This New York Times article gets a lot wrong, and both podcast listeners and podcast producers should be clear on Apple’s actual role in podcasting today and what, exactly, big producers are asking for.
Podcasts work nothing like the App Store, and we’re all better off making sure they never head down that road.
Podcasts still work like old-school blogs:
- Each podcast can be hosted anywhere and completely owned and controlled by its producer.
- Podcast-player apps periodically check each subscribed podcast’s RSS feed, and when a new episode is published, they fetch the audio file directly from the producer’s site or host.
- Monetization and analytics are completely up to the podcasters.
- Some podcasts have their own custom listening apps that provide their creators with more data and monetization opportunities.
It’s completely decentralized, free, fair, open, and uncontrollable by any single entity, as long as the ecosystem of podcast-player apps remains diverse enough that no app can dictate arbitrary terms to publishers (the way Facebook now effectively controls the web publishing industry).1
Apple holds two large roles in podcasting today that should threaten its health, but haven’t yet:
- The biggest player app: Apple’s built-in iOS Podcasts app is the biggest podcast player in the world by a wide margin, holding roughly 60–70% marketshare.
- The biggest podcast directory: The iTunes Store’s Podcasts directory is the only one that matters, and being listed there is essential for podcasts to be easily found when searching in most apps.
Critically, despite having these large roles, Apple never locked out other players, dictated almost any terms to podcasters,2 or inserted themselves as an intermediary beyond the directory stage.
Like most of the iTunes Store, the podcast functionality has been almost completely unchanged since its introduction over a decade ago. And unlike the rest of the Store, we’re all better off if it stays this way.
Apple’s directory gives podcast players the direct RSS feed of podcasts found there, and then the players just fetch directly from the publisher’s feeds from that point forward. Apple is no longer a party to any activity after the search unless you’re using Apple’s player app.
There’s nothing stopping anyone else from making their own directory (a few have), and any good podcast player will let users bypass directories and subscribe to any podcast in the world by pasting in its URL.
Apple’s editorial features are unparalleled in the industry. I don’t know of anyone who applies more human curation to podcasts than Apple.
The algorithmic “top” charts, as far as podcasters have been able to piece together, are based primarily (or solely) on the rate of new subscriptions to a podcast in Apple Podcasts for iOS and iTunes for Mac.
Subscriptions happening in other apps have no effect on Apple’s promotional charts because, as long as this remains decentralized and open, Apple has no way of knowing about them.
Apple’s Podcasts app for iOS is fine, but not great, leaving the door wide open for better apps like mine. (Seriously, it’s much better, and it’s free. Trying to succeed in the App Store in 2016 is neither the time nor the place for modesty.)
Apple’s app has only a few integrations and privileges that third-party apps can’t match, and they’re of ever-decreasing relevance. They haven’t locked down the player market at all.
So let’s get back to that misguided New York Times article.
What (big) podcasters are asking for
Ignoring for the moment that “podcasters” in news articles usually means “a handful of the largest producers, a friend or two of the reporter, and a press release from The Midroll, who collectively believe they represent all podcasters, despite only being the mass-market tip of the iceberg, as if CBS represented all of television or Business Insider represented all of blogging,” and this article is no exception, what these podcasters are asking for is the same tool web publishers have used and abused to death over the last decade to systematically ruin web content nearly everywhere:
Podcasts are just MP3s. Podcast players are just MP3 players, not platforms to execute arbitrary code from publishers. Publishers can see which IP addresses are downloading the MP3s, which can give them a rough idea of audience size, their approximate locations, and which apps they use. That’s about it.
They can’t know exactly who you are, whether you searched for a new refrigerator yesterday, whether you listened to the ads in their podcasts, or even whether you listened to it at all after downloading it.3
Big publishers think this is barbaric. I think it’s beautiful.
Big publishers think this is holding back the medium. I think it protects the medium.
And if that ill-informed New York Times article is correct in broad strokes, which is a big “if” given how much it got wrong about Apple’s role in podcasting, big podcasters want Apple to add more behavioral data and creepy tracking to the Apple Podcasts app, then share the data with them. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
By the way, while I often get pitched on garbage podcast-listening-behavioral-data integrations, I’m never adding such tracking to Overcast. Never. The biggest reason I made a free, mass-market podcast app was so I could take stands like this.
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.
Podcasting has been growing steadily for over a decade and extends far beyond the top handful of public-radio shows. Their needs are not everyone’s needs, they don’t represent everyone, and many podcasters would not consider their goals an “advancement” of the medium.
Apple has only ever used its dominant position benevolently and benignly so far, and as the medium has diversified, Apple’s role has shrunk. The last thing podcasters need is for Apple to increase its role and dominance.
And the last thing we all need is for the “data” economy to destroy another medium.
Companies running completely proprietary podcast platforms so far, trying to lock it down for themselves: Stitcher, TuneIn, Spotify, Google. (I haven’t checked in a while: has everyone finally stopped believing Google gives a damn about being “open”?) ↩︎
Beyond prohibiting pornographic podcasts in their directory and loosely encouraging publishers to properly use the “Explicit” tag. ↩︎
Unless you listen with the podcast publisher’s own app, in which case they can be just as creepy as on the web, if not more so. But as long as the open, RSS-based ecosystem of podcast players remains dominant, including Apple Podcasts, virtually nobody can afford to lock down their podcasts to only be playable from their own app. ↩︎