Do We Need To Lose The Open Podcast Ecosystem To Make Podcasting Better?

from the i-sure-hope-not... dept

Podcasting has been a rare recent example of a new offering built on open protocols and standards (mainly RSS and MP3), that wasn’t entirely co-opted by one giant corporate entity (even if some have tried). However, there have been some worrying signs of where the podcasting market is moving. For a few years now, we’ve been warning that the world would lose a lot if podcasts move from open standards and protocols to more proprietary solutions — and yet Spotify, for one, has been moving heavily in that direction over the past few years.

And, as Chris Messina pointed out recently, it appears that both Spotify and Apple are looking to move past RSS in how they push podcasts — though he’s unsure if it means that podcasts are dying — or about to go through a renaissance.

It starts with Anchor.fm, the “easy” podcast creation service that Spotify bought a few years ago. The company’s co-founder, Michael Mignanon, wrote a blog post recently in which he talks up how important RSS and openness are… before talking about the limitations of RSS for podcasting, and explaining why it’s time to go beyond that:

Since RSS only enables a flat audio file to be distributed to consumption platforms, creators gain limited and often inaccurate insight into how the audio is consumed, such as where it is being consumed, how much of the audio is being heard or enjoyed (or not), and whether or not the audio is even being heard at all (and not just automatically ?downloaded?). This has broad, widespread implications on the creative process, not only on the ability for creators to improve their work, but also on how creators might be able to monetize their work.

The diversity of opportunities for monetization is also limited. The standard of RSS and the lack of insights about performance make it difficult for creators to find realistic paths to securing advertisers for their podcasts. Given that potential advertisers have difficulty understanding whether a podcast is successful (because of the limited insights referenced above) or suitable for their sponsorship (in terms of reach, brand safety, and alignment of values), this means creators suffer through a lack of potential advertising, despite strong demand by advertisers for the medium. Additionally, given the nature of the RSS standard?s focus on distribution, it?s difficult for creators to monetize using methods beyond advertising, such as through secure podcast subscriptions or direct, fan-supported models that are easy to deploy and use.

These “limits” to podcasts distributed via RSS are… fair criticisms. But they also seem like things that could be fixed by continuing to support modifications to RSS itself, rather than moving over to a proprietary solution. However, Mignano’s bigger complaint about RSS is basically… that it’s too open, and the limit in being able to lock people out of podcasts (i.e., to create limited paywalled podcasts that only flow through specific services) is a problem:

But maybe the biggest limitation of RSS is actually a product of the openness that has enabled the medium to grow in the first place. While creators increase the opportunity for their podcasts to be consumed on a variety of platforms by publishing a podcast to an open RSS feed, in doing so, creators also give up control over which platforms might distribute their content. This includes platforms whose incentives, goals, business models, and ethics may be at odds with the creators?. Additionally, creators sacrifice any choice or input over how the content is displayed, consumed, organized, and monetized (including whether or not the creator gets to participate in the monetization of the content at all).

Put another way, publishing via RSS does not enable much choice for the creator. Instead, it?s a simple on/off switch to indicate whether or not a podcast can be ingested by any platform, including those which creators might not choose if they had such an ability.

That’s putting a shiny coat of paint on the importance of openness in podcasting, and pretending that it’s “bad” for creators that anyone can get a podcast through any app or service. But that’s like saying it’s “bad” for website creators that any browser can view their webpages, and it’s a shame that we can’t cut a deal with, say, Google so that web pages are only viewable in Chrome. That’s… against openness. And, yes, it may create more kinds of business models in the form of new data silos and lockups, but it’s very much a backsliding position against openness, and in favor of fragmentation, paywalls, and limits.

Mignano says that Anchor/Spotify will continue to support RSS and giving creators the choice to use it, but also pushing beyond RSS:

In the coming months and years, we?ll be working to further enable choice for creators, including giving them the power to choose not only how someone wants to create or monetize audio, but also where specific content is able to be consumed, ensuring creators have an opportunity to decide if they are aligned with the platforms distributing their content.

To me, this is not surprising, but a sad statement on closing off the openness of podcasting and the internet, and looking to lock it up in proprietary silos. Again, there should be ways to look to expand and extend RSS to do more of the things that Mignano talks about, including experiments with monetization and better analytics. Going straight proprietary maybe both the easier path, and the obvious one for a giant company… but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the internet or podcasting in general.

Of course, that’s only one story related to this. The other one is Apple moving in a similar direction, adding the ability for podcasts to put up paywalls via Apple’s podcast system (in which Apple will keep a whopping 30% of any subscription revenue). Whether by accident or not, Apple did help popularize podcasts — and did keep it mostly open, even when there had been other opportunities to lock up the ecosystem. It had been a good thing that Apple did not go down that path in the past. However, now it looks like it’s exploring that very thing.

I understand the business and economic logic of these companies doing this, but I worry about what it really means for the future of podcasting and the wonders and benefits of an open internet.

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Companies: apple, spotify

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Comments on “Do We Need To Lose The Open Podcast Ecosystem To Make Podcasting Better?”

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24 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Since RSS only enables a flat audio file to be distributed to consumption platforms, creators gain limited and often inaccurate insight into how the audio is consumed, ……….

All information that is of more use to publishers that creators who can gain feedback via their website and comments. That is, they are looking at a problem of commercialization, rather than creativity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

A dedicated website and comments are only going to catch the most dedicated fans and the minority who speak up in a comments section. Think about Techdirt, do you think everyone only reads the articles through the main page? And it’s rare for an article to get more than a couple dozen comments, do you think those few dozen who regularly comment are either giving an accurate representation of the entire readership or should be driving the community feedback for everything?

I follow a few of YouTube creators who talk about how the level of data they get to tailor their content comes in ways that aren’t reflected in comments either. Viewership numbers by age and location, how often a long versus short video is viewed and whether they’re watched all the way through, so on and so on. All that would be relevant to a podcast creator as well.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
TaboToka (profile) says:

Instead, it’s [RSS] a simple on/off switch to indicate whether or not a podcast can be ingested by any platform, including those which creators might not choose if they had such an ability.

In other words, (some) creators cannot compete unless they lock up their work in a proprietary, limited format.

Same old song, just in a different key: rather than make content that people want to consume (and pay for), they will force the issue, expecting different results THIS time for sure!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: My loss

You do realize that Apple Podcasts aren’t DRM’d and are totally downloadable, right? Apple uses simple RSS for their podcast system. You can even publish a podcast through Apple and yet host it on your own server; Apple provides the RSS feed and optionally provides hosting.

Of course, that may change now, with Apple also providing a premium podcast system that requires you to pay before you can download….

This comment has been deemed funny by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

People just don't understand what's good for them.

I mean, they keep on insisting on "free and open" roads, where they would obviously be better of if private road owners could determine what travelled to and from their homes. For some reason people still listen to radio programs rather than enjoying the benefits of restricted, for-pay, services.

Worst of all, they want to be able to breath air when they feel like it rather than benefiting from a corporately owned atmosphere which could be completely replaced by industrial effluent when it would benefit the consumers.

It’s this failure to understand what’s actually good for the populace that keeps obscenities like open podcasts in existence.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
crade (profile) says:

Sure it lets people hear our podcasts, but it doesn’t let us get much private information about the user without having to ask.. I mean we can’t tell how they used the podcast, how much they listened to, what they had for breakfast or anything without asking the users.. And you know, when you ask the users don’t want to tell us!

Christenson says:

Lies, damned lies, and audience metrics

The issues complained of are very much intrinsic to open protocols for content.
Seriously, even Techdirt itself has no real idea from protocols themselves how many of us are actually human readers and how many of us email our friends with the article text or file it and maybe read it later.
Techdirt works around it with its nice comment section and with its paid memberships, and its referral links, but even there, the rough guess is 10 readers or more for every commenter.

Anonymous Coward says:

it’s difficult for creators to monetize using methods beyond advertising, such as through secure podcast subscriptions or direct, fan-supported models that are easy to deploy and use.

Usually, the only entity that actually loses anything when someone listens to a podcast for free is… the very entity complaining. I.e., the distributor providing the bandwidth (which the uploader rarely pays for). Convenient.

Neither paid subscriptions nor fan support models require media to be withheld from those who aren’t paying for it. In fact, as the MAFIAA have found, considerable effort is required to withhold it. Annoying the true fans to shake down the less enthusiastic listeners seems like kind of the opposite of what podcasters should be doing.

The standard of RSS and the lack of insights about performance make it difficult for creators to find realistic paths to securing advertisers for their podcasts.

Advertisers have been spoiled by the amount of data available in the last decade, to the extent they wonder how they could survive without it. But 20 years ago, they didn’t know shit; nothing but vague statistics from surveys, Neilson logs, etc.

We’re 102 years into radio broadcasting, long preceded by newspaper advertising. The idea that advertiser-supported media can’t survive in the long term, unless advertisers can get ALL THE DATA, is absurd.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Adam Curry the father of podcasting has been working on a thing called Podcastindex(dot)org to stop just this very thing. It’s a fairly recent addition to podcasting, check it out. I don’t know much about it other then some tweets of his regarding this, but it seems brilliant.

Anonymous Coward says:

Many podcasts have special episodes only available to paid subscribers or if you want to acess the old episodes after 6 months you have to pay
Maybe we need a new version of RSS that can count the downloads eg users per country per town per state that provides basic info for advertisers,
Podcasts in the top 100 have no trouble getting ads or sponsors
Some podcasts are only available by going to a certain website or using an app
Apple has always provided a directory and a podcast app on every iPhone so it helped podcast to grow and reach a wide audience
and most podcasts are free using any podcast app

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Many podcasts have special episodes only available to paid subscribers or if you want to acess the old episodes after 6 months you have to pay"

Yes, it costs a lot of money for bandwidth and storage, and RSS feeds are usually quite limited. So, a lot of long-running podcasts will move old episodes to somewhere they’re more easily accessed and ask for donations when people access them. Given that a lot of these podcasts will just ask for $1 through Patreon or something just to help cover costs, that’s fairly acceptable.

"Maybe we need a new version of RSS that can count the downloads eg users per country per town per state that provides basic info for advertisers"

Why do you think the current RSS feed system isn’t able to do that?

"Podcasts in the top 100 have no trouble getting ads or sponsors"

Lots of podcasts have ads and sponsors. The problem is, the pool is quite limited so unless you’re in a particular niche you’ll hear a lot of repeated ads, and there’s only so many times people want to listen to mattress and food hamper ads before they get bored and just skip anyway.

Smart podcasters who know their audience will nowadays prefer to use Patreon or something instead of ads.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
justme says:

using straight RSS is far superior for the user. i’ve tried using some of the proprietary platforms and the user experience is horrible as the audio is littered with ads. the podcast becomes unusable. there are some cool podcasts available today that i won’t listen to because i simply cannot tolerate the ads.

Michael says:

I don't mind

I listen to podcasts every day, and just don’t (and never will) listen to audio that’s not distributed freely via RSS feed. Those are not podcasts; they are online radio shows. If I like a podcast, I pay the creators via Patreon.

Last year I happily dumped the major podcast I listened to that went to Spotify, and I’ll happily dump more. The fact is that people worth listening to can monetize with YouTube & Patreon & other outlets, so there will never be a lack of content created in real podcast form.

The rest can disappear; we won’t miss them.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Advertisers

"Then why does every podcast have ads in it?"

Not every podcast, there are numerous podcasts that have found other ways to be funded, and it’s nice to listen to the ones where you’re not being bombarded by the same ads (I don’t care how good Casper mattresses are, I’m not having one shipped across the Atlantic so stop hassling me!).

It also really depends on what your podcast is. If your podcast is an excuse for you and your friends to get together to discuss weird movies for a couple of hours a week, why would you want to be beholden to advertisers? I know there’s a sad, lonely contingent of people here who can’t conceive of doing anything without a dollar amount attached to it, but a lot of podcasts don’t have that motive.

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