these closed platforms—on terms that will worsen significantly if a platform achieves monopoly status. It’s clearly possible to produce great shows, sometimes quite profitably, in the current market, but as Slate Plus has shown us, podcasters need multiple sources of revenue. We hope Supporting Cast will enable more podcasters to build sustainable businesses that let them keep doing what they do best: making great, entertaining, informative shows.
Many people at Slate have played significant roles in launching this product. Lead developer Travis Morrison essentially conjured the core of the product out of thin air. Nan Copeland is responsible for its finely tuned user experience. Thanks also to Greg Lavallee, John Whittington, Alex Tween, Anna Hovland, David Tran, Megan Kallstrom, Heidi Moon, Jason Santa Maria, Erin Nichols, T.J. Raphael, Josh Levin, Gabe Roth, Jeff Friedrich, Jonathan Zuckerman, Zoe Lukic, and everyone else at Slate who has contributed ideas, code, energy, and time to help us reach this point.
We’re thrilled to be sharing Supporting Cast with our fellow podcasters and excited to grow it into a pillar of our industry. Join us!