Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show was one of the best podcasts going.  Endlessly entertaining, creatively riveting and a shining example of how to do a well-produced podcast, KPCS was a podcast worth waiting for.

Even though the show still goes on, it’s hard to consider the show a “podcast” anymore, even in the loosest sense of the term.  The (usually) weekly celebrity talk show made an abrupt and quite stunning reversal of structure recently, changing from a very accessible and sharable podcast to an all-or-nothing subscription web-TV program.

It’s certainly not the first podcast to put up a paywall, and it certainly won’t be the last.  I’m not averse to contributing monetarily to a program or broadcaster I enjoy.  I live in Northeast Wisconsin, and since the idea of liberal-leaning talk radio in this market is all but non-existant, I’ve been a long-time paid subscriber to The Alan Colmes Show from FOX News Radio.

Likewise, I don’t expect a show with the production value and talent found on KPCS to go unsubsidized.  I just think there are far better paywall models out there that strike the right balance between audience accessibility and revenue generation.

When KPCS was introduced, the concept was a long-form live-streaming weekly talk show, which was then made available as audio and video podcasts.  I came to it by word-of-mouth, and was freely able to find it where I wanted to see or hear it.  I was able to download it to my iPod Touch, my Android phone, on my TV via a Roku box or a TiVo.  The possibilities were practially limitless, and I found myself recommending the show to others because of it’s unique entertainment value and easy sharability.

Since the introduction of the paywall, the entire architecture of the show has been turned on its ear.  The entire YouTube archive of the show is gone.  All the podcasts have been replaced with three-minute downloads with a minute’s worth of the show and a patronizing wraparound instructing you where to purchase the episode.  Your options boil down to two — a 99-cent audio purchase on the iTunes Store or a $1.99 purchase on Amazon.  Full, single episodes are also available for $9.99 on manufactured-on-demand DVDs via Amazon.  Comparatively, KPCS seems overpriced.  For $5 a month, I get roughly 20 or so three-hour shows of Alan Colmes.  I could pick up a box set of IFC’s Dinner For Five and get 70+ episodes for around $40, whereas a similar lot of KPCS episodes on DVD could cost upwards of $700.  The new model just doesn’t make sense to me.

The new system completely kills organic discovery and word-of-mouth audience building opportunities for the show.  No longer can I recommend an episode to a friend, which may have in turned made them a long-term subscriber.  It also severely limits my options for listening or viewing the show, which is one of the key things a podcast should allow.  Now I’m locked into an iPod for listening, or an Amazon-enabled device for viewing.  If I want to listen to an episode on my commute, I have to pre-arrange a sync of my iPod, at which point I find myself falling back on the multitude of other podcast options that remain freely available.  I cannot download a full episode of KPCS on my Android phone, which is where I do 99% of my podcast consumption.

There are monetized podcast models that eliminate these hassles and still generate revenue for the podcasters.  There is sponsorship, which KPCS has had a spotty history.  Many of the best and most successful podcasts employ the sponsorship model, including the TWiT and Revision3 networks.  There are also subscription-based models that give users a taste of the show with the possibility to subscribe for the full episodes.  FOX News Radio employs such a model, giving free access to the first hour of a three-hour episode for free.  When you subscribe, you get the full-episode with a password-protected URL, which still allows multi-platform downloading across computers and mobile devices.

Look at another successful, yet easily discoverable paid podcast model in comedian Marc Maron’s WTF program.  It is a hybrid of sponsorship and a “premium access” paywall.  New listeners can freely and easily access new shows which include sponsorship mentions.  There are premium subscriptions and mobile apps available that grant greater access to the show and a larger library of past shows.  I have five hours of commute time every week that podcasts fill, and after the radical shift in KPCS’ distribution model, I discovered WTF by word of mouth.  I was able to download and enjoy dozens of shows freely, which led me to purchase their iPhone app.  I then purchased the $9 Android app which includes cart blanch access to the entire WTF library for a year.  The spirit and openness of a podcast is there, while still fostering the revenue needed to maintain a quality show.

Will the new paywall model for KPCS stop me entirely from listening to the show?  No.  It will cause me to be a lot more selective on how much of it I consume.  I was a weekly listener before, but I will definitely find myself picking and choosing which episodes interest me.  I am, apparently, not alone.  Comments on iTunes, YouTube and other outlets have been lighting up with overwhelming ire at the change.  Only time will tell how successful this bold gambit will be.  I hope they find a better balance of content and commerce in the future for this wildly entertaining show.

UPDATE:  Since the writing of this piece, the availability options changed slightly.  Even though the teaser clips advertised 99-cent audio downloads via iTunes, the pricing is actually $1.99 per episode.  Amazon Video On Demand episodes remain $1.99 each, and full “seasons” consisting of about 25 episodes cost north of $50 each.  Recent episodes do not appear to be available via Amazon yet.  Lastly, a 30-day “rental” of a video episode via an embedded Dynamo-brand Flash player is available on the KPCS website for 99 cents, payable via Paypal or Amazon.

Accessibility via Android phones is still a hassle if not a sheer impossibility.  Negative comments continue to pour in via YouTube, iTunes, Twitter and other channels.  All of the YouTube three-minute video previews with paywall instructions have since disappeared.