James Cridland

Apple’s arrogant dictatorship of podcasting is bad for the industry

Quietly, late on Tuesday, Apple sent an email to podcasters with a little news. As announced at WWDC the day before, we’re getting a new Apple Podcasts player in macOS, replacing iTunes. Apple Podcasts will have better search of people and things, as well as using ‘machine learning’ to search through automated transcription of podcasts.

Oh, the email went on, almost as an after-thought. There’ll be some changes to Apple Podcasts Categories, it said. “You can make changes to your show’s category now, and they’ll go live on Apple Podcasts later this summer. Contact your hosting provider for further support in implementing the updated Apple Podcast categories within your RSS feed,” it helpfully adds.

The changes, which I list here, are substantial. I calculate around 70 new categories and 30 renamed or removed ones.

Apple’s responsible for nearly 90% of all podcast listens: because Apple’s database powers many other podcast apps, from Overcast to Pocket Casts, Player FM to Castro. All podcast apps have used the original category list. As far as I can discover, Apple didn’t talk to a single podcast app developer before announcing these changes. Every one will have to rebuild parts of their app in response.

Apple tell you to “contact your hosting provider”. For many podcast hosts, the support team is a significant cost. But, as far as I can discover (and I spoke to some Apple-recommended podcast hosts), Apple didn’t talk to a single podcast hosting provider before announcing these changes. This was a complete surprise to them, and many hosting companies have privately expressed anger and surprise: “we’re scrambling,” one says, “we don’t get a head’s up”. Every one will have to rebuild part of their publishing process within just a few months.

What’s also clear from the wording of the email and of the categories is that Apple hasn’t talked with many podcasters, either, before announcing these changes.

It’s a document ignorant of the wider world, with a rough timeframe of “later this summer” just as the southern hemisphere goes into winter; ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶c̶a̶t̶e̶g̶o̶r̶y̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶’̶s̶o̶c̶c̶e̶r̶’̶ ̶r̶a̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶n̶ ̶’̶f̶o̶o̶t̶b̶a̶l̶l̶’̶ (I understand that category names will be localised, so ‘football’ it will be in the UK).

It’s also a deaf one: the LGBTQ+ community has, for a while, been making it plain that Health>Sexuality is not the right place for many podcasts about the LGBTQ+ community, yet their pleas to have a subcategory in Society & Culture hasn’t been heard. For a company as diverse as Apple to have missed this is a disappointment.

The success of podcasting is partly because podcasts are available everywhere, not just on an Apple device. The same RSS feed that powers Apple Podcasts also powers many different services, like Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. We don’t know what will happen to these services if we change categories just for Apple’s benefit. Apple doesn’t appear to care.

On its own devices, Apple is responsible for just 62% of all podcast downloads — a figure that is falling. Yet, Apple has just arrogantly changed podcast categories for its own purposes without consulting any other part of the podcast community that this will affect.

This is partly podcasting’s fault. There is no industry association: a place where producers, app developers, podcast hosting companies and ad-tech companies can come together. There are no best-practice guidance documents for things as simple as “how do I display episode notes”, “should I cache audio” and “do I need permission from podcasters first before listing them”: and perhaps there should be. I’m keen that this, at least, changes (hit me up at Podcast Movement if you’d like to work on this).

However, it’s also an issue within Apple. As is clear from the release of this document, and the abject failure of the company to engage with any part of the podcasting community, it’s clear that they believe that they “own” podcasting.

They do not.

  • I edit Podnews, a daily newsletter about podcasting and on-demand