Written by Audio, Podcasts

Podcasting: Data/Tech Improvements or Leave Alone?

A couple of interesting pieces on the development of podcasts, and Apple’s role, have been published recently and thought worth thinking aloud about (that’s effectively what my blog is – me thinking aloud).

The New York Times published a piece that suggests major podcasting groups have been talking to Apple asking for extra functionality from them – in particular access to data, but also the ability to better promote podcasts.

Meanwhile Marco Arment challenges the NYT, and argues that podcasting is better off as it is now.

I do understand Arment’s perspective. He argues that Apple has actually been pretty open – for example providing an iTunes API that lets apps like PocketCasts use the iTunes directory to find podcasts.

And he takes a certain purist view that the current way things work is fine. Anyone can make a podcast, submit it to stores like iTunes, and host the podcast wherever they like.

Podcasts are simple mp3 files, playable in a vast range of apps, and on a multitude of devices.

I understand all that, and yet…

The main thing the unnamed podcasters seem to be asking Apple for is more access to data. At the moment, data is very low-level and actually quite hard.

Assuming your host is capable of supplying information, the best it can really tell you about how your podcast has performed is the number of times it was downloaded (although what about partial downloads?), the IP address of the downloader (therefore some idea of location), and the platform it was downloaded by.

And that’s basically it, unless the podcast is listened to via a specific third party app.

Now I do agree that I don’t especially like the idea of Apple dictating terms of podcasting. Apple has a built in advantage in podcasting that the two articles suggest leads to around 65%-70% of the market being on Apple devices. (I suspect that’s the US market, and believe ex-US Apple may have a higher share).

While Google has soft-launched podcasting in the US via its Google Play Music app, and there are plentiful excellent Android podcast apps, the market is massively skewed towards Apple compared with overall device ownership. In any case, I’m not sure that Google has yet shown the desire to truly push podcasting as a platform.

For better or worse, Google Play Music is not every Android owner’s default audio app, and so Google doesn’t have the same power that Apple has by pre-installing a non-removable podcasting app on every Apple device.

I’m not saying anything new here, but to re-iterate previous blogs, I do think podcasting needs some work. The status quo works at an enthusiast level, but doesn’t really work for those who want to build a stronger commercially viable medium. So there are things that need “fixing” with podcasts:

1. Data

Sorry, but it’s needed. If you’re hosting your own podcast for fun, as an enthusiast or for your own pleasure, then fine. But if you’re trying to produce podcasts as a business – and they’re a form of media, so this is totally legitimate – then you need some data.

Beautifully constructed, heavily produced podcasts with excellent production values take time and money to make. In any other part of the creative industries, there’s a means to earning if you’re good enough and enough people love what you do. Podcasting needs to be no different.

Now Apple handing some more data over probably doesn’t cut it. They may still represent the majority of listening, but that should decline over time, and mean that a broader form of data is required.

That said, Apple almost certainly does know how consumers are listening to podcasts including metrics like whether a downloaded podcast was actually listened to, how much of the podcast was listened, were pre/mid-roll ads heard, and so on.

Does providing data run the risk of decreasing diversity? Actually I don’t think so. Sure, a big network like Panoply or Gimlet may decide to ditch certain types of offerings and change direction to the mass market, but that shouldn’t affect what everyone else makes. These are businesses that have to make returns to their backers or else they go under. They have to work within the advertising market place. If they don’t, they go away and we lose their podcasts.

I would look at something like YouTube to prove that a platform can be completely open to all, even if there is strong underlying data. I upload a drone video I made to YouTube and do it for the fun of it. I make no money; I expect no money. Perhaps I hit lucky with one my videos and it becomes a viral hit. There’s a mechanism that allows me to prosper a little should I choose. And then at the other end I might strike it lucky, become a YouTuber, and earn a decent crust on the platform (highly unlikely, I realise). I can use the platform for promotion.

YouTube isn’t directly analogous. It’s a closed Google-owned platform. But there’s little to stop me uploading my own work to YouTube as much as I like, incorporating a number of different commercial business models should I choose to.

Look – I know as much as anyone that much digital data is flawed, misleading or downright wrong. Data is open to manipulation, and advertising agencies are still too in awe of it. But if I buy an ad in just about any medium, the least I can aspect is you to provide me with details of who had an opportunity to hear, watch or see the ad.

Data is necessary. But it’s needed across the piece, and I’m not sure how that would work across multiple platforms. To be treated seriously by advertisers you need some data. Every advertising medium offers data, and podcasting can’t be an exception. Of course if you don’t take advertising from advertising agencies, then this perhaps isn’t an issue to you. But I’m not sure it

2. Promotion

If you’re launching a new podcast, you may be really up against it.

If you’re an existing podcast publisher, then you promote your new podcast on your existing programme. You might mention it lots, run promotional spots for it, or even include an episode in the RSS feed of your podcast. But if your new podcast is aimed at a different audience to the one your current podcast appeals to, this doesn’t really work.

If you’re a big media organisation – a radio station or web publisher – then you can promote across your own platform.

Seemingly a major issue with the big podcasting companies is that promotion on iTunes – still the best way to drive new listeners to a podcast – is at the whim of a single person in the US iTunes Store. Others are in charge of their national/regional stores.

Now podcasters may be treating those individuals as restaurateurs treat celebrity reviewers – “Pick me! Pick me! Write nice things about me!” – but surely the major issue is that we need more avenues to promote podcasts. And critically, there need to be methods to subscribe in a simpler manner. I really shouldn’t have to copy an RSS feed from a web page and paste it into a box in my podcasting software. But that’s what I have to do…

3. Android

As I’ve said again and again, it’s ridiculous that Apple has such a hold over podcasting when so many more devices are Android. You can buy a $50 Android phone that’s capable of playing podcasts, but have to pay 8 times that for a new Apple device. Look beyond the coasts of the US, and the metropolitan centres of Western Europe. There’s a massive market to reach – whoever your podcast is targeted towards.

Apple is not going to provide all the solutions, and more importantly, it shouldn’t provide them.

Yes – Apple has the whip hand now, but that’s not a sustainable position for a medium that is actually technology neutral.

4. Technology

Not really mentioned here, but perhaps underlying everything, is whether we need a kind of “Podcast 2.0” format – something that offers better data about whether a podcast was listened to and who listened to it. There are talked about hackabouts that sort of let you do things with mp3s, but they tend to work hidden pixels and the like. But an RSS feed is structurally limiting.

What I am certain is that I don’t want to see us go down a bespoke private networks route. Podcasting is a very open platform.

But as the web has developed, so do podcasts. Like many others, I don’t want podcasters to know my name and address, unless I choose to provide them (e.g. on a subscription basis). But I know that the medium is limited without some developments.

Summary

I don’t want to destroy an ecosystem that allows anyone to make a popular audio piece and serve it to millions of people around the world. It’s brilliant that anyone can produce a podcast on just about any subject and it can be made available to all. But I’m not sure that anything I hear stops or prevents this. Data and technology move hand in hand, and while Apple can help, it shouldn’t be the be all and end all. It’s worth remembering that podcasting extends well beyond the US!

Elsewhere: read this week’s Hot Pod on this whole issue.