Pocket Casts is getting the biggest makeover since a group of public broadcasters acquired the podcast listening app a year ago. No longer will the app charge users to download it or for the variety of premium features it includes. Instead, Pocket Casts will be available for free. There will still be a paid feature for users who want to use tools that allow for a more customized experience. That upgrade will cost 99-cents a month or $10 per year. CEO Owen Grover says the move makes Pocket Casts more closely aligned with the open-access model of its public media ownership.
“The whole ethos of public media is that it’s free and open. And so while we’ve continued to grow the team and audience and build out the platform and improve the technology, there has been this misalignment,” said Grover. “We all believe podcasting should be an open ecosystem, should be free and we don’t believe in walled gardens.”
The difference between the free and paid tiers will come down to listening location and storage capabilities. The basic version will still allow users to play individual episodes with or without subscribing and automate file downloads. The update will also allow users to play local audio and video files already stored on their device. It will also include cross-platform sync capabilities that enable users to pick up exactly where you left off on another device. That’s especially handy for users to switch to an in-car system, to a smart speaker, or to an Apple Watch. Other features also remain, such as the ability to speed up playback by as much as two- or three-times, trim silence, create custom filters to organize episodes based on a variety of parameters, and tailor the look of the app and its icon.
The new paid Pocket Casts Plus version will offer the ability to use the app on a desktop or laptop computer as well as give users cloud storage so they can save audio and video files for future listening and viewing. The company says the paid version will also have exclusive app icons and themes. Other new features will be added to both the free and paid tiers in the future.
The move to a free app has been in the works since last year but it took time to make technology updates, including putting the iOS and Android apps on equal footing. The result is what Grover said is a “much more robust and scalable” backend for the app.
Pocket Casts declined to reveal how many users it currently has beyond saying it has “millions and millions” of downloads. Grover said the app has been successful, despite having to overcome a significant handicap. “It has gone head to head with the biggest names in the podcast space, while being behind the paywall the entire time,” he said. Pocket Casts previously charged between $3.99 for the mobile version and $9 for the desktop app. The company says anyone who previously bought the desktop app will receive three free years of Pocket Casts Plus. And while a paid app may seem like a page from a ten-year old digital playbook, Grover said it’s been a testament to Pocket Casts that they’ve been able to continue doing so for so long. “It’s been a demonstration of the quality of the app that it has commanded an upfront price over all these years and competed quite successfully with some of the biggest names in the space,” he said.
Since May 2018, four of the most prominent podcast producers in the U.S, including NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life, have jointly owned Pocket Casts. They recruited Grover, a former executive at iHeartRadio, to lead the joint venture. Today Pocket Casts features more than 700,000 podcasts and is available in 155 countries.
Those public radio outlets will be leveraged to promote the new Pocket Casts with a message that “the best is now free.” Using the radio bullhorn is a lesson that Grover said he brought with him from his time at iHeart. “We grew the app through those broadcast channels and a host of different owned-media channels of our partners,” he said. “That was part of the big attraction of me taking the role at Pocket Casts is that I understood I would have some of those same bullhorn assets at our disposal here.”
Giving Up Revenue
The move away from paid app to a freemium model will mean Pocket Casts will sacrifice a source of revenue. Grover said that move would be a lot trickier if the company was, like some other podcast apps, owned by venture capital firms.
“We don’t expect the Pocket Casts Plus service to make up what we’re losing in paid app revenue. And this is where having public radio backers is really instructive,” he said. “Our model is different. Having public media as our backers is a big plus here because we are leaving money on the table because we have larger goals in mind here. We want to create a platform that appeals uniquely to the medium’s most valuable fans, and over time we want to leverage that platform to drive real outcomes for publishers of all stripes.”
He says they also won’t load up Pocket Casts with advertising to make up the difference, although Grover says they expect to develop additional revenue streams. But he said everything they’re looking at will be considered through the lens of how it benefits the listener and publishers, especially the world of public media and independent publishers.
Grover said that while Pocket Casts will “try lots of different things” to help publishers monetize their audience, one direction it’s won’t be heading toward to help make up the lost revenue is toward subscription-based podcasts. While Grover takes a “never say never” approach, he thinks it’s still too early in the industry’s lifecycle as podcasters aim to expand their reach beyond the half of Americans who’ve listened to a podcast. “This is a business that requires and needs business model diversity,” he said. “But we’re not going to get there by placing a whole bunch of content that no one has ever heard of behind a paywall.”