Luminary is working out some kinks after its launch on April 23rd. The podcast platform that aspires to be as synonymous with podcasting as Netflix is with TV streaming built its business model around exclusive content, giving listeners enough quality programming to make them willing to pony up for a monthly subscription fee. While other companies like Stitcher, the BBC, and Spotify all have exclusive content, Luminary was the first company to structure its entire business model around that idea. Postlaunch, though, they have made a few missteps that have given the podcast community pause.
As podcast fans may recall, Luminary offers a set of exclusive shows available to subscribers willing to fork over $8 a month. The ever-growing roster (they just announced 26 new shows this morning) is an impressive list of new talent, old favorites, and celebrities. There are shows from the team behind Slow Burn, On Second Thought: The Trevor Noah Podcast, Hear to Slay with Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom, series from Lena Dunham, Guy Raz and Adam Davidson, and Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown. Those podcasts all exist behind a paywall, available only to subscribers. But Luminary also has a free model, which doesn’t include the new fare and was less well advertised. That caused a great deal of confusion after Luminary launched and creators found that their podcasts had been added to the site without their knowledge.
Luminary’s free product works essentially like any other podcast app, including Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or Breaker. It includes a lot of shows that are available on the open web through RSS feeds with audio files attached. Those RSS feeds and the attached files are available for any computer to download and access, which is what Luminary did. The site uses the free tier to introduce users to the product and hopefully convert them to being Luminary subscribers. But podcast creators, unaware of the free tier, assumed that the startup with $100 million in funding was taking their shows and putting them behind a paywall, without consent or financial compensation. The complaints starting piling up.
That misunderstanding appears to have led one of the biggest podcasts around (god help us), The Joe Rogan Experience, to ask to be removed from Luminary. A spokesperson for the podcast told Neiman Lab‘s Nick Quah that “there was not a license agreement or permission for Luminary to have The Joe Rogan Experience on their platform.” Now when you search for The Joe Rogan Experience on Luminary, there is a note indicating that “This content is unavailable at this time. Learn why” followed by an explanation that they are “investing in technology to improve podcast listening for fans” using “public RSS feed podcasts” and “this publisher has chosen not to take advantage of this free distribution.” It’s an honest, if slightly barbed, summation of Rogan’s departure. Other big names that have exited the platform include The New York Times‘s The Daily, Barstool Sports’ shows (reportedly), Endeavor Audio’s rosters, PodcastOne’s content, and Spotify’s newly purchased assets from Gimlet Media and Parcast, as The Verge reported.
Typically, shows that are available on the open web or via RSS feeds wouldn’t need a license to be available on podcast platforms, although it’s always nice to ask first, which Luminary apparently did not do. As Nieman Lab‘s Joshua Benton points out, it’s pretty wild that shows with open web RSS feeds that are available to everyone are being removed from Luminary. It’s like the podcast equivalent of that Mean Girls quote: You can’t sit with us.
So why can’t the podcast world get along with Luminary? Well, first there’s the money. The company launched to much fanfare, with a big New York Times spread, and revealed that it had a $100-million war chest. That much money for a subscription-based platform rubbed some podcast creators the wrong way, especially those who had come up in the industry’s DIY phase and relied on sponsorship and advertising to pay their bills. Now here was this deep-pocketed company that was coming in with the promise of shaking up independent creators’ entire business model and messing with their livelihood.
Those fears seemed well-founded after Luminary sent out a since-deleted tweet. Last month, prior to their official launch, Luminary tweeted a typed-out image of a bunny holding a sign reading, “Podcasts don’t need ads.” The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman replied, “The ones of us who don’t get 100m VC money do!” Her tweet got 1,512 likes, and many podcasters took to Twitter to vent their own dissent.
The ones of us who don't get $100m VC money do! https://t.co/aEuaB2I3wm
— Helen Zaltzman (@HelenZaltzman) March 7, 2019
Luminary’s CEO Matt Sacks has since admitted that the tweet was a mistake. “The bunny put a foot in our mouth,” he told The Verge, going on to explain that the rabbit was simply trying to point out that there was a choice: ads or subscription.
Then there are the technical issues, like Luminary’s use of proxy servers and rumors that it was re-hosting shows and caching shows’ MP3 files. While those sound like granular concerns, caching and re-hosting muck up precious analytics that creators depend on to land advertisers. After hours of podcasters tagging the company on Twitter, demanding answers and threatening to pull their shows, Luminary responded, tweeting that they have never hosted or cached audio content and would take action to make that more clear and fix their proxy server issues.
— Luminary (@hearluminary) April 25, 2019
As Overcast creator and podcaster Marco Arment posted on Twitter, “Glad they responded quickly. Should’ve been done properly from the start, but at least they fixed it.” Similarly, podcaster Ben Thompson, who had originally helped round up the angry troops of fellow creators, said he chatted with Luminary, was satisfied with their response, and would keep his shows on the site.
I have spoken to Luminary and can confirm this.
As I noted from the beginning, I have no issue with Luminary's business model. I simply want my content and feed respected, and it is now.
Exponent will continue to be on Luminary. https://t.co/wu9Bs4QX66
— Ben Thompson (@benthompson) April 26, 2019
The question of accessibility also dogs Luminary, which is only available in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Canada. That means certain podcasts are unavailable in regions where geo-blocking had never been an issue before. Plus, while the startup brings shows into their free tier through the RSS feed, they are reportedly disabling links to Patreon accounts that many listener-supported podcasters use to raise money. This has not played well with creators. A Luminary spokesperson noted that “the industry approach to links varies by company and by platform in part due to security issues” and they “will make progress on links and notes, but will always respect the product team’s security concerns.”
Hi @hearluminary you have my podcast The Greatest Generation listed on your service. We are a listener supported show, and you’ve removed the links to @MaxFunHQ’s donation page that we sometimes include in the show description. Why did you do that? Please fix it.
— Benjamin Ahr Harrison (@BenjaminAhr) April 25, 2019
Luminary has apologized for its missteps and has promised to do better by its new community. “We have great creators and great content and ultimately that is what Luminary is about,” Matt Sacks, CEO of Luminary, told Fast Company in an emailed statement. “There are a number of things we would have done differently, and like every young company in a fast-changing space, we know we have to learn and grow all the time.” Luminary might have the best intentions, but as one of the most scrutinized podcasting startups in business, it simply doesn’t have the luxury of making so many errors in a row. And it has to understand that those multiple missteps upset people who might be more forgiving if the errors had come from a scrappy, bootstrapping newcomer.
While Luminary continues to ask tweet out pleas for “constructive conversations without allegations of bad faith,” several of its problems could have been resolved by more clearly communicating its vision, giving creators the choice to opt in and not acting like the company owns a space that it is only just entering. As much as online culture loves to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude, podcasters are not rooting for Luminary to fail. They just don’t want their shows and livelihoods to get swept up as the startup figures out its niche. “Have Luminary entered our space arrogantly & clumsily while taking a lot for granted? Absolutely,” tweeted Paul Bae, the creator of shows like Tanis and The Black Tapes. “But watching failure sucks. They’ve already made several fixes in one week. I’m giving them some time–*some*–to right this ship cuz I believe people can learn from their mistakes.”
It’s up to Luminary to figure out how to play nicely with podcasters. Otherwise, it may be sitting alone at that lunch table—and that’s not good for the company or the people creating content.
— Luminary (@hearluminary) April 26, 2019