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.
Podcasting as we've known it is dead, dying, or going through a renaissance, I'm not sure which.
— ?ChrisMessina (@chrismessina) April 20, 2021
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.