(Bloomberg Businessweek) —
People will confess all sorts of things to podcasters, from their unpopular political beliefs or embarrassing romantic mishaps to their worst fears. But there’s one revelation certain guests will never disclose—namely, that they’re paying thousands of dollars just to be interviewed on the show.
Welcome to the golden era of pay-for-play podcasting, when guests pay handsomely to be interviewed for an entire episode. In exchange, the host gets some revenue, fills out the programming calendar, and might bag a future advertiser.
Determining exactly how widespread the practice is can be tricky. Disclosures, if included at all, might last only a few fleeting seconds in an hourlong interview, and various hosts use different language to describe the nature of such relationships. What percentage of shows accepts payment in exchange for airtime is also difficult to say. According to nearly a dozen interviews with industry sources, it appears the practice is particularly popular among podcasts in the wellness, cryptocurrency, and business arenas.
In an age when social media influencers routinely get paid for mentioning a brand in an Instagram post or YouTube video, this marriage of convenience shouldn’t come as a complete shock. Still, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. “As someone who’s making money for that type of advertorial content, it should be disclosed,” says Craig Delsack, a New York-based media lawyer. “It’s just good practice and builds trust with the podcaster. It can’t be the Wild West.”
US regulators also agree that consumers might be misled when they don’t know a media mention only occurred in exchange for compensation. A Federal Trade Commission spokesperson says the agency cannot comment on specific situations for this story. “But this is our general guidance: Regardless of the medium in which an advertising or promotional message is disseminated, deception occurs when consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances are misled about its nature or source, and such misleading impression is likely to affect their decisions or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertising,” says the FTC spokesperson.
Even so, the phenomenon appears to be thriving in podcasting. Online platform Guestio has raised more than $1 million to build a marketplace devoted entirely to brokering paid guest appearances. Travis Chappell, Guestio’s founder and chief executive officer, points out that people often pay public-relations firms to pitch them to podcasts as potential guests. He believes their money is better spent going directly to the podcaster.
“I was starting to realize this podcaster is working their ass off to build this audience, and then this agency makes money because they charge this client for the booking,” he says. “The only person who doesn’t make money is the person who took the time to build the audience in the first place.”
On Guestio, the flow of money sometimes reverses direction, and a podcaster provides payment to land a particularly coveted guest such as boxer Manny Pacquiao, who charges $15,000 for an appearance. Chappell says that many of the shows Guestio works with make disclosures to listeners about fees, but says his platform “should do a better job of having a script.”
Since 2020, according to Chappell, Guestio has paid out more than $300,000 to podcasters and guests. In just the past six months, four podcasters on the platform have made more than $20,000 from appearance fees, including one who took in $50,000. Although Chappell hasn’t set a standard price, he suggests podcasters charge $100 to $150 per thousand listeners of their program.
The top-earning show is , a daily program that highlights various businesses. John Lee Dumas, its host and creator, says he mostly receives guest inquiries through his website and currently charges $3,500 for an appearance. Payment serves as a kind of filtering tool.
“Once people were accepted by us and made the investment in being on the show, they were ready to play,” Dumas says. “Like, they prepared for the interview. They showed up on time. They delivered massive value. They had great giveaways and calls to action for my audience.”
He includes disclosures regarding sponsor payments at the end of each episode, saying: “Today’s value bomb content was brought to you by …” He doesn’t always charge a fee. For some guests, such as business coach Tony Robbins, Dumas instead takes a commission off any product sold through his affiliate link. In June, according to Dumas’s public monthly income report, he raked in $146,418 in sponsorship revenue; he estimates 20% to 30% came from guest fees.
“The appearance fees are really just an additional great revenue stream that’s a nice-to-have, definitely not a need-to-have,” he says.
For guests who appear on multiple shows, the expense can quickly add up. But the returns can be worthwhile. One of Dumas’s guests, Nick Unsworth, a business coach and CEO of Life on Fire, says he paid Dumas’s show $35,000 for two appearances and 12 weeks of ads. In the end, he made $150,000 in revenue by converting free podcast listeners into customers who paid for access to his business courses.
Other podcast hosts say they’ve received positive feedback from their paying guests, and relay anecdotes about paid appearances on their shows leading to bestselling books, further sales, and additional gratis appearances in other media.
“When you’re the guest, you’re the star,” Unsworth says. “If you can be in that position and make your offer, you have no barriers. No one is listening to that episode thinking it’s a commercial. There’s immediate trust and a perception that you’re held in a high light.”
Nonetheless, some PR professionals discourage their clients from partaking. “It’s a gray area, but it’s payola,” says Jon Bier, CEO and founder of public-relations firm Jack Taylor. “If I get into that game, I’m getting into just the opposite of what I believe in, which is curation, creativity, and authenticity.”
Even if their agencies don’t support it, potential guests with a product to sell often see podcasting as a golden ticket—an unfiltered medium through which to reach listeners for extended periods of time. This is especially tempting at the top end of the market, where shows charge tens of thousands of dollars for an appearance and access to hundreds of thousands of listeners.
Michael Bosstick, CEO of Dear Media, an Austin-based podcasting company that primarily caters to female listeners, believes in the value of paid appearances. For , a popular lifestyle show he co-hosts with his wife, Lauryn Evarts Bosstick, the company charges $20,000 to $40,000 per interview, or whatever it costs to buy out their ad inventory. The show, he says, reaches 250,000 to 350,000 listeners per episode.
He emphasizes that Dear Media doesn’t accept just anybody with money as a guest. To secure a spot, he says, a person or business needs to be compelling and relevant to the audience. According to Bosstick, sponsored episodes account for just 1% to 3% of Dear Media’s programming. “We always frame it as: There’s no talking points, you don’t get to submit questions, the only thing is it’s just your brand being featured,” he says.
Among the roster of guests who have paid to be on, he says, are Chervin Jafarieh, the CEO of wellness company Cymbiotika, which sells such products as a $130 shower head filter, and Robert Slovak, the co-founder of Water and Wellness, the brand behind a $499 reverse osmosis machine and supplements. Neither Cymbiotika nor Water and Wellness responded to emails requesting comment.
“I know, after this episode, I will never in my life forget my minerals every morning,” Lauryn Evarts Bosstick gushed before interviewing Slovak in July. “You guys are going to be blown away about the importance of minerals. I have my dad on them now. I told my sisters about them—my brother. I have got everyone in my family on minerals.”
In the past, listeners of would have had no idea that Michael and Lauryn were being paid by Slovak and Jafarieh for such ringing endorsements. In July, after Bloomberg reached out for comment, Michael recorded disclosures and inserted them into the old episodes.
Dave Asprey, host of , charges guests an average of $50,000 to appear on his biohacking podcast, which he says gets downloaded millions of times a month. He says that about 1% of episodes feature paying guests, and that he rejects plenty of offers from others. At the end of every episode, he discloses to listeners that the podcast “may contain paid endorsements and advertisements for products and services,” and that individuals on the show “may have a direct or indirect financial interest in products or services referred to herein.”
“Appearance fees make sense in only certain circumstances,” Asprey says. “It has to be a weird confluence of a true expert who’s doing something new and interesting. I would take as many as I can get that meet my standards.”