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A Podcasting Divergence

I almost didn't want to link to this NYT report on a meeting Apple allegedly had with "seven leading podcast professionals" (whoever they are) to hear their concerns on "several pressing issues for podcasters", but Marco Arment's response is an important one.

The takeaway from the NYT story is that Leading Podcast Professionals would love ways to have more data about podcast listening habits as well as monetization features to sell access to podcasts via iTunes. From the report:

With data like listener counts and listening duration — similar to what Apple provides app developers — the industry could accelerate quickly, said Ms. Delvac of “Call Your Girlfriend.”

And:

Expanding the industry much more, though, gets tricky. Apple does not allow shows to charge people to download episodes, for example, and does not support paid subscriptions, as many podcasters would like. Apple has stuck with an advertising model for podcasting that looks almost exactly like what Mr. Jobs predicted onstage in 2005.

And here's Marco Arment:

Big podcasters also apparently want Apple to insert itself as a financial intermediary to allow payment for podcasts within Apple’s app. We’ve seen how that goes. Trust me, podcasters, you don’t want that.

It would not only add rules, restrictions, delays, and big commissions, but it would increase Apple’s dominant role in podcasts, push out diversity, give Apple far more control than before, and potentially destroy one of the web’s last open media ecosystems.

This is a complex issue. But it's important to note that just like Leading Podcast Professionals may have their valid opinions and suggestions for Apple, there are thousands of independent podcasters who are thriving in their own niches.

Right now, the iTunes Store for podcasts is essentially a glorified catalogue of external RSS feeds with show pages, charts, curated sections, and search. And that's a beautiful thing: there's little to no barrier to entry. Anyone can make their own podcast feed, host podcast files wherever they want, and Apple's system will provide users (and other apps) with tools to search and subscribe from a unified location dedicated to podcasts. Ultimately, you own your podcast files, your RSS feeds, and the ads you sell.

What Leading Podcast Professionals would like to see seems harmless on the surface. More data? Apple could use the system they've built with App Analytics, make it work with their Podcasts app only (which does have a big slice of the market share), and display aggregate and anonymized data to podcasters. Monetization and pay-for-access? Easy: instead of giving Apple your own public RSS feed with links to files hosted somewhere on the web, upload your podcast file directly to Apple's cloud and let the service take care of access on a per-Apple ID basis – sort of like YouTube Red, but for podcast access.

This is where my beliefs diverge with those of Leading Podcast Professionals. The system they are wishing for might as well solve all of their data collecting and monetization woes. From my standpoint, though, it would set a dangerous precedent for two reasons:

  • If Podcast Analytics are only available in Apple's Podcasts app, it would indirectly push out innovation for third-party podcast clients. Advertisers would start requiring data that's only available when users listen via Apple's app, which would incentivize podcasters to start recommending Apple's Podcasts app to their audience, which in return would discourage developers from making third-party podcast clients. As a podcaster, would I want my audience to listen with an app that doesn't contribute to the analytics my advertisers want?
  • In the second, darker scenario, podcast files hosted on Apple's cloud would create another walled garden, akin to the App Store (or SoundCloud), where recurring subscriptions and downloads are dependent on authorization checks from Apple's servers to make podcasts work on the user's side. As we've seen with apps, maybe that could even be great, opening up an entirely new economy. But iPhone apps were a new medium – they were born within the confines of Apple's ecosystem, and yet look where we're at now. Do we really need the established and open podcasting medium to become segmented and scrutinized at this point? At what cost for independent podcasters and podcast app makers? With which consequences for listeners?

This, I think, is where many of us – independent podcasters – diverge with the data-driven platform fetishism of Leading Podcast Professionals. If you're a big media company, chances are you're always on the lookout for enticing new "platform opportunities" to keep your audiences into a locked-down space where you can easily collect data, analyze behavior, and monetize aggressively.

Look at what's happening with article and video content on the web. As a Leading Content Professional, why wouldn't you want to have your articles on Facebook or Apple News? How about Medium? Shouldn't you consider making exclusive content for Snapchat instead? The money is flowing in, the usage on these platforms is off the charts (well, except Apple News), and if users are spending time there, shouldn't you reach them through the platform they're using? Wouldn't it be awesome if the same could be true for podcasting?

If you're a Leading Content Professional and you think that's what you want, more power (and money) to you. I understand and respect what you're doing. But the great thing about the free and decentralized web is that the aforementioned web platforms are optional and they're alternatives to an existing open field where independent makers can do whatever they want. I can own my content, offer my RSS feed to anyone, and resist the temptation of slowing down my website with 10 different JavaScript plugins to monitor what my users do. No one is forcing me to agree to the terms of a platform. My readers are free to link to my articles, copy them, print them, subscribe to my feeds, and view them in any browser or feed reader they like.

Big Platforms are scared of this openness. I see an intrinsic beauty in it that no platform, corporation, or Leading Content Professional could ever convince me to abandon.

My concern with podcasts and the iTunes Store is that, compared to the web, they're still a relatively young medium that are primarily searched and discovered on a platform that's too much of a good thing.

Think about it. Podcasts on iTunes link to external RSS feeds, files are hosted somewhere else, and there's a team of people curating the best ones each week. It's a benevolent service with a convenient interface based on an open medium. Can it last forever? How much would the "improvements" craved by Leading Podcast Professionals change that? And if such changes are implemented, would the podcasting industry be able to maintain its open and decentralized nature like the web is struggling to do?

See, this isn't about arguing who's right or wrong. It's about recognizing the divergence of needs and opinions in an industry that, in many ways, is still in its formative years. I want to own and control my podcasts just like I do with my articles. I want podcasting to be a spoken extension of the written web – available to everyone, indexed with an open format, unbound by agreement terms and proprietary file formats. I want to know that, 30 years from now, I'll be able to look up one of my podcast episodes from 2016 like I can look up a 2009 blog post on my server today.

But maybe the sad reality is that the web is an anomaly. Perhaps podcasting will end up like video, largely controlled by one platform, with other companies – each with their own terms, restrictions, and walled gardens – wanting a piece of the action. And maybe it'll even nurture a new generation of entertainers, like YouTube did, and eventually we'll just accept it.

But altering the fundamentals of an existing open medium concerns me today. For podcasters, the current state of the iTunes Store is almost too good to be true. I hope Apple remembers that there's more to podcasting than Leading Podcast Professionals.

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