Written by Audio, Radio

The Podcasting Challenge – Some More Thoughts

My piece on podcasting from yesterday (but the product of a long period of gestation) seems to have generated some interest, so I thought it was worth exploring a few of the issues people have mentioned to me in various environments following on from the post.
Terminology
We do need to be consistent across the industry in what we call podcasts. And that’s a global decision rather than a UK specific one in my view.
That horse has bolted now. However irksome it might be to call them podcasts, that’s what most of the world is calling them. So I wouldn’t propose renaming them at this stage.
Pretty much all mp3 players with the facility, whether Apple or non-Apple, and all compatible mobile phones, again whether Apple or non-Apple, call these downloads podcasts.
I understand that within the BBC, there have been discussions and research conducted regarding the terminology. But in my view we can’t reinvent the wheel. Podcasts it must stay.
Explaining what podcasts actually are, the benefits to listeners of them, and making it as easy as possible for listeners to download them is certainly to be encouraged. They may have been around for years, but I’d wager that the majority of the available population probably don’t really understand them.
If you work in radio, here’s an experiment. Wander around your workplace, and see just how many (or how few) of your colleagues – people who one hopes do love radio – actually listen to podcasts. And then ask them whether they download them to a portable device or listen online or via streaming. Likely suspects aside, you may be surprised, and not necessarily in a good way.
Development
There is the potential for RadioPlayer to help here. Although I must admit I’m not quite sure how. Given that we now have a common interface across the industry, could there be further standards applied to deal with podcasts. We must remember that podcasting is global however. (Although I understand that the official French word is “la diffusion pour baladeur”. If I tell you that baladeur is an mp3 player, it does make sense. But what’s the betting that “podcast” is the word they actually use?)
On a larger scale, taking us beyond the basic mp3 is a bigger question. Developing an audio format that can embed pictures, dynamic links, and other metadata that might utilise larger screens that most devices have these days is an interesting idea.
Until now, it feels as though it has been left to hardware manufacturers to add additional functionality that they feel would be useful. So Apple unilaterally did things like create “enhanced podcasts” that would work on their devices alone, at least initially.
I think this does take work with software providers, including Apple, and hardware device manufacturers to get it to work. Unfortunately, those providers might be working to different ends. That’s why it’s so hard for other hardware manufactures to keep their devices working happily with, say, iTunes. In the longer term, there may even be competition issues that need examining.
Is there a global organisation that could take this role on, representing the needs and requirements of podcasters and audio producers to develop the technology? I don’t know.
Charging Mechanisms
This is really an Apple issue. On the one hand, you’d imagine that Apple could turn a switch on tomorrow and allow podcast suppliers to charge for their wares. In the App store, free and paid-for co-exist with ease.
So that leaves a handful of reasons why Apple might not be interested in turning that ability on. Some are more serious and bigger hurdles than others:
1. Music Rights
Apple may be concerned that you’ve appropriated music or other copyright material in your podcast that doesn’t belong to you. Perhaps you’ve included A Day In The Life by The Beatles as your podcast’s intro music!
I’d argue that this could be solved very simply by making sure that prospective podcasters agree to terms and conditions that indemnify Apple. Should the other Apple (Records) come calling, Apple (Computers) just pulls your podcast and points the record company in your direction.
Simple, but a whole additional level of bureaucracy perhaps.
Another option would be for Apple to use its music matching iCloud technology to determine whether your podcast contains copyright material. This is what YouTube does when you upload video.
We all know that there are lots of podcasts do contain copyright material that may or may not have been legitimately acquired. Perhaps this is just a hornet’s nest Apple doesn’t want to get into. As things stand, that podcast RSS feed in iTunes is simply a weblink. Just as Firefox isn’t responsible for copyright material on a website, nor is Apple’s iTunes responsible for copyright material in a podcast.
2. Multiplicity of Suppliers
In the music, movies and TV worlds, Apple only has to deal with a relatively small number of suppliers. But they do take time and resources to work with. Problems and other issues have to be solved, and that almost certainly means manpower.
While it’s certainly true that Apple now has to deal with many thousands of app developers, that’s a pill they’ve been perhaps happier to swallow since apps have helped build their mobile phone business. But as most developers know, there’s a bottleneck between an app being built, and it being made available in the iTunes store as Apple checks it out for any violations of their terms and conditions. Again that’s a manpower issue as much as anything.
Apple may be concerned that they’d have to staff up for no significant financial gain.
3. Technical Failures
If I buy the latest Lady Gaga album from iTunes, it’s Apple that’s doing the hosting, not her record label. Apple has a digital copy of the album on its servers, so that any technical issues that arise from my not being able to download the album are Apple’s concern.
Podcasts work differently. They reside on a host website somewhere, belonging to the podcaster. So if a podcast fails to download, it’s not Apple’s fault. If I pay Apple for a podcast and can’t download it, due to the podcaster’s server not working, an inherent problem arises.
The workaround is, of course, for Apple to host paid-for podcasts. But that might cause some problems for certain broadcasters – for example those that dynamically add current advertising campaigns to what might be old podcasts. The solution would be either to not have that ability and let Apple host, or to not be able to charge for such podcasts.
4. Advertising Issues
Many podcasts contain forms of advertising built into their podcasts. They might be from major advertisers, or they might be just monetisation mechanisms included in editorial (e.g. donate to us via PayPal, or buy one of our CafePress T-shirts). Apple may be unhappy at both charging listeners for podcasts, and them then being served ads.
To be clear, I don’t think this is a real issue, as market forces will dictate what podcasters can and can’t do. I pay for premium Sky Sports TV, and they still serve me ads when I watch the channel. If I’m unhappy with that arrangement, I can simply cancel my subscription and stop watching. Likewise I might stop buying an over-commercialised podcast.
5. Billing Disputes
This might well be what really puts Apple off adding the ability to charge for podcasts, and is linked to technical issues above.
What if my server crashes, or perhaps my podcast only lasts for 60 seconds rather than the usual 30 minutes, and the downloader isn’t satisfied that they’re getting value for money? How do those complaints get resolved?
And what if your podcast adopts a subscription model, as many TV series allow? You pay, say £10, for fifteen episodes. But your podcast dries up after six episodes. What does Apple do? Do they have to refund a proportionate amount? That’s hassle for them.
Then there’s just the sheer number of transactions they’ll have to process with a multiplicity of podcast providers.
Of course these are all exactly the same issues that Apple has had to face with the App store, so they are possible to overcome.
6. Charges
I hinted at this previously. But you might like to charge a relatively modest amount for your podcast – say 29p. The difficulty here is that Apple might have to pay 20p of that to your card company to process that amount (I’m making an educated guess here, based on recent announced UK legislation regarding card payment surcharges). That doesn’t leave Apple with very much financial room for them to work with.
Ordinarily, even if you buy an entire album, Apple will not actually charge you immediately, delaying payment for an indeterminate period – probably a complicated algorithm based on your previous purchasing patterns – before processing your charge to allow them to consolidate further purchases and reduce their processing fees. It’s cheaper for them to process a larger sum in one go, particularly if your account is tied to a debit card.
It’s the same old micro-payments problem the internet has always been faced with, and it’s why Apple has set realtively high minimum prices for both music and Apps.
7. Disinterest
If you put a fresh install of iTunes on a computer, you get a number of default menu options on the left hand side of the screen. Podcasts isn’t one of them. You either have to go into preferences and switch it on, or actually start downloading podcasts from the iTunes store for it to show up. Nobody makes you switch on music or movies. These make money for Apple, and so they’re switched on by default.
Whatever Apple’s real reasons for not switching that payment switch, it’s probably going to need podcasters to make the case to Apple that there’s untapped revenue here to be had if only they’d let us!
Disclaimer: As ever, these are my own views and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.