The Podcasting Challenge

Podcasts
Last month, the BBC announced that it had delivered its billionth podcast since it first started delivering downloads in 2007.
Closer to home, Absolute Radio continues to deliver exceptional numbers of podcast, with programmes like Dave Gorman doing especially well.
Somewhere around 8.5m people in the UK download podcasts (MIDAS 8, RAJAR), with around 4m listening every week.
Big numbers then. There’s clearly a thriving ecology of audio producers both within “traditional” media outlets and beyond.
And over Christmas, goodness knows how many millions of devices were unwrapped that are all capable of playing podcasts.
Yet all of this is true in spite of the fact that downloading podcasts is just so incredibly complicated and difficult for consumers.
It really is.
Podcasting must have one of the most complicated set of hurdles a user has to get over before they can actually enjoy listening to the audio they want on the device that they want to hear it on.
Essentially, if they don’t have an Apple device, and use iTunes, then they’re facing an uphill struggle from the outset. Despite the podcasting protocols essentially being open, only Apple’s iTunes software has really made a true impact on podcasting, with most people telling you that the vast majority of their downloads come from that platform. It was only when Apple added podcasts to iTunes in 2005, that podcasting really had a chance to go mainstream. Yet even with Apple buy-in, it can be a fiendishly complicated piece of software (and one I have no love for, as I’ve mentioned on previous occasions).
To subscribe to a podcast, you essentially need to place an RSS feed into a piece of “podcatching” software. You can try to make that as easy as possible – and hitting the Subscribe button in iTunes isn’t hard – but it’s still fiddly.
That’s particularly the case outside the Appple environment, if your podcatching software doesn’t come with a properly comprehensive directory of its own, meaning that you need to somehow tie the website where a podcast is hosted to the software you’re using to listen to the audio and/or sync the audio with your chosen device.
But let’s step back a second.
The first problem with podcasts is their name. That makes it sound to the outsider that if you don’t have an iPod, then this isn’t a technology for you. Yet given that the majority of mobile phones sold today are perfectly capable of playing podcasts, and at the same time, aren’t made by Apple, the word “podcast” is something of a misnomer. Then there are the vast array of non-Apple mp3 players from companies like Sony, Creative and iRiver that also support podcasts. Apple may still have the dominant market share of this market, but do users of those devices know that they’re capable of podcasting, and do they use them accordingly.
Of course, the longer a word is used in society, the more it’s accepted and adopted. And it’s certainly too late to change the name. Amongst others, Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech fame, attempted to use the word “netcast” in place of podcast early on, but it didn’t stick. In the meantime the word “podcast” remains off-putting to many non-Apple consumers, whether they know it or not.
The second problem is the difficulty of actually getting someone to subscribe to a podcast. Within the Apple eco-system, you’ll need to ensure that your podcast is listed in the iTunes store and then hope that it’s discovered. However you’re likely to find that you end up driving most of the traffic to iTunes from your own site or by employing links from social media, because the chances that Apple will choose to feature your work are – let’s face it – slim. And if you’re not featured or appear near the top of one of their podcast charts, your discoverability will be solely reliant on people searching for your podcast (By the way, you’d better have a website, if only to deliver search traffic to the right page of iTunes. This sounds obvious, but so many podcasts seem to fall foul of this thinking iTunes alone will do the work for them).
But what about if your prospective listeners are using another piece of software to manage the music/audio on your portable device? That software may well not have a directory included – and if it does, it’s probably not one as comprehensive as Apple’s. So that means users have to copy the RSS feed details – an XML file – and paste it into their software of choice. I can’t think of anything less consumer friendly and more needlessly technical if I try.
Just look at the array of buttons the BBC – quite rightly – puts alongside all its podcasts to enable you to subscribe. It’s ridiculous that we need a separate button for different pieces of software.
If I was redesigning podcasting from the start here are some of the things I’d implement:
– A new name that wasn’t perceived as device specific.
– A file format that means browsers would automatically launch the default application associated with “podcasting” which may or may not be iTunes.
– The ability to charge for podcasts – more of which below.
– True downloading of new podcasts in the background without necessarily needing to run the software.
– The ability to “sync” your podcasts to your chosen device from more than one host computer (and indeed, depending on device specifics, remove the need for a host computer altogether).
– The word “subscribe” in relation to podcasts comes with a certain amount of baggage. Even though currently practically every podcast is free to end users, “subscribe” could sound like there’s a cost. Especially if iTunes already has your credit card details.
– The format would allow “enhanced” podcasts to be available on all devices not just Apple’s (I know that there are workarounds for this, but they’re not pretty).
– And it should take account that there will be video podcasts too.
Other critical things would be the ability for devices to report back – should the user choose to opt in – whether or not a podcast had been listened to, and the extent to which it had been listened. While that might sound a little Big Brother-ish, that kind of information is what podcast producers need to know to assess the overall popularity of a podcast. Listener feedback only goes so far. And if you intend to commercialise your podcast, then advertisers really need to know that their campaigns are being delivered.
Somewhere in the 16,000 word terms and conditions of iTunes, I suspect that users have authorised the usage of this data – perhaps in an anonymised form (Yes, those terms and conditions really are that long). But if it’s in there, Apple’s not passing that data back to podcast producers.
As I’ve argued, iTunes has an enormous stranglehold over podcasts. In many ways it’s a terrific shop front which is personalisable, and potentially delivers enormous exposure to your podcasts. Yet it’s noticeable that the vast majority of the most successful podcasts come from existing media organisations (at time of writing 35 out of the top 50, including a 27 from the BBC alone). And that does mean that if you’re not part of a big organisation, giving your podcast prominence is mighty tough.
And then there’s the fact that Apple chooses not to allow you to charge for podcasts.
Perhaps the most successful paid-for podcast has been Ricky Gervais’s. But that appears in places like iTunes as an audiobook and not a podcast. Ricky has a big enough global following that I’m sure this isn’t a problem. His loyal fans dutifully find the right place to pay for his latest episodes. But for the rest of us…
Currently, the only way to monetise your podcast – if it’s to sit in the podcasts section of iTunes – is via advertising or sponsorship within the actual audio files. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it places an artificial limit on what is possible and funding mechanisms that you might wish to employ. You only have to look to the success of many App developers to realise that all those fifty-nine pences can add up to something very substantial even if you have to give Apple a slice of the action.
Quite why Apple doesn’t allow podcasts to be sold like everything else in iTunes is unclear. The pricing could be kept low, and could adopt period subscriptions as happens in the TV section of the store where I can buy x episodes for £y. I do understand that there are card costs incurred by Apple for low value transactions (That’s why they only tend to charge you for a single download a few days later. They hope you’ll buy something else in the meantime to maxismise returns from a single transaction). And I can understand that if someone paid £10 for twenty of my podcasts, only for me to stop producing them after half a dozen, both listeners and Apple might start to get upset. Yet I still think providing the ability to monetise podcasts this way is essential.
While I’d in no way expect that many people would choose to charge, some might. Helen and Olly from Answer Me This, for example, sell some of their older “classic” epsiodes. Yet they have to manage this themselves using third party methods, despite, most of their traffic surely coming through iTunes.
I also think the case of Louis CK’s experiment in selling non-DRM video downloads of his recent live set at just $5 and turning over more than a million dollars in only a few days, are fascinating studies.
In the fullness of time, I’m sure that payment mechanisms – perhaps in the form of Near Field Communications – will be built into the hardware specs of our digital devices. Perhaps as an adjunct of real-world payments that are currently being implemented in new generations of mobile phones. And that should mean that payment mechanisms could become simpler which should remove the micropayment barrier you tend to face if your site isn’t utilising a popular wallet technology like PayPal, Google Wallet, Apple or Amazon accounts.
And in a world where we all have, ubiquitous high-speed internet access on all our devices, some podcast issues will go away.
In the meantime, we’re beholden to a technology that desperately needs updating to become fully sustainable. It should be easier for the average user to get involved – to discover and download podcasts on the device of their choice. It should provide more information about podcast usage (beyond audience feedback) to the producers. And there should be the ability to monetise podcasts, if producers choose, using an array of models including the basic purchase one.
Those things in turn should deliver a broader and stronger podcasting environment, helping producers both small and large.
[UPDATE] I’ve added a few more thoughts on this subject based on responses others have made both here and on social media.
Disclaimer: As ever, these are my own views and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

8 Comments

  1. I loved your post – good work.
    What would be the best forum, do you think, to discuss these issues. I am of the oppinion there should be standards for podcast as there is for websites and radio, for that matter, to make the process easier for producers as well as consumers and to make better software.
    I think it would be really good to get the “podfathers” together again to discuss and evaluate.

  2. Hi Karin,
    That’s a good question, and one that I don’t quite know the answer to. Looking at where the majority of podcasts are currently coming from – organisations like the BBC and NPR in the English language world at least – it’d take representatives of them. Plus various commercial and other concerns.
    It’s important that lesser voices are included, since they’re the ones who don’t really have a voice now. They don’t have the Apple relationships for example. Plus the idea of, say, charging for podcasts is probably not going to interest the BBC as much as someone else.
    The problem I’ve encoutered in the past has been antipathy between the “big boys” and smaller operators who considered podcasting something outside the orthodoxy. That, I suspect, is why there’s not really been such a “podfather” grouping gathered.
    What the next step should be, I’m not sure…

  3. I think a problem is that iTunes have little incentive to standardise anything given they are in such a dominant position. Adding a paid element would be a massive step and must surely be easy to implement, apps already mix paid and free products so there’s no reason why podcasts couldn’t.
    I understand the problems with the word podcast but it is now far too well known to change, the BBC trying to call them “free audio downloads” confuses the situation even more. Spend the time and effort educating the audience about podcasts rather than trying to throw different names at them.
    Talking of content from radio stations, a big step would be to introduce a standardised way of downloading from Radioplayer directly (rather than linking to random webpages or iTunes). A ‘podcast market’ of some kind, perhaps, that could also be opened up to indie podcasts in due course.

  4. Hi Robin,
    Yes, I know that there are workarounds out there. In UK radio, LBC’s podcasts work along very similar lines. You pay for the podcasts outside the Apple environment and then can take delivery via iTunes (http://lbc.audioagain.com/?action=help&page=itunes).
    The problem is that this all a bit messy, and most consumers would probably like to buy podcasts as simply as they’re able to buy other music and video from iTunes – via their Apple account.

  5. Your suggestion of a special file format is already possible: If you link to a feed using itpc:// instead of http:// , most browsers (that I have tested) should give you a prompt saying they are going to open the link in the iTunes application (and give you a chance to choose a different app).
    This solves the problem of having to open iTunes, enter the store, search for the podcast, whatever.
    As for the sites that provide a bunch of buttons for different programs, to me that seems like overkill. The BBC page you linked, for instance, provides a Zune link and a Yahoo link. Undoubtedly there are SOME people using those methods, but my feeling is that if you’re far enough into podcasting to use some special program, you probably know how to copy-and-paste the RSS feed url into it. On the site for my personal podcast, I provide an itpc:// link and and http:// link and that’s it. Perhaps I will be proven wrong in the future if lots of people complain and want Yahoo links or something.
    So that’s my ramble, I think if the itpc link was standardized among all podcasting software (I have no clue what software does use it apart from iTunes), that’d solve things a bit.

  6. Hi Andrew,
    You may well be right about the itpc:// thing. I use iTunes as the majority probably do. However I suspect that down the line more people are going to be solely using their mobile devices – probably their phones – to listen and subscribe to podcasts. So how would that linking work in, say, the default Android browser? That’s what we’re faced with.
    The BBC presents a list of options for two reasons. One – they have such a large number of subscribers, there probably is a significant minority using things like the Zune and Yahoo. And two – as a public service broadcaster, they can’t be seen to favour one software/hardware supplier over another. Hence the range of buttons. I should say that my own employer – a commercial radio group – offers a default iTunes button, and then a drop-down with other offerings.
    As you say, when you’re fully into podcasts, then the RSS feed is probably enough. However, that’s the fundamental problem with podcasts. The average user shouldn’t be limited only to iTunes, and they certainly shouldn’t have to understand what an RSS feed is to subscribe to a podcast – especially on their non-Apple device.
    It’s probably the same reason that only a relatively small minority of web users use feed readers like Google Reader to monitor their favourite websites.

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