"Free" and "Easy" are Always Tempting... But What is the True Price of Using a Free Podcast Hosting Service?
Ever since I started this podcast, I've been hearing stories from other podcasters about Anchor.FM, and while I have put it off for a while, it's probably about time I actually touch on my thoughts on the free podcast hosting platform.
The beginning seems to be a popular place to begin things, so let's start there.
What is a podcast hosting service?
Obviously, this will be fairly 101 to podcasters who have been in the game for any amount of time, but we should probably define a couple of terms before we start bending them around. The first of those terms is podcast hosting service.
Boiled down to the simplest explanation, a podcast hosting service is simply real estate on the internet that allows you to store your podcast, and for other people or platforms to remotely access those episodes when it's time to listen.
Most podcast hosting services have added quite a few more bells and whistles to their offerings, but that description is the common trait that they all share.
There have been dozens of podcast hosting services offered throughout the years, but perhaps the most popular these days are Libsyn, Bluebrry, and Podbean, though these are certainly are not the only options available.
Most podcast hosting services charge between $5 and $100 per month to store the data of our podcasts and to make them readily available for download. Every few years, a charismatic startup will offer free podcast hosting to the masses in return, usually, for the ability to run advertisements over a creators content, and usually those startups fail within a couple of years thanks to some very large hurdles that are placed in their way by the very business models that they have themselves set up.
Most new podcasters have wondered at one point or another if they can self-host there podcasts, and the short answer is yes, they can. The longer and more accurate answer however is that it's probably not feasible even if it is technically possible.
Podcasts tend to be relatively heavy in terms of file size and bandwidth, and while most better web hosting services offer decent amount of included storage and bandwidth allotment, the vast majority of them are not set up to stream the kind of data that would be required to make self-hosting a good option.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule... There are a few hosting companies that specifically target podcasters for their offerings and have set up their services to accommodate these larger files, and there are multiple WordPress services that are likewise built for this, but they are relatively few and far between, and generally not much more affordable then using a third-party who is specifically set up to host podcasts...
and that sort of takes us back to the free hosting options and why they tend to fail.
As I mentioned, podcasts tend to be relatively heavy files and they require a decent amount of infrastructure for proper hosting and serving. A single podcast... even a shorter once a month format podcast, can easily be too taxing on your website hosting account. Now think about what happens when you multiply that by thousands. That's what a podcast hosting service has to handle. That's not a cheap thing to build, and it certainly not a cheap thing to maintain month after month.
What makes that even worse is the fact that people who are hosting for free have relatively little skin in the game and are generally more likely to set up a couple of episodes of their podcast and then to abandon them once they see that a podcast is neither quick nor easy to get off the ground. Suddenly those free services are bogged down buy thousands of podcasts that maybe completely abandoned by their creators. If you don't have revenue coming in from those people monthly, that is going to be a very large burden to bear very quickly.
Likewise, most of the free services have been built around the idea of advertising. Either by placing advertisements over the podcast that they host, or by showing advertisements to the podcasters themselves. There is a dirty little secret about advertising though...
Unless you have a lot of the right kind of audience, advertising isn't a very good business model.
I used to work in radio, and my station would give away a handful of tickets to larger concerts at the municipal Arena... Things like Aerosmith, ACDC, Metallica, Etc. We would give them free advertising because we wanted to be associated with those big name concerts. We wanted the people at the show to see our banners hanging everywhere.
Then there were the local bars. We're talking about hole in the wall areas that would host a local band playing cover songs to 40 or 50 people on a Friday night. You'd be amazed how many of the owners would ask us to give them free advertising in return for the right to have our station's banner hang on a wall near the bar. Needless to say, they didn't strike a lot of deals that way. Advertising only works as a business model when you have a very large number of the right people in one place. Free podcast hosts weren't always known for being able to pull off that trick.
As for the ones that would place advertisements on top of a creators podcast, that brought up a whole different can of worms. As you can probably imagine, a lot of podcasters weren't so keen on the idea that a company could slap whatever advertiser they wanted on top of their product and then take all of the revenue.
Like I said, most of these free services didn't last for long. It's just not a business model that has traditionally been able to work.
A few years ago, a service called Anchor.FM debuted as a mobile application that would allow people to create small sound bites and then to share them on social media. A lot of podcasters actually embraced it because it was a way that they could record Snippets to share on Twitter, Facebook, and even Instagram rather than to have to edit down an entire episode to several small sound clips for promotion purposes.
Over the last couple of years though, the app evolved into a free hosting service for full size podcast episodes.
These weren't your typical podcasts however... Yes, sometimes the format would sound very similar, but the episodes were recorded on cell phones so the audio quality had a very marked difference from a traditional podcast.
The service marketed itself as a great free option for creators to quickly and easily record episodes on their cell phones from wherever they happen to be. On top of that, they would pay the creators every time somebody listened to the episode. Sounds good so far, doesn't it?
They'll even take care of all of the details of setting up which advertisers to put on your show, getting your show syndicated to other services, and so many of the other little details that podcasters have to go through when setting up their shows.
The service became very popular for newer podcasters who were just starting out and perhaps didn't want to spend any money until they were certain about this whole podcasting thing. It was even picked up by Spotify more recently who has made larger investments to further flush out the service.
Unfortunately, some very real cracks have been noted in the walls of Anchor.FM over the last year or so and I think it's worth having a conversation about those challenges.
One of the biggest complaints that users of Anchor.FM have levied against the platform is that it doesn't give you full access to some of the iTunes benefits that you may reap from other traditional podcast hosting services. Now, we should keep in mind, Anchor.FM is now owned by Spotify who is the biggest direct competitor to the Apple iTunes Podcast platform that is currently on the market, but I don't think that really goes into the full story as to why it's not as full-featured.
Far be it from me to try to guess the intentions behind the service is creators and their decisions, but it does appear that the platform just wasn't designed to be robust enough to pull all of the same options and that they are instead hoping that the casual creators will still be satisfied to keep their content located primarily we're Anchor.FM places it.
For quite a few users of AnchorFM, this is actually enough. The platform generally attracts people who are looking for affordability in simplicity above function, and these are not always the creators who are looking to take their platform to that next level. These would be your pure hobbyists and the folks who are experimenting with the podcast format before investing further of their time and money. For a great many of them, they are less technically savvy and in some cases probably don't even realize what they are missing. I know several people in the YouTube space who are currently using the platform to host there budding podcasts because of how cheap and easy it is to get started, and most of them have been amazed to find out that it's free to get your podcast on iTunes... You just need to know how to do it.
One of the more concerning complaints about the platform however is the perceived lack of transparency when it comes to the terms of service, even though the platform itself has taken steps over the past year to shed a little more light what a user's Express rights and responsibilities are.
It's not exactly uncommon for a terms of service page to be written in a language that is only spoken by twins and children raised in the wilds by packs of wolves, but the terms of service page for Anchor.FM has raised more than a few concerns from people who question just who ends up owning their content. No, it should be pointed out that Anchor.FM has responded to these concerns over the past year and has done a bit of clean up with them, explaining and revising to make them a little more friendly to podcasters, but several questions remain, not the least of which is whether or not podcasters will own the rights to their content once they have hit the upload button.
The original language presented on the terms of service were vague. Technically, it could be argued that you no longer owned the rights to your files when you get upload. Anchor would have the right to convert your file into any format they wished, they would have the right to use your podcast in a variety of somewhat opaque ways that were not explained it very well, and they would have the right to hold onto your files even if you left the platform. That basically means that anything you create while on the platform would remain their custody if you decided to go elsewhere. Needless to say, that set off a lot of alarms amongst some larger podcasters who were generally better versed in podcaster rights.
Over the past year, this has been flushed out a little bit better... As it stands right now, podcasters do you have the right to remove there files from the service if they so choose to sever their relationship with the platform. If you do choose to go about this, anchor will no longer have access or rights to use those files. If, however, you sever the relationship and do not manually remove your files, Anchor.FM will retain their stated rights to that content. They can continue to use it as they will, to air the episodes should they so choose, etc etc.
Even with the severability rights somewhat more clear these days, there are still several concerns as to what rights a podcaster retains while they are with the service, and that has been enough to keep many creators off the platform.
Another concern voiced by several podcasters is that there seems to be a lack of transparency and access to statistics on iTunes and Stitcher. I don't believe there is anything malicious in this, I think it's just another example of anchor favoring Spotify for the obvious reason of Spotify being the parent company. If you are fine with not being able to see your full statistics on two of the top three podcasting platforms, or you don't even want to be on iTunes or Stitcher, then this one probably isn't a Big E, but for the podcaster with aspirations of going to the next level, being able to see your statistics is a necessity.
From a technical standpoint, there have been other drawbacks to using the system, and I think some of them are probably offset bye the relative ease of use that they provide their customers.
As I mentioned before, the target audience from Anchor.FM is generally people who are looking for a simple and inexpensive or even free option to record podcast audio and two then have it served up to potential listeners. For simple recordings, Anchor.FM does a fantastic job. It's all located on your phone, so you could literally record quickly and easily from anywhere and with a couple taps of a button, you can be published and done.
Some creators have complained though that options for editing in episode are fairly Limited.
Personally, I've looked at the editing interface on the service and I thought, to be fair, that it was robust enough for most beginners. If anything, GarageBand and Audacity can be somewhat daunting and intimidating to a podcaster who is just getting started and who doesn't understand the philosophies behind some of the many options presented to them. Anchor.FM is definitely a much more simplified editor with much more simplified options that generally come down to cutting and pasting tracks together rather than things like fine-tuned equalizing or enveloping features.
If you are looking for a full-featured editing suite, Anchor.FM isn't going to be the platform for you, but I do feel like this system has received some undue criticism for its editing options as the options they provide are probably perfect for their target clientele.
One technical complaint that I do have however, is with their embedded player. Like almost every other podcast hosting service, anchor offers its users the ability to embed a media player directly into their website or, in some cases, into social media posts. Anchor.FM does this as well. The issue that I've seen however, is that the native embedded player actually removes people from your site and transports them on 2 anchors site to listen to the episode.
A lot of podcasters probably don't realize this, but that's a very real problem in terms of your search engine optimization efforts. Google in particular likes to reward sites that hold onto visitors for longer periods of time, and they will devalue sites who have a high rate of visitors leaving the site quickly. When you get visitors onto your website, you want to keep them there as long as possible. Most embedded players live on your site and if a listener happens to listen to your entire podcast from your website, you have just given Google a clear indication that your site is interesting and valuable. If, however, Google sees people leaving your site, they are going to assume that your website is not valuable to your visitors and adjust your rankings accordingly.
Again, I don't believe Anchor.FM is doing this maliciously, but even if it's just an oversight or a lack of awareness, it does actually work in their favor because every time somebody clicks onto the Anchor.FM embedded player, Google gives them credit for bringing someone on to their page. Again, I'm not trying to insinuate anything, I'm just saying that the only person who reaps any reward from the current system would be anchor themselves.
And now it's time for the hot take...
Full disclosure, most of my experience with anchor.FM comes from looking over the shoulders of other podcasters and a very small amount of testing it myself. I've never spent any serious time under the hood trying to make it work to its full potential but rather skimmed through to see if it's a product that I would feel comfortable using.
For better or worse, I didn't have to skim very deep before I found multiple considerations that told me that it really isn't the platform for me, and probably isn't going to be the ideal platform for a lot of other podcasters who are looking to grow their platform into a brand. Between the potential ownership issues involved with uploading your files to the service, some of the technical limitations associated with it in its current form, and what strikes me as a bit of a lack of quality to the final product, it didn't strike me as a good fit.
This podcast is currently hosted on Libsyn and I can say that I've been about 85% happy with the platform.
I pay a few dollars per month and they handle the heavy lifting of hosting and distributing my podcast. I say that I'm only 85% happy because there have been a couple of weeks or something strange has happened that has resulted in my podcast falling off the platform for an hour or two, and on another occasion my stats were delayed by nearly twelve hours. All in all, I'd say that I have noticed problems over roughly 14 hours of however many hours job service that they've given me stretching over the past 8 months. Realistically, that's not terrible. It's certainly better then most website host can boast for uptime!
I'm not paid or endorsed by any given website hosting platform, but I can truly say that after 8 months on Libsyn, and after using Podbean in the past, I've grown accustomed 2 paying a few dollars a month to have my hosting service take care of the little issues that I don't want to have to worry about. I'm well aware that I maintain ownership rights to anything that I upload on to Libsyn, I edit on Audacity which gives me free rein to craft the sound quality of my podcast, and while it might be more convenient to be able to create an episode directly from my phone at any given moment, most of the phone produced podcast that I have heard are borderline unlistenable because of the tinny sound quality that they produce.
Should you use a free podcast hosting service like Anchor.FM for your podcast?
That's really up to you, but for the people who are hoping to go to the next level, I'm going to recommend you spend a few dollars to invest in yourself and your future instead.