podcasts

Trends in Podcasting: Cults and Cult Leaders

This is a sort-of follow up to yesterday’s piece on daily news podcasts. It may become an occasional series.

In March this year, Netflix launched a documentary series called Wild Wild Country. It’s a six part series exploring an Indian guru and his followers in a county in deepest Oregon.

There’s no obvious way to see how successful the series was, but like Making A Murderer before it, it definitely caught the cultural zeitgeist. A popular documentary series exploring one story in great detail.

Now I’m sure it’s coincidence, but there have since been something of a string of podcasts based around cult leaders that have since come along. Of course, the cult subject matter is fascinating to any kind of documentary maker. Why would people follow a cult leader and their sometimes devastating belief systems?

Fairly soon after Wild Wild Country launched, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series launched a 5 part series on Bikram Choudhrey – he of Bikram yoga fame. Not quite the same thing as Wild Wild Country, but there are definitely similarities. Both were gurus originating in India. The series launched in May, and its production pre-dated Wild, Wild Country. Indeed in an episode on the making of the series they talked about the issues surrounding two similarly themed programmes coming out at the same time. It was simply a coincidence.

Last week, as the BBC launched its new Sounds app, they also launched a new podcast from the Five Live team that had previously made Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That previous podcast was about the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and told the story of Michael Peterson who was charged with her murder. This is the same story that had been told in a TV documentary series, The Staircase, a series recently continued by Netflix.

The same radio team has now made End of Days, an eight episode series about David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas and the tragic siege in 1993. Specifically, it looks at the 30 Britons who were part of his group.

The podcast is initially a BBC Sounds exclusive – so strictly speaking, it’s not actually a podcast just yet. The BBC says that it will be made available on all other podcasting platforms at the end of the month, after a period of exclusivity on BBC Sounds. All eight episodes are available to listen to now for UK audiences.

I suspect that, again, this podcast has been long in the making, and it’s just coincidence that it followed so swiftly on the heals of Wild Wild Country.

But then, another new podcast has just launched from Slate. Standoff is a podcast about the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. This wasn’t of the same scale as the Waco siege a year later, but it’s no doubt an interesting story. Slate is releasing this podcast on a weekly schedule.

As I say, it’s quite probably an accident that we’ve had a slew of podcasts on religious cult leaders all coming within a few months of one another. Given the popularity of true crime, it’s likely that podcast producers have been scouring the true crime bookshelves in search of interesting subjects, and there have been plenty of books and TV movies on all of these subjects.

It’s also notable that many of these stories happened in the early nineties or earlier, and therefore aren’t quite as well known but a millennial, podcast-consuming generation.

When Beyond Reasonable Doubt was first released, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn’t appeal to me since I’d already seen the extensive TV documentary series on BBC Four. I wondered why the same story had been chosen for the podcast. My colleague pointed out that for many of the audience for this podcast, this was a new story for them, and they probably weren’t BBC Four viewers. And it remains true that while some of these series are exploring things older listeners may already know about, for many more, these are new stories.

Trends in Podcasting: News Podcasts

In January last year, The New York Times launched a new podcast called The Daily. Spinning off to an extent from what the paper had been doing during the 2016 Presidential election, The Daily quickly developed a following. With a strong voice – both authorial and audible – in Michael Barbaro, it grew quickly. For a certain demographic, it became a must listen.

The Daily is excellent at digging into stories that The New York Times has covered in that day’s paper. A usual episode will deal with one or perhaps two stories, speaking with the Times’ journalists involved, and using clips and other archive material to give the story colour. The production quality is excellent. It’ll end with a summary of other things you need to know. The podcast is released early in the morning US time, so it’s available to listen on listeners’ commutes.

The Daily is by no means the first attempt at a daily news podcast. Lots of broadcasters have been doing lots of news things for an awfully long time. Many of them were spin-offs of radio programmes, but there were also standalone podcasts including ones from major newspapers like The Guardian. And there are certainly popular news podcasts. The Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service is the BBC’s single biggest podcast in terms of downloads, by a significant margin.

But somehow The Daily took off when others haven’t (or at least hadn’t).

Since its launch, The Daily has also become a syndicated public radio series, with episodes airing on a number of public radio stations after 4pm the same day, allowing it to remain a podcast-first property. Meanwhile the FX channel has ordered 30 episodes of TV version called The Weekly, with episodes going onto Hulu the day after broadcast. The series is due to start later this year. All in all, The Daily has become a very multimedia property for The New York Times.

To nobody’s great surprise, lots of other people want to get into the mix.

Recently The Guardian announced that it was launching a new daily news podcast presented by Anushka Asthana. Today in Focus has just launched. As with The Daily, Today in Focus concentrates on a single big story, although it is also carrying a second supplemental story too. In the first week Today in Focus has concentrated on Brazil’s new far right president, and the upcoming mid-term elections. The podcast is available early each morning, in time to be listened to for the morning commute.

The Guardian’s podcast managed to launch the same week that the BBC launched it’s new daily news podcast – Beyond Today. This launched at the same time as BBC Sounds, the big new audio app was formally launched by the BBC (it has been available in a public beta for a few months now). 

Beyond Today also follows the well-trodden path of concentrating on a single story. And as with Today in Focus, the podcasts tend to be around 20 minutes in length (The Daily tends to run twenty-something minutes a day). 

In the first week Beyond Today had episodes about Britain’s finances, ahead (or in fact just after) the budget, a very sad story about an Iraqi Instagrammer, middle class drug use (Although I think that episode missed a trick concentrating largely on a dealer and a real addict. It should have looked more closely at general users.), WhatsApp and a piece about who makes the news with Amol Rajan. Incidentally, although Rajan sometimes feels a little over-exposed appearing everywhere from The One Show on BBC1 to The Media Show on Radio 4, this episode is worth a listen, since it examines a real class issue in the media which often gets overlooked in issues of representation and diversity.

The one thing I’m slightly curious about is the name. When I first heard the name, I thought that it was a Today programme spin-off. But it’s not really, in that it has its own presenters – Tina Daheley and Matthew Price – and that it doesn’t sound at all like it’d appear on the Today programme. That said, I believe excerpts have indeed aired on Today this week. But I’d actually say that in tone, it’s closer to Five Live rather than Radio 4.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Slate has been running What Next, a

Interestingly, both What Next and Slate’s other daily podcast, The Gist, get published later in the day rather than earlier.

Earlier this year, Vox launched its own competitor,Today, Explained which it very much pitches as a more fun version of The Daily. You won’t be surprised to learn that it runs around 20 minutes. So you can maybe listen to three of these daily news podcasts if your commute lasts an hour!

Today, Explained is definitely more casual than some of the others, although the stories are always interesting. In the last week it has run episodes on white hat hackers (i.e. hacking for good, often identifying vulnerabilities and reporting them before bad guys can use this), universal basic income and fracking in Colorado amongst others.

Elsewhere, HotPod alerts us to The Washington Post hiring producers for its own upcoming daily podcast. It already has a daily political podcast – The Daily 202’s Big Idea which has been running for a while now. 

These are by no means the only news podcasts of course. There are plenty of news podcasts out there. But many of these are more like traditional news programmes. 

The BBC, for example, makes available in podcast form several of its flagship news programmes including the World At One and The Six O’Clock News from Radio 4, and Newshour from the World Service. All of these are the same as the broadcast versions.

The BBC’s flagship news programme domestically, is the Today programme. But that has a rather odd podcast presence. The radio programme runs for three hours Monday to Friday, so is too big to simply put out as a podcast – at least, not if you want people to listen.

Instead, Today publishes 3-4 separate podcasts a day. The first is inevitably the business news of the day, while the remaining 2-3 are based on segments of the programme, or gather together different segments on the same news story. The issue here is that the offering feels very piecemeal, and there’s little urgency in publishing the podcasts. Given the importance of the 8.10am interview – usually with a leading politician – the podcast may not appear until late morning, if at all. (Also, I’d love the podcast to lose the phrase, “You can listen to more free content from Today…” for obvious reasons.)

Of course the success of The Daily is in part due to it being available in time for listeners’ commute, so simply re-purposing morning news radio programmes leaves podcast rebroadcasts of radio news programmes at a slight disadvantage. But then, you probably shouldn’t be using podcasts to get “breaking news.”

As long as producers realise that they’re not trying to compete with 24 hour news channels that are rushing to break news, then podcasting publishing timescales can work well.

Publications like The Financial Times and The Economist do publish regular news programmes, but they have more weekly than daily output. Perhaps the closest equivalent I know of in UK radio is the BBC World Service’s Business Daily which is a Monday to Friday radio show that is nicely re-edited into a daily podcast. It’s business in its very broadest, and like The Daily has a deep dive into a different subject each day.

Could LBC do something interesting with Eddie Mair? A sharply edited 15-20 minute version of his 2 hour radio show? For some reason, there doesn’t yet appear to be an Eddie Mair podcast at all. LBC has had good success with viral videos, but I’m not sure that’s true in the podcast world. Interestingly, LBC is now winding down its paid-for download operation in advance of a new app that will let people listen-again, no doubt with targeted audio ads.

There is certainly room for a UK-focused daily podcast, and I’m sure other outlets aside from The Guardian and the BBC are working on them. I shall be listening.

[Update: Brett blogs about news podcasts and highlights a CBC called Front Burner.]

Note that these are my personal views, and do not reflect those of my employer.

Apple Podcasts Charts

It appears that Apple’s podcast charts are somewhat broken. Or specifically, they had been broken for a period of time over the weekend while Apple perhaps tried a new algorithm to rank podcasts.

Behind the scenes we know that various bad actors have been attempting to game the system. In the same way that you can buy Twitter or Instagram followers, you can pay some dubious third party to push your podcast up the Apple chart. This might get your podcast, briefly, towards the top of the charts allowing you to boast that you are/were the number one podcast in whatever category. But those listeners aren’t real, and your podcast is likely to fall away pretty quickly again too.

In the last couple of days, a number of people have been asking big questions surrounding this.

Both are well worth reading, and here’s my take on the situation.

Let’s start with the hypothesis that charts are a good thing. They inform users about what podcasts other people are listening to, and they let everyone in the podcasting community see how their podcasts are doing against their peers.

Except that we know that Apple’s charts have never actually shown either of those things.

For the most part, a chart that simply displays who gets the most downloads/listens would be incredibly static. The same big podcasts would probably appear in roughly the same order week after week, month after month. Maybe one would drop down a little when it was between series, and occasionally a new hit would emerge. But basically the chart would be static. For a chart to be interesting, there has to be some dynamism.

From a consumer perspective, a mostly static chart is boring. The consumer is never going to find new podcasts to listen to, and so they’re unlikely to even have further looks at the chart once they’ve realised that there are few changes between editions.

Apple currently uses some kind of ‘new subscriber’ algorithm to determine its charts. Recency counts for more than long-term listeners or subscribers. (Other digital charts do similar things. The bestsellers on Amazon are collated on perhaps an hourly basis to keep things interesting there too.)

The other key part of this is that Apple is seeing its position in the podcast ecosystem decline over time. Spotify, for example, is opening up significantly to podcasts – no longer caching them and properly serving them. They’ve just opened their platform up to everyone and they’ve become a fast growing #2 platform. They’re still a long way behind Apple, but they have an upward trajectory.

And Google is ‘doing’ podcasts more seriously now. They’ve not quite got around to pre-installing a true standalone podcast app on every Android device as Apple does. But they are moving in the right direction, and with the emergence of ‘Voice,’ podcasts become ever more important.

Both of these should mean that we’ll see a broader platform of iOS and Android devices being used to listen, more closely reflecting the true device ownership model. (Incidentally, that might also mean a change in the kinds of podcasts that are being made. Think beyond someone who can happily spend $/£1000 on a smartphone.)

Apple currently accounts for perhaps 55%-60% of the podcast market today, but that’s already considerably down from where it once was. To be clear, it’s not because Apple users are not listening any more, but there’s more diversity in the podcast platforms available, and in the main because Android was – and still is – under-represented.

Is Apple Still Important?

If we assume that Apple’s market dominance of podcasts is diminishing – albeit from a lofty position – then we also need to consider that any chart created by Apple is not actually representative of the whole podcast ecosystem. It’s entirely likely that we’ll see their share fall to below 50% in many markets. 

In some countries, like India, the iPhone represents a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone user-base. So in fact, while Apple’s podcast chart for India might be indicative of podcast listening there, it might also be very unrepresentative, perhaps more describing what only the very wealthiest couple of percent of Indians are truly listening to.

If we’re going to have a chart, then it needs to be wider than simply Apple’s share of the ecosystem, otherwise it’s going to be biased towards the people who own iPhones. And newsflash – that’s really not the population at large.

And then we run into the problem of how charts are created anyway.

How should a podcast chart be measured?

There are two major ways to find out what’s happening in a population: census or survey.

Apple has effectively been providing a census of its users. In other words, it has data that shows how all Apple users are consuming podcasts. A census sets out to measure everyone within a specific population. The results should be very accurate, but it can be hard to collate all that data, particularly if it comes from multiple places. It’s not for nothing that the UK population census only takes place every ten years. It’s a big and expensive undertaking.

Under the census chart model, you need to get accurate data from everywhere. In the podcast world, this means either approaching every podcast creator and asking for their server data, or approaching every podcatcher (i.e. all the podcast apps), and getting data from them. Neither is likely to be achievable. Herding cats comes to mind.

In the US, Podtrac has attempted the census method, embedding code into feeds to route requests through its servers. But only podcasts who choose to be measured on this system have their data captured. That tends to mean big US groups. But even then, there are some missing, choosing not to take part. Non-US podcast creators that might have sizeable listener-ships within the US are often missing too. It is by no means a complete picture of the US podcast listening market.

For a chart like this to work and for it to be truly representative, you need everybody on board, agreeing to a methodology, and being able to adopt the technical requirements that lead to measurement. It only takes one major group to choose not to play, and the chart is wrong.

Meanwhile, other tracking ideas are being posited using pingbacks, but they can be defeated by podcatchers that don’t play ball, and again require many parties to get on board.

Don’t forget that different groups very different business models. So they might not need to agree to a central methodology.

The other key way to measure is the survey option. In this case you use a subset of the podcast listening population, and get them to agree to being essentially monitored to see what they listen to. Companies like ComScore do this in the digital realm, while broadcast ratings bodies commonly use this kind of measurement to deliver television and radio ratings. 

As long as your sample is big enough, then you can say with a high degree of certainty that your results are fairly accurate. 

This would seem to be the more achievable model. You don’t need the direct participation of either podcast creators or podcatcher apps. Indeed, anyone could do it.

But of course there are problems. There’s the cost for starters. You will need to employ a company or people to do this for you. Then you need to persuade members of the public to agree to let them be measured. They may well say yes, but they’re also quite likely to want some kind of incentive: cash or other benefits in kind.

Next there’s the size of the sample, and the level to which you want to measure it. If there were only two podcasts in the world, then perhaps a 1,000 people might be enough to say with a high degree of confidence, how much one podcast was being listened to versus another (In fact, the sample required would depend on how similar or different their listening was. If the podcasts are very closely matched, then you need a bigger sample). Political polling often works like this, and of course it’s easier to poll when there are only two parties than when there are three, four or more. If the polls are tight, then a bigger sample is needed to determine who is actually ahead.

In a world where there are hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of podcasts, then depending on how far down the list you want to accurately measure them, your sample gets bigger and bigger. In the UK, to measure broadcast television, a sample of around 5,500 homes are measured. That means that the top performing programmes are quite accurately measured. But I wouldn’t trust the ratings for a programme that airs on a smaller non-mainstream channel. Indeed those channels don’t use programme ratings themselves so much as overall channel shares. The sample size for a given programme might be based on just a couple of viewers and that’s just not statistically significant. In other words, the census model breaks down when you stray beyond the bigger podcast, unless your sample grows quite substantially.

It’s also worth saying that you can take a combination of census and survey to create a hybrid model for your chart. You collect data from those podcast creators who agree to it, and mix it with survey data for a wider picture of the overall market. UKOM, the UK digital’s audience measurement body uses a hybrid approach. 

Before we settle on a methodology for our post-Apple chart, we need to answer another question.

What are podcast charts for anyway?

Charts have historically been about both capturing a cultural moment, but are also an exercise in marketing. When we look at music, film, book or game charts, it tends to be a combination of them both.

We might use the charts to measure the taste of the nation. Lots of people are loving this song, or seeing that film. That’s really useful to know. And what’s more, if lots of people are loving that film, maybe I should see it? For a recent case in point, see The Greatest Showman, which spent a remarkable 18 weeks in the UK Box Office Top Ten. While a lot of that was delivered by repeat viewing, and both word of mouth and wider marketing helped, the fact that the film reached number one in its sixth week of release is unprecedented in recent times. The film’s position in the box office top ten became part of its story and drove people to the film.

These days the UK Top 40 isn’t as important as it once was, but when Ed Sheeran managed to get 16 songs into the top 20 at the same time, it became a story. 

Beyond that, they’re also essential barometers for the industry. While some players might attempt to juice the system – releasing films earlier in the week to create long opening weekends, or in times past, releasing multiple remixes of songs to keep fans buying and keeping a song at number one – they inform creators about what’s selling and what perhaps they should be making in future. 

And if everyone else is reading a book, seeing a film or watching a TV series, we can feel that we’re missing a part of the cultural zeitgeist if we’re not doing the same. 

In the podcast world, charts have been designed in part with both of these things in mind. How is my football podcast doing against my competitors? And what should a listener choose to listen to next?

In fact, Apple’s iteration of a chart was pretty bad at the former. A new podcast might get a blast of heat as it gains traction amongst listeners, but because the chart was skewed towards new subscribers, you couldn’t really tell how well your podcast was doing against a competitors. Even today, many podcast creators spend a lot of time listening out for snippets of information dropped at conferences or in published articles, because there’s no real information out there in the public domain. “Serial got how many downloads with it’s first episode?”

It’s also not clear that podcast charts have really helped listeners to discover new podcasts. Older podcasts with big listenerships might not sit high up the rankings, hiding their popularity, while newer podcasts might flame brightly in the charts. Mid-size podcasts might be hidden altogether. 

Almost certainly the most powerful points of discovery for podcasts are those editorially picked slots in apps like Apple Podcasts, and word of mouth. (The other key way to let listeners discover your new podcast is of course, to pop it into the feed of one of your already popular podcasts. But only the bigger players can do that.)

So what should a podcast chart look like?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to this. For many in the podcast creation community, an accurate set of metrics that lets one company compare its performance with other companies’ would be very useful. That’s the kind of information that might help advertisers. While undoubtedly advertisers are getting this information behind closed doors, there are still question marks about how one company measures its numbers compared with another’s.

You only have to look at the various different ways ‘video views’ have been measured by say Facebook and YouTube. Facebook has 3-second, 10-second and 100% metrics; YouTube prefers 30-second counts, but also provides metrics on 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% completed videos. How do you compare video performance on the two platforms?

A podcast chart would create a comparative measure between different companies; the measurement methodology would be consistent.

But this community probably just wants a straight count. How many downloads (or better yet, listens), did every podcast get in a particular week or month? Just rank them all, with rankings for sub-categories. The data might form the basis of a generally used currency by which podcasts are monetised.

From a listener’s perspective, a straight ranking like that would not be useful. I suspect that a methodology closer to Apple’s is more interesting. The UK music charts have had to fiddle with their methodology quite a lot since subscription streaming services like Spotify came along and were added into the mix. Because Spotify is both used to listen to new music (akin to buying new tracks), and as your music collection (akin to listening to your older music) then they face the ‘problem’ of older music regularly cropping up in the charts because it’s Christmas or whatever.

In truth, both an overall chart and a chart of ‘breaking podcasts’ would probably both be of interest to a wider community of listeners. If we posit that the purpose of the chart is in part to aid discovery of new podcasts, then we need to consider both bigger and newer podcasts.

There needs to be two charts.

So we’re really talking about two key issues within the podcast industry – measurement and discovery. Measurement is key for trading and selling advertising, while discovery is still one of the biggest issues that is limiting podcast growth.

While discussions are ongoing in many marketplaces, most territories do  not have a consistent agreement about how podcasts should be measured (Sweden is perhaps the exception).

In the meantime, podcast discovery is still akin to going to a bookshop that for some reason only has about half a dozen books out on display, with the remainder neatly lined up with only their spines showing from the shelves. Meanwhile a potential reader who doesn’t know much about books, but knows they want something to take on holiday, is being told: “Go on! We’ve got thousands of books in here. Just pick a couple!”

The bookshop’s top ten, meanwhile, is made up of The Bible, The Highway Code, a dictionary and The Da Vinci Code amongst others. All indubitably best-sellers, but…

Apple’s charts are flawed today, and they’re going to continue to be flawed. They’re neither fish nor fowl, and that’s not altogether their fault.

We probably need a couple of different types of charts, but precisely who does the measurement and what kind of measurement takes place is not a simple question to answer. But we probably do need to answer that question.

The One Podcast to Rule Them All

Tom Webster of Edison Research wrote a very good piece on Medium recently to back up a presentation he recently gave at the Podcast Movement conference in the US. The main theme of his piece was about getting to 100 million weekly (i.e. regular) podcast listeners in the US. Currently they are at 48 million weekly listeners, so there are another 52 million to go.

Using Edison’s research, he shows that while 17% of Americans listen weekly, 64% have heard the term. And of that group, 37% of them have never tried to listen. His thesis is that to get to 100 million, we need to understand what is stopping people who have learnt about podcasting as a thing actually going further and listening to one. He has a great video of real people explaining why they’ve not bothered, and of course there are lots of good reasons for that.

Webster’s thesis is that if the right show comes along then people will work out how to get to a podcast. He uses the example of Netflix. They didn’t go around explaining how the Netflix app on people’s new smart TVs or Roku boxes work. Instead they made and marketed Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. People wanted to see those shows and they worked out for themselves how to get to them. Around 50% of US homes now have Netflix, so something is working there.


As an aside, it’s interesting to note that massively popular video game Fortnite has just been released for Android devices. Unlike most apps, the game’s creators Epic have sidestepped Google’s Play Store. They want you to download it direct from their site. In order to do this, users have to jump through some hoops  to allow “sideloading” of the app to their devices. Epic is doing this because they create a direct relationship with games players, and more significantly, they don’t have to pay a 30% commission to Google on every in-game transaction. Epic’s gamble is that players are so keen to get the game that they will educate themselves about how to get it for their device. This is almost certainly true, and backs up Webster’s thesis.


One really good point Webster makes is that the top performing content in the podcast landscape being different to, say, the TV landscape. He shows a screengrab of the iTunes top podcasts which are full of public media and highbrow programmes: The Daily, This American Life, Serial, Pod Save America.

Compare and contrast with the Nielsen top TV ratings which are full of mainstream, or even low-brow shows like The Big Bang Theory, America’s Got Talent, Celebrity Family Feud, Little Big Shots and The Bachelorette.

It’s not that TV doesn’t do lots of highbrow material, but that this isn’t the most viewed. OK, there are comedians in the iTunes charts, and 60 Minutes is in the Nielsen chart, but in general it’s a good point.

Now what I would say is that in recent weeks in the UK, the Love Island: The Morning After podcast did very well, and was fighting tooth and nail with World Cup podcasts when both events were happening. So low-brow can get an outing.

But it does feel, especially in the US, that there’s a certain type of audience that is being super-served, and a mainstream that isn’t.

The question in my mind is whether there could ever be any one “show” that would achieve what is being suggested?

In a recent HotPod, Nicholas Quah wrote a bit of a follow-up to Webster’s piece. He notes that there are at least three potential counter-arguments against the “show” notion: that it’s antithetical to the open publishing medium; that Netflix is a bad example because it controls it own platform centrally, while podcasting can’t; and that there already are shows like Serial, Pod Save America and so on that fill that gap.

Quah isn’t totally sold on any of these counter-arguments, and neither am I. However, I would note that it’s incredibly hard to make a single programme that will cut-through on such a scale that everyone flocks to it. US TV networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying, and mostly failing every year. Reality shows like America’s Got Talent, or sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory are the exception rather than the rule.

And since we don’t have figures from Netflix, we don’t actually know how successful House of Cards or Orange is the New Black actually are. We know that at one time or another they’ve been the single biggest shows on the platform, but as Netflix has grown it has developed a very wide roster of programming. Yes there are the big budget awards contenders like The Crown and House of Cards, but there are also reality shows like Queer Eye, and very mainstream comedies.

Recent research from UK regulator Ofcom found that the single most popular show in the UK on any of the streaming services is Friends which is available on Netflix in the UK (and is on the Comedy Central UK TV channel). It had twice the number of streams of the next biggest programme The Grand Tour from Amazon.

Top 20 SVoD programmes in the UK, Q1 2018

I realise that Friends has many more episodes than many of these other programmes, and the chart is sorted by the total number of streams. But it’s notable that a lot of sitcoms and more popular genre programming take up a number of places in the chart. Oh, and kids programmes sneak in at the bottom of the top 20 too.

I would love to know how many listeners to the Love Island podcast  discovered podcasts for the first time with this show. I suspect that a number of them did, since the TV show was such a big summer hit for ITV2. But there are plenty more fans of the show who did not download the podcast, and still haven’t discovered the medium.

Webster also highlights music as a problem. Podcasts really can’t do music. Yes, you get a few podcasts that include bits of music here and there. But they’re probably not licenced to include that music, even if the artist has actually given them permission. Certainly a podcast that promotes new music is unlikely to feel the long arm of the music industry law because everyone realises it’s better for all concerned to let it slide. But that doesn’t mean that it’s strictly legal.

Webster talks about  use of the word “Subscribe” which I know a lot of people find off-putting. Subscribe does normally entail payment of money. But he mentions YouTube who I think have possibly put that idea to bed a little. Many people happily “Subscribe” to YouTube channels and have come to realise that it doesn’t come with any commitment, financial or otherwise. So I think that’s probably the direction things need to go. I believe that for that reason alone, podcasts can continue to use the “subscribe” terminology.

I absolutely do agree that “Subscribe to us on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts” is awful, and there need to better ways to do it. 

For a lot of podcasts it’s actually more like “Subscribe to us on iTunes, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.” That’s even worse because you’re basically disenfranchising anyone without an iPhone, and spoiler alert, that’s most of the world.

So yes, yes, yes, build a website! There are enough website building platforms out there – often advertising on podcasts – that can help you out and get something simple up and running. If you can navigate making a piece of audio, finding a host, learning about RSS feeds, and making your podcast available in places like the iTunes store, then a basic website is well within your grasp!

I do agree that if you make the right show, people will come looking for it. However you can definitely make that journey easier – producing basic guides to how to get a podcast on your phone, or walking your audience through the steps. Having a web home for your podcast helps – those browser streams do count, and they provide you with search engine juice. Discovery is made a bit easier too. I admit that it’s a particular bugbear of mine when someone’s new podcast is promoted solely with an iTunes link.

Podcasting needs a more diverse range of populist, mainstream shows to become a bigger medium – sport and comedy go some way towards this, but  there is more to be done. I don’t believe it’s a single show, because that’s a nirvana that is closer to a moonshot than a commissioning strategy for a nascent medium.  And of course the journey to getting people to a podcast needs to be made easier.

Overly Mannered Podcast Presentation

I wrote this as a podcast thread last week, but thought it was worth re-visiting a little more here.

If there is one thing I hate in many podcasts (or radio programmes), it’s a presentation style that I would describe as overly mannered.

What I’m talking about is a podcast that’s likely to be scripted, but where the delivery is over-emphasised, often in an attempt to sound empathetic.

There is one podcast – no names, no pack drill – that I’m getting close to stopping listening to at all, because although the subject matter is fascinating, and it explores subjects I’m really interested in, the presenter speaks in such a s-l-o-w deliberate and affected manner that it becomes painful to listen to.

Other examples are those voices that feel like they should instead be reading a story to a kindergarten class. While podcasts are said to always be about telling stories (except that sometimes that’s not true, but we’ll park that thought for another day), they don’t need to adopt the same vocal stylisations of a presenter of Jackanory or Story Time on CBeebies.

This certainly isn’t an attach on scripted podcasts. And nor is it an attack on high production values. I don’t think every podcast should adopt the soundscape that a series like Radiolab creates, but I would certainly not complain about beautiful layered audio.

I think the problem with stilted or unnatural delivery tones stems in part from a kind of ‘learned behaviour’ that almost certainly derives from US public radio. I’m not a historian of US public radio, but I suspect that this kind of delivery has become the standard for many years.

And of course, much of the talent in, especially, the US podcasting sector today, was honed and trained in a US public radio sphere. That’s no doubt changing, but I still feel that a certain tone of voice is what is expected, and so is what is delivered.

To give a related example, consider the Smashie and Nicey characters created by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. That trans-atlantic ‘pop-tastic’ style was a vicious take on a generation of pop DJs on British radio who honestly did speak like that. It became the norm until it became a parody of itself. Yes, radio presenters have always ‘turned it on’ to an extent when the mic goes live, but that was an era when presenters were practically making up new personas.

Note that these kinds of ‘learned behaviours aren’t unique to US public radio. In the past the same could be said to be true for many Radio 4 presentation and delivery styles. I think they’re less of a problem now, but I know that some, for example, struggle with the generic delivery of British radio drama.

I’m also absolutely not talking about so-called ‘Vocal Fry’ which some listeners seem to take exception to. You have the voice that you have. I’m talking about speech patterns as much as anything else.

I know that reading from a script can be a challenge. There are elements of annunciation, the forcefulness of delivery and tone of voice to get right. But just because others have a certain tone of voice, it doesn’t mean that those should be adopted by all.

With podcasts in particular, listeners have made a conscious choice to hear the output, and they’re often listening directly via headphones.

I just want podcast and radio presenters to be a little more original, and mostly natural.

Google Podcasts

Without an enormous amount of fanfare, Google yesterday launched Google Podcasts for Android yesterday, with the possibility of being game changing. I’ve long argued that for the Android/iOS podcasting gap to be closed, Google needed to get involved and create a generic app.

Apple Podcasts is a pre-installed app on every iPhone sold, and with strong backing of podcasts from the outset via the iTunes store, Apple users have consumed podcasts at a far greater rate than Android. Even today, with iOS share slipping slightly, the proportion of podcasts consumed by iOS devices is massively out of kilter with smartphone ownership. In most countries in the world, there is a higher Android user base than iOS.

All of this means that, unless we somehow infer that your choice of smartphone is a strong indicator for how you listen to audio, then there is a massive untapped Android market out there.

Previously Google has only played a little in the podcast arena. They added podcasts to Google Play Music. But only in the US. And podcasters themselves had to add their podcasts into Google Play Music themselves. A combination of those two things meant that that ex-US podcasters who wanted to list their podcast with Google had to go out of their way to employ VPNs to even get their podcast registered. Furthermore, Google Play Music cached audio meaning that podcasters couldn’t see a comprehensive picture of their podcasts’ performance across a range of platforms. Furthermore, newer technologies like dynamic advertising wasn’t possible. The advert baked into the podcast when it was captured by Google remained there in perpetuity.

Google just wasn’t taking podcasts seriously. But that was obviously changing and when Pacific Content published their series of articles on Google’s new podcasting drive earlier this year, things Google had been doing began to come to light. Although the scale of podcasting continues to grow, with more people and organisations releasing more podcasts, and more revenues being derived from them, it was perhaps the growing importance of audio to Google itself that has really pushed things along. Google’s Home and Home Mini devices have been massive sellers, with the company locked in a battle with Amazon’s Echo for grabbing market share in Voice (Despite Apple’s Siri being first to market, Apple is playing a massive catch-up game in this market).

Voice control has come to be an important way we interact with technology with both our phones and our devices in our smart homes. Machine learning has meant that voice comprehension and contextual analysis has rapidly improved. And from there music and speech are perhaps growing in importance. So podcasts fit in neatly.

All of this explains why Google’s new podcast app, isn’t actually an app at all. It’s really a view of Google Assistant. For quite a while now, you’ve been able to ask your Google Home device or your phone to play a podcast. This “app” therefore just makes this a little cleaner.

In fact the app is actually pretty basic. The average podcast app you can download on the Play store is likelier to be much better featured than Google Podcasts. Even something as basic as downloading podcasts for offline listening – the absolute bare minimum you need for any podcast app – requires you to change permissions in a truly bizarre way. Instead of getting a pop up permissions dialog box as you’d expect from recent Android iterations, you’re taken to a user-unfriendly App info page where you have to choose Permissions and then turn on Storage. It really isn’t very obvious, and I suspect many will fall at the first hurdle.

The rest of the app is very basic. The “Top Podcasts” are all very obvious and popular US ones: This American Life, Serial etc. And then all the usual suspects are in each of the category selections. The only two non-US podcasts I saw were the BBC’s World Cup Daily and The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. There was a Five Live section for me, which may have been because I subscribed to a Five Live podcast through the app in testing.

Now to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea to highlight the podcasting big hitters. If you’re just discovering podcasts, then you probably want to listen to all the favourites. And equally, I don’t really know of any app that is very smart at selecting podcasts for you. Indeed, for all it’s revered elsewhere, I find even Netflix misses much more than it hits with selections for me.

Obviously a key benefit that Google Podcasts does have is that if you start listening on, say, your Google Home Mini and then leave your house and listen via your phone, you can carry on where you left off. But in the time I’ve tried the app, I’m unlikely to leave PocketCasts as my podcasting app of choice, which also lets me move between phone and its desktop web app. For smart speakers, I tend to use Cast to keep things in sync and stay on top of which episodes of which podcasts I’ve listened to. It has other much deeper functionality that Google’s offering lacks. This is probably purposeful on Google’s part, and other app developers will probably be relieved.

None of this is to say that Google Podcasts isn’t very important. Any podcast creators should build links to Google Podcasts as soon as possible, include their badges and generally make sure they’re listed correctly. Podnews has a decent FAQ about what you need to do. At the very least, when people share a podcast socially, they can now include a Google URL as well as an iTunes one (NB. They should still really share a link to a website where a range of options are available including the podcast’s unique RSS feed).

However, I’m not sure this is going to be quite the game changer it might have beene. I don’t see the app being pre-installed on phones, and I suspect that most of those who’ve installed already are those who are already very familiar with podcasts. Yes, it’s true that the podcast functionality will be pre-installed in that it forms part of Google Assistant. But it’s not clear that Google is pushing a page as a destination, in the way you might go to the YouTube homepage to see what new videos have been published, or you would open Spotify to purposefully listen to music.

That said, podcast usage is going up – there are some good global numbers in the most recent Reuters Digital News report (Interestingly, the UK is at the lower end of the range with 18% listening to podcasts a month. In South Korea for instance, it’s 58%!), and this initiative can’t but help drive that listening upwards.

One really interesting area Google is planning to tackle is the idea of creating subtitles (or captions) for podcasts using Google’s AI. Relatively few podcasts have transcripts of their programmes, and that makes searching the content within them very hard. If Google can auto-create these, as it does for many YouTube videos, then that makes the power of its search that much better even if the original podcast doesn’t have good meta-data. Users could jump straight to relevant section within a podcast. However this does raise questions of accuracy, and perhaps more so, intellectual property in ownership of those virtual transcripts (Cf All the arguments surrounding Google’s book-scanning initiatives). That all said, I’m unaware of anyone raising those issue with YouTube videos.

In summary then, a good first proper move by Google. They’re going to treat podcasts as essentially search assets, but using their Assistant to ensure that you keep track of what you have and haven’t listened to. However, I wouldn’t expect a significant overnight increase in the number of podcasts served. But podcasting overall continues to see steady growth, and this will undoubtedly help.

Podcasts and Paywalls

There seems to be something of a brouhaha* just now in podcasting land over the idea that some podcasts might live behind a paywall, and I thought it was worth thinking about that a little more.

It was reported at the end of last week, that Amy Schumer has signed a $1m deal with Spotify to make a podcast for them. Furthermore, this is likely to be first of many comedy podcasts that the audio streaming business is looking to create.

This created a certain amount of uproar. Nicholas Quah (of Hotpod) writing for Vulture asked “How Will Amy Schumer’s Huge Spotify Deal Change the Podcast Industry?

Meanwhile Kevin Goldberg at Discoverpod thinks it could be bad for future podcast distribution. While examining the logic behind such costs, Goldberg fears a little for the medium:

“Podcasts were created to be openly distributed through an RSS feed. Exclusivity ultimately threatens one of the basic tenets of podcasts. Though I think most listeners realized this free ride wouldn’t last forever — and with every “Netflix for podcasts” analogy I see online in my heart I knew it as well — it’s still a bit upsetting to see the stake in the ground (again, I’m assuming Schumer’s new podcast will only be available on Spotify).”

What I would say is that all that makes a piece of audio a “podcast” is its RSS delivery mechanism. Yes, there have been great leaps in the range and quality of audio production, driven in large part by the explosion of podcasts. But there has always been a wide range of audio available, and different delivery mechanisms for that audio. An open RSS feed is only one.

The earliest forms were cylinders, shellac discs (e.g. for 78 rpm records), and via radio stations. In time, a variety of improved delivery types became available until today’s landscape which includes broadcast (analogue and digital), physical media, streaming and downloads – some of it free, and some of it behind paywalls of varying types. Audiences have become more used to listening on demand, but the models remain varied.

We may listen for free, programming supported by advertising (or a licence fee or a donation). Or we pay a subscription to “rent” access to the audio. In yet other instances, we buy our own copies of the media – either physical or download.

Changing tastes, fashions and business models mean that that distribution methods ebb and flow.

Podcasts tend to fall into the category of downloads or streams that are often advertising supported. But by no means are they alone.

Comedy is a particularly interesting area to explore, because disseminating comedy – and comedy audio in particular – has a long a varied history. Once upon a time, you would have had to go and see a comedian to hear them. Until well into the last century, vaudeville and music halls reigned with their variety acts including comedians. Bigger names toured countries and built followings. They rose up the bill, and could demand bigger cuts from houses.

Beyond that, radio helped them build out their popularity. Radio shows helped make some comedians household names. Before the advent of television, they might have made a few films to cash in on their success, but you could expect radio and variety shows to provide the bulk of their income.

Yet the recording industry played a role from the outset. Even as Thomas Edison was introducing his cylinders to an eager public, he was recording perhaps the first “comedy albums” with Cal Stewart and his Uncle Josh recordings.

As recordings moved to disc, comedy records went with them, and during the post-war period as recorded music grew significantly in popularity, comedians worked in the medium. There were “party records” – with material too blue or risque to be broadcast anywhere that might be sold under the counter. But beyond them, popular comedians of the time recorded albums. Among them Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, Bill Hicks and Eddie Murphy.

These albums sold in great numbers; these comedians effectively working “behind a paywall.”

We don’t know yet what Spotify will do with their Amy Schumer programme. It may well remain a Spotify exclusive – another reason for you to subscribe to Spotify. Perhaps it will be Spotify exclusive for a limited period of time before being made available on every platform – ‘windowing’ in the parlance. There may or may not be advertising. Time will tell.

But in effect, this is no different to a record label in years gone by signing a comedian up to release a comedy album. The form may be different; the material more contemporaneous. However, the similarities are there.

And this is hardly unique. In 2015, Russell Brand did an exclusive deal with Audioboom. He got payed a sum that may have been adjacent to the $1m Schumer is reportedly getting.

Amazon’s Audible has been busy signing up dozens of exclusives to offer as part of its membership scheme. The most successful so far, has perhaps been Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect, which was kept exclusively on the Amazon platform for 6 months before becoming more widely available on podcast platforms. Other Audible exclusives (free to subscriber programming, as distinct from their regular audiobooks) have largely remained on the Audible platform alone.

Ricky Gervais, who did a lot to popularise podcasts back when The Guardian was a backer of his early podcast series, later moved the show behind a paywall by selling episodes in the ‘audiobooks’ section of the iTunes store. More recently he has been making series for US satellite radio broadcaster Sirius XM. These episodes are made available free to Sirius XM subscribers, but again are paid-for episodes for everyone else.

Many of Slate’s podcasts contain extra segments exclusive to paying Slate Plus subscribers. In the case of the popular Slow Burn podcast, entire additional episodes were exclusive to those subscribers.

Many podcasters who use donation funding as part of their model record exclusive episodes for those backers (including The Cycling Podcast, for which I am a producer). Often Patreon is used a way to facilitate this.

All of these are legitimate business models, and it’s not really clear to me why anyone would worry. Generally speaking the biggest audiences will only be available free to air as regular RSS feeds that will work across all podcatching software. Even going ‘app-exclusive’, will instantly see audiences fall. Recall that something like 55-60% of podcast listening still comes from Apple apps. It’s instructive to see that the music industry has tended to move away from significant platform exclusives.

Once you add paywalls, then potential audiences fall. On the other hand, the economics may make sense for the podcast’s producers or a specific platform.

On the most recent Recode Media with Peter Kafka podcast, 99 Per Cent Invisible’s Roman Mars said he doesn’t want to go down the subscription podcast route.

“Right now, I don’t think we have the overall mass to support that change,” Mars said. “We had 70 years of broadcast television to get to a point where we could hone it to people’s [needs]: They need it in their lives and pay a certain amount so they can have ‘The Sopranos.’ I don’t think we’ve had that period of time with podcasts.”

Except, I don’t think that’s true. We’ve been selling comedy since the dawn of recorded music, while also making it available free of charge, via radio broadcasts and latterly podcasts.

If paywalls are too confusing, then they will fail. But particularly with comedy, history suggests otherwise.

I do appreciate that, as with Netflix, a certain amount of this is just stealing a march on competitors and gaining market share at cost. Recall that Netflix is not yet in profit. They become profitable when they have enough subscribers to sustain their investment in programming. They’ve made a bet that they will reach this tipping point. Similarly, Spotify is not yet profitable. They too are chasing increased subscriber numbers in the hope of reducing costs overall. In the meantime, they are looking for a means to drive those subscribers.

In general, I would always want my podcast to reach the widest possible audience. Podcasting is still in a growth phase after all. Think of all those people who have yet to discover podcasts (particularly Android phone users). But if someone wants to go subscription only, then that’s for them. And I don’t think it damages podcasting overall.

I would argue that they’re probably not podcasts however.

*What an excellent word.

**Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but I think I’m on safe ground here, if you look within countries

Google and Podcasts – Stuck in Draft #3

This is another of my Stuck in Drafts series – where I dig into things I had largely written months or even years ago – and get around to publishing them. This one is a little unusual in that it was penned back in April 2016, and I’ve left it alone. However, I’ve added some extra notes detailing where things have moved on a little, or where they haven’t.

So finally, months after first announcing that they were coming, podcasts have landed at Google Play Music – the inelegantly named platform that Google uses to distribute audio.

As a matter of fact, podcasts have arrived in the US and Canada. For the rest of us, they’re a way off. Nobody quite knows how far off though. December 2017 update: They’re still now here.

So if you live in North America, or can fire up a VPN to make it look like you live in North America, you get a new look Google Play Music website. Actually, everyone gets a new look GPM (can I shorten it to that?) because they’ve adopted a new logo.

Regular readers will know that I use GPM for my general music playing. As well as offering a music store, and a Spotify-a-like £9.99 all-you-can-eat streaming service, they allow you to store your music collection of up to 50,000 tracks in the cloud.

GPM has also adopted Songza quite widely. In the US, you can listen to free “radio” services based on time of day, location and genre of music. Outside the US, these stations are only available to paid subscribers, but they’re smart and are well tailored to what you might be looking for – Party Music on a Friday night, or Soundtracks to get through the work day.

As well as gaining an extra tab on the left labelled Podcasts, North American users now also have a choice of podcast playlists/”radio stations. These might be labelled “Learning Something New” or “Getting Lost in a Story,” and pull together individual episodes of podcasts into a playlist of thematically related material.

You can also subscribe to podcasts as you do regularly with other providers. Discovery of podcasts remains a major issue, with often static iTunes charts being the key way to surface new material. But the range and breadth of podcasts being made is far wider than those charts often show users. So the opportunity for Google to point listeners in new podcasts directions is not to be under-estimated.

That all said, I was a little underwhelmed by the whole thing, and it felt a little like a soft-launch of a product. So while I might be sitting in the UK slightly miffed at not being able to shift to a Google platform just yet, I’m not sure I’d be ready to anyway.

As ever, the real issue with a potentially massive inventory is finding a way to reveal your wares to customers in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. It’s the same issue that iTunes and Netflix have, and Google hasn’t cracked this nut yet.

Initially you see just a handful of podcasts available. A drop-down reveals a selection of familiar categorisations, each of which reveals a further limited selections of offerings within those categories.

What you quickly notice is that the vast majority of podcasts visible are American.

This is perhaps unsurprising for a number of reasons:

– The majority of podcasts in English are probably American
– The new service is targeted at North Americans
– The portal for podcasters to list their podcasts is geo-blocked to North American IP addresses

Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t workarounds including keen non-American podcasters using VPNs to get their shows listed, but it certainly mitigates against the wider world.

Given that most podcasts find significant audiences in North America, that means that American users probably aren’t in a position to migrate to Google from their current suppliers unless they’re happy to have an incomplete experience.

But Google is perhaps looking at the bigger picture and not really trying to replace services that already exist. I couldn’t say with any certainty that I will be ditching PocketCasts as my preferred podcasting solution anytime soon, even if podcasts are made available in the UK, and the “catalogue” is as complete as iTunes’/PocketCasts one one is.

The bigger opportunity is for those who don’t currently listen to podcasts, and find the situation complicated and confusing. For those new users, this might be open up a new world of audio.

And putting podcasts into search could be massive. If a Google search reveals a relevant episode of a podcast, that could be a massive driver of discovery and growth. With speech to text improving all the time, Google might have the ability to index audio and deliver programmes in a smart way.

December 2017 addendum: Podcasts still haven’t found their way into Google Play Music, but there are rumours afoot that that GPM is due a major upgrade and perhaps podcasts will form part of that. There remains a massive opportunity for podcasts were Google to place a standard app on its phones as part of the Android ecosystem. But that’s obviously also a threat for third-party podcast providers.

What Google does now do is surface podcasts in search. If you ask something like a Google Home Mini to play a podcast, it can do so. The same on your phone. It’ll remember where you are and let you continue. It’s by no means a perfect experience, but Google is at least surfacing podcasts for its users, and that can only help even if they’re not really providing a very good overall experience.

This topic deserves a bigger return to it in 2018.

Faster, Faster, Faster!

There was a Buzzfeed piece recently, exploring those people who listen to podcasts at super-fast speed. I don’t just mean 1.2x or something, but some of them listen at 3x speed or even faster.

Elsewhere, a Guardian writer thanked Netflix for allowing him to skip all the intros to TV series and the ability to skip the end credits.

To me, both of these are problematical, and not really to be encouraged. My biggest question would be, what are you trying to get out of what you’re listening to? Are you listening or watching for pleasure, or is it more a list ticking exercise?

“Yesterday, I did Ozark on Netflix, and I burnt through all of S-Town at 3x speed!”

The pacing of these series is important. While I wouldn’t pretend that every series needs all 13 episodes it was commissioned for, I have to wonder what kind of enjoyment you’re getting out of it if you’re racing through. It can be the equivalent of picking up a paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, and then deciding that the Wikipedia plot summary is all you really need.

Recently I’ve been seeing adverts for a company called Blinkist which claims to boil down the ideas of business books into packages that take 15 minutes to read! While I’ve no doubt that some business books probably do only really contain one idea, and it perhaps should have been boiled down to something simpler, I know too that reading a book for several hours lets the ideas contained within seep into your mind better. The quick hit approach is not going to have that effect, and I wonder whether the ideas taken from such material might stay with you.

It’s like reading the York’s Notes of Julius Caesar rather than the Shakespeare play itself.

TV series introductions are key to setting the tone of the programme you’re about to watch. At their best, they can be beautiful artefacts that lower you slowly into the world that you’re about to enter. They say to, “Settle down and join us, where serial killers/dragons/mafia gangsters reign…” You put down your smartphone, and let the story takeover.

Similarly, at the end, the closing music brings you back to reality slowly once more. Certainly the credits also recognise the dozens or more people who were involved in the programme’s creation, but the tempo is a nice outro from what you’ve been watching. Of course on some network shows, this is instantly interrupted by trailers or continuity announcers desperate to keep the audience from channel surfing. And in the on-demand world, you have perhaps a three second window before the next episode starts automatically. I find myself desperately flailing around looking for the remote – particularly with Star Trek: Discovery where I might have the obnoxious After Trek start streaming. As far as I can tell, Netflix has no setting to let you turn this off. [Update: Thanks to James in the comments pointing out that there is a way to turn this off. Go to https://www.netflix.com/HdToggle and turn off Auto Play. Update 2: I found the same setting in Amazon. In the UK at least, go here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/settings?ref=atv_surl_aiv_settings and scroll down to Player Preferences and Auto Play.]

I understand that if you’ve just spend your Sunday afternoon binge watching all 8 episodes of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel back to back, you might be a little fed-up with intro sequences, but I wonder more what that says about you? Perhaps you should take a break between episodes?

And who on earth wouldn’t want to watch the pitch perfect Stranger Things opening credits each and every time it comes on? That series simply couldn’t have had a better opening sequence in all its simplicity.

What about podcasts? Well technology means that we can speed up audio without making every show sound like it’s voiced by people with ADHD on helium. And software will also take out silences – you know, the bits of space where you’re supposed to think about what has just been said. If you’re listening to a podcast with someone who has an especially languorous way of speaking, then that is surely part of the show? Are you listening to ideas and thoughts, or a horse race commentary?

I suspect that for many, this high speed reading/viewing/listening is really to enable them to say that they have “done” such-and-such. Tick another one off the list. You’re a complete-ist and in an age when new works never stop coming, you feel you must run just to stand still.

I say slow down.

Appreciate things for what they are.

You might actually get a little more out of it.

If People Think It – Does It Matter If It’s Actually True?

In this week’s excellent episode of the Reply All podcast, Alex Goldman and PG Vogt explore the question Is Facebook Spying On You?

In particular, a number of people are of the belief that the Facebook app is listening to what you’re saying and that’s the only way to explain why things you were talking about with your friends are suddenly appearing as ads in your Facebook timeline.

Now in fact there are lots of reasons why Facebook could know this information, and the episode digs into the issue of online ad tracking, which is remarkably sophisticated these days – and/or creepy. Facebook tracks your internet behaviours across many sites who use the Facebook Pixel. Essentially it’s tracking code that follows you around vast parts of the web. It’s this technology that also explains why that pair of shoes you were looking at during your lunch break then follows you elsewhere around the web.

Facebook records thousands of pieces of data about each user, and then further utilises location data from the app and location data of your friends’ apps. In turn this means that you might see products that your friends were looking at because it can infer that you might have mentioned them. (Interestingly, just after listening to this episode the Facebook app on my phone performed quite a sizeable update that required me to log in again. The first thing it asked for was permission to turn on location services. Denied!)

This remarkable technology, along with smart algorithms that will make inferences based on people’s behaviours means that as Facebook says, it isn’t actually using the microphone on your phone to listen to you.

But the tracking they manage seems to be practically magical to many people, so they infer that Facebook must be listening in!

So my question is this: Does it actually matter that Facebook isn’t using the microphone on your phone. If their tracking is so exceptional and accurate, that it becomes creepy, people will rationalise it as meaning they must be doing it.

And if people believe something to be true, it really doesn’t matter if it’s not actually the case.

Note: I write all this in the knowledge that I have microphones in my home that do stay live all the time, and report data back to Amazon and Google. The difference is that I trust those organisations more. It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but it feels that they’re more up front and honest about what they’re doing.