Substack writers are launching podcasts on the platform to ease reliance on ad revenue

Hoping for more subscription revenue – and to lessen their reliance on advertising – Substack writers are bringing their podcasts to the platform.

Monetizing their podcasts through subscriptions means that independent writers don’t have to worry about the ups and downs of the advertising market or ensure that their content is considered brand safe, four Substack writers told Digiday. Podcasts can also serve as a marketing tool for their Substack subscription business. All four writers told Digiday they do not serve any ads on their podcasts – three of them moved their podcasts to Substack in part because they no longer wanted to rely on ad revenue. Substack takes 10% of subscription revenue. 

As more podcasters offer subscriptions around their shows to build a more direct relationship with listeners and add an additional revenue stream, several podcasters are looking beyond Apple and Spotify’s subscription platforms to third-party vendors like Substack, Supporting Cast and Supercast. Podcasters say these platforms give them access to additional listener data and more favorable revenue share deals – Apple and Spotify don’t share data like subscribers’ email addresses with podcasters.

Substack has been rolling out tools for podcasts for about two years, said Dan Stone, executive manager of writer acquisition and development at Substack. New tools released earlier this year allow people to post episodes with a flexible paywall, which gives a preview of the episode before asking the listener to subscribe to access the full episode. An AI-powered transcription tool for Substack podcasts launched in beta in August.

Thousands of podcasts are now being hosted on Substack, increasing at a rate of approximately 70% year over year, a Substack spokesperson said. They declined to share exactly how many podcasts are now on the platform.

Brand un-safe

Tyler Dunne, a sportswriter behind the “Go Long” Substack, now has three podcasts on Substack (two of which are exclusive to paying subscribers), including a new podcast announced last week with former NFL quarterback Brett Favre as his co-host. Overall, Dunne said he has about 17,000 free subscribers and nearly 3,000 paid subscribers. Since announcing the new show, he’s received almost 100 new paid subscribers. 

Dunne said a big perk of hosting his podcasts on Substack is that he doesn’t have to worry about advertising. As a critic of sports betting, he said he didn’t like that a lot of the ads on his previous podcasts were paid by sportsbooks. 

“I love the idea of being just completely independent and just unbound by corporate masters and sponsors and VC money and that’s definitely a big sell for ‘Go Long,’” Dunne said.

Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist, author and the founder of the “Burnt Toast” Substack and podcast, said that because she writes about sensitive topics like diet culture, it’s a relief that she doesn’t have to worry about diet-related ads popping up in her podcast. 

Advertisers drying up?

Colin Wright, an author, speaker and journalist, moved his main podcast “Let’s Know Things” to the Substack platform at the beginning of this month, and his “One Sentence News” podcast to Substack about a month ago. It was previously hosted on podcast publishing platform Transistor.

Wright noticed advertisers falling away in the past year and half, which accelerated this year, he said.

“Because of the way the industry is transitioning and changing, the advertisers I used to have… most of those have dried up or become unreliable. I’m very squarely in the lower-middle class of podcasting economics. So a lot of the advertisers have moved on to the Joe Rogans of the world,” Wright said.

Lauren Russo, evp and managing partner of innovation & performance audio at Horizon Media, previously told Digiday that “significant demand” from advertisers was focused “on top performing shows where the bulk of ad dollars are allocated to the top 500 titles.”

Direct relationships

Sole-Smith said she’d struggled to build an audience for a previous podcast and abandoned the project during the pandemic. The “Burnt Toast” Substack subscription she launched in 2021 quickly grew to over 10,000 sign-ups, which was more than the downloads per episode her previous podcast was getting.

“I have a built-in audience right here,” Sole-Smith said. “Figuring out how to attract new listeners in podcast players [like Apple or Spotify] is a real hurdle. And so the fact that I have an audience with the newsletter list, I knew our downloads would be stronger going in.” New podcast episodes can be delivered as a newsletter email, directly to a subscriber’s inbox, she added.

The weekly “Burnt Toast” podcast now has an average of around 8,000-10,000 downloads per episode. The newsletter has nearly 40,000 sign-ups, 10% of which are paid, said Sole-Smith, and on average, 10 listeners of each podcast episode convert to paid subscribers. 

Nate Wilcox was formerly an editorial manager at Vox Media overseeing the MMA blog Bloody Elbow. When he was let go earlier this year, he took the brand with him and made it an independent site on Substack. He also brought over the Bloody Elbow podcast network and turned it into its own Substack.

Bloody Elbow has 9,500 subscribers for both the newsletter and podcast Substacks, with 1,000 paid subscribers. The “Bloody Elbow” podcast has grown faster than the main newsletter, in terms of paid subscribers, Wilcox said.

Wilcox chose Substack because he could have “direct control of the email list… and their low take,” he said. “[Vox] never really prioritized selling against our podcast. Substack seemed a pretty easy way to do that…. Rather than going out, finding sponsors [and] selling your user base to the sponsors, it’s easier to sell your podcast to the user base.”

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