Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Spotify’s free podcast hosting platform: Blessings and dangers

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

With Anchor, Spotify cemented its role as the dominant podcast player. That carries advantages and risks.

Purists will always tell you a podcast is only a podcast if there is an RSS feed in its backbone. Without that, it’s just an “audio show on the internet”.

The funny thing is, podcasts essentially are just “audio shows on the internet”. The revolutionary change, introduced twenty years ago, was that thanks to the RSS feed podcasting became an open medium.

That means that, just like e-mail, it is run on an open protocol. Anyone can create an app that can download and play podcasts. On the other end, anyone can set up a podcast hosting platform.

Sure, RSS has its own problems and limitations. Even the “Podfather”, as industry insiders like to jokingly call Adam Curry (widely credited for popularizing the podcast medium), has been working on Podcasting 2.0

This is an initiative to upgrade the podcast ecosystem to current standards and needs of creators. It consists of several projects like Podcast Index or Podcast Namespace. Think of it as upgrading the core technology that podcasts run on.

With Anchor, Spotify takes the podcasting mantle from Apple

For years Apple was seen as an unofficial chaperone of the industry. First, for creating the iPod player, then for including Apple Podcasts as a default app on iPhones. Finally, they maintained an open library of all podcasts submitted to their directory.

Sadly, all that happened more than 15 years ago. The only innovation Apple has introduced since then is the option to set up a paid podcast, but only on Apple Podcasts.

In recent years, Spotify seems to have discovered podcasting is a good business and took over the leading role. But this takes a lot of investment. The streaming giant went on to acquire a few podcasting companies (Megaphone, and podcast creators (Gimlet, Parcast, Ringer).

Each acquisition deserves its own in-depth analysis. But for now let’s stick with, the free podcast hosting platform that seems to have taken over as the default podcast hosting platform for many. Their own words tell it best:

“Anchor was responsible for 80 percent of new podcasts on Spotify overall in 2020. That’s over 1 million new shows from all of you this year alone. Let that sink in! Anchor’s top five markets in 2020 were the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Great Britain – while the fastest-growing markets were India, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Indonesia. India was the fastest-growing among them, accounting for nearly 40,000 Anchor shows and grew by roughly 22 percent in 2020, as podcasts continued their ascent as a formidable medium in so many regions worldwide.”

Tech giant wants to help: The good

I did a small research in my country (Slovakia) and found that a vast majority of new podcasts have been started on Anchor. The basic value proposition of Anchor is free podcasting.

It costs you nothing to start a podcast and the platform will even automatically distribute your show to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google and some other podcast players.

Anchor has not been the first to come up with the “start free” idea in podcast hosting, but it has become the go-to-host as it doesn’t want money from creators for even maintaining a show on the platform.

As a Spotify-owned company that makes sense. Anchor is supposed to be the beginning of the relationship between creators and Spotify, which can later be monetized via ads or a cut from paid subscriptions.

Which brings me to the rest of the reasons creators and publishers I spoke to over the last few months choose Anchor.

The company has been introducing new features that aim to make podcast listening more interactive and some others that will provide monetization options.

Q&A and Polls aim to bring more interactivity and the ‘Music + Talk’ format lets you use music from Spotify in your podcast (both only on Spotify).

Compared to Apple, Spotify’s paid podcasting feature within Anchor is open. Meaning you can subscribe to a paid podcast on Anchor but listen anywhere else, it doesn’t have to be on Spotify.

Now, the interesting thing about that move was the fact that Spotify was the last big platform that did not allow adding private RSS feeds to distribute paid podcasts. Both Apple and Google had the option for a while.

With announcing paid podcasts on Anchor, Spotify introduced something called Open Access that will allow podcast creators to link their paid podcasts to the streaming app.

Most recently, Anchor announced a revamped ads program with three tiers based on how popular your podcast is to be able to monetize via inserting automatic ads from the Spotify Audience Network.

Tech giant wants to help: The bad

Many of the features and monetization options above have two things in common – they are largely available in the US (new ads and paid podcasts) and they work only on Spotify (Music + Talk).

Some of the features will most likely never become part of the larger and open podcast ecosystem, like the Q&A and Polls. Those features will live within the Spotify app and as podcast listening in many regions tends to be dominated by Spotify most podcasters probably won’t mind. 

The Music + Talk feature only makes sense for Spotify to run on Spotify where it has the license for streaming music. Maybe one day it will expand, but I doubt that day is in the near or any future.

Paid podcasts and ads are important monetization options for podcasters and I understand a global rollout would be difficult for many reasons (one being that Spotify has grown to be so big that some processes just take long).

Anyway, the status of the monetization features on Anchor, at least from a European perspective, is zero.

If you are a creator or publisher, you might get the feeling Anchor is making giant leaps (and in some respects it is). But for an audio strategy to work you need a partner that can deliver, set transparent deadlines and keep them.

At the moment, all of the monetization features mentioned above are available for anyone on other platforms such as AcastRedCircleSimplecastSupercastTransistorCaptivate or others. 

My point is that waiting for a technology giant might not be a great strategy when you can already choose from several viable options.

Down the road when the features on Anchor are available in your country you can choose to migrate if the offering will be better. But I would not be waiting for that. Instead, I would rather map out my ideal audio strategy and find the right tools now. They are already available, no need to wait.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.