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Don’t put podcasts behind a paywall, says 99 Percent Invisible host Roman Mars

The Radiotopia founder says the podcast industry isn’t nearly ready to start selling subscriptions.

99 Percent Invisible host and Radiotopia founder Roman Mars
99 Percent Invisible host and Radiotopia founder Roman Mars
Courtesy PRX

At first, Roman Mars just wanted to make a radio story about a building in San Francisco.

“What I really loved was the idea of intentionality, of the way people designed everything they designed,” Mars said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka.

His passion for telling the stories of how and why things are designed turned into a hit podcast called 99 Percent Invisible, which has dissected everything from skate parks to algorithms to how doctors break bad news to patients. Today, Mars’s show has 11 employees and anchors Radiotopia, a network of podcasts under the umbrella of media nonprofit PRX.

Mars is able to pay those employees thanks to voluntary listener donations, advertisements and grants made to PRX. But he’s not interested in making listeners pay a subscription for podcasts, the way they might for TV shows on Netflix or Hulu.

“Right now, I don’t think we have the overall mass to support that change,” Mars said. “We had 70 years of broadcast television to get to a point where we could hone it to people’s [needs]: They need it in their lives and pay a certain amount so they can have ‘The Sopranos.’ I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts.”

You can listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Another reason Mars is averse to putting podcasts behind paywalls: Personal frustration with the hassle of finding a favorite movie on today’s streaming services. Currently, you can listen to almost every podcast for free on any audio platform (see those links, above); however, some platforms, like Spotify, have started to experiment with exclusive podcasts, while others, like Stitcher and Luminary Media, think the future may be in premium shows with a subscription cost.

“I don’t want to spend my time figuring out, ‘The thing I want to watch is on what thing?’” Mars said. “That drives me crazy. I don’t want to spend even half a second deciding, ‘Where do I find the movie “Fletch”?’ I get really irritated by that sort of thing. ‘Is it on Netflix? Is it on Hulu?’”

(PSA: At the time of this writing, you can stream “Fletch” on Amazon if you have a Cinemax subscription, but not on Netflix or Hulu.)

On the new podcast, he also talked about the phenomenon of live podcasts, another widely touted business angle for freely distributed podcasts. Comedy or interview podcasts that do live shows are able to make money on both ends, charging for tickets to see the show live and then repurposing the audio as a podcast later on.

Radiotopia, however, did things differently. It just wrapped up an East Coast tour where it worked in live music and visuals — good for the paying audience, but that means the tour didn’t “generate content” for every show that would make sense without those visuals, Mars said.

“If I want to make money, I make more shows,” he said.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

This article originally appeared on

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