Luminary launches its subscription-based podcast network on Alexa devices

Sarah Perez

Luminary, a startup building a "Netflix for podcasts," is now trying a new tack to gain subscribers for its premium service. The company is today launching an Alexa skill that will allow podcast listeners to stream content on Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered devices, using voice commands. In addition, Luminary is also becoming the first podcast service to offer premium subscriptions by way of Alexa voice requests.

Listeners will be able to ask Alexa to "start my free Luminary trial" to gain a month of free access to Luminary Premium, or they can say "Alexa, subscribe to Luminary," to kick off their $7.99 per month subscription in the U.S.

Despite its messy and controversial launch, which saw a number of podcasters pulling their shows from Luminary's service, the company has persisted. Today, Luminary has grown its library to include more than 40 premium podcasts exclusive to its network, including shows from big names like Trevor Noah, Lena Dunham, Martina McBride, Russell Brand, Team Coco, The Ringer, Roxane Gay + Tressie McMillan Cottom and others.

To date, Luminary's efforts have focused on being both a podcast network and an app that plays podcasts, including those outside its network. On Luminary's iOS, Android and web apps, subscribers can listen to the company's original programming alongside their other favorite shows. But the new Alexa experience focuses only on paying subscribers -- to listen on your Alexa smart speaker, you need to either subscribe or start the free trial. (Sample episodes of the exclusive shows are also available before you commit to signing up.)

Once enabled, Luminary subscribers can use the Alexa skill to pick up premium shows where they left off on web or mobile and ask for recommendations, in addition to streaming their favorite shows. On Alexa devices with a screen, like Echo Show, the skill also features a visual experience featuring the show's artwork and descriptions.

The voice app was designed in partnership with New York-based digital agency RAIN, which specializes in voice and conversational AI, and is Luminary's first voice platform launch.

The company debuted in early 2019, backed by nearly $100 million in funding for its subscription-based business. But many podcasters were upset to find their free, ad-supported and publicly available shows were being gathered up to help attract users to Luminary's premium service. In addition, Luminary wasn't sending complete and accurate analytics back to podcast publishers, they found. (Luminary has since corrected this.) As a result, several larger brands requested their shows be pulled, including Spotify's Gimlet and Parcast, NYT's The Daily, The Joe Rogan Experience, Endeavour Audio, PodcastOne, Barstool Sports and others.

It's not surprising that companies Spotify invested in to grow its own exclusive library of shows would bristle at being distributed ad-free through a third-party app. What Luminary didn't count on, however, would be the range of podcasters who wouldn't view its app as just another distribution mechanism for their content -- like Overcast, Pocket Casts or Apple or Google's podcasts apps, for example.

With the Alexa launch, Luminary is focusing more heavily on its premium service, where it pays creators for their work instead of having podcasters rely on ads. The company said it chose to launch on Alexa because smart speakers are the third most-used devices for listening to podcasts, behind mobile devices and PCs.

The launch arrives at a time when Amazon is also investing more in the podcast listening experience on Alexa devices. Last week, Amazon added support for Apple and Spotify podcasts on Echo devices, and now allows users to set either as their default podcast service.

Luminary users won't have that same built-in advantage, though. To get started, users will instead need to say "Alexa, open Luminary."