With Spotify and Joe Rogan, what now for podcasting’s open ecosystem?

Joe Rogan’s $100m deal to take his podcast exclusively to Spotify is worrying some people. It will technically cease being a “podcast”, of course: a podcast is delivered using RSS to a bunch of different players, and this is the open ecosystem that has served podcasting well.

Some are writing with concern about how Spotify is threatening the open podcasting ecosystem, and that podcasting should organise against Spotify. But here’s the uncomfortable truth: we don’t have an open ecosystem to defend.

A very short history lesson

“Podcasts” gained their name from a journalist, Ben Hammersley, in February 2004. Over a year later, in mid 2005, Apple added “podcasts” to iTunes, and with it, to the iPod. After two years of trying, Apple had only managed to get music in 14 countries; but adding podcasts meant they had content everywhere, which they didn’t need to pay for. Podcasts were a free way for Apple to get people to use iTunes more, and a free way for Apple to put a bunch of new content onto peoples’ iPods to get them to keep using those, too. In short: increased engagement was the key — which would lead to more sales of hardware and music.

Apple’s software was excellent: rather better than iPodder, a piece of podcast software launched in 2004. Apple’s enthusiastic embrace of podcasting was accompanied by legal threats to iPodder, which was forced to change its name in November 2005 to Juice; before people lost interest in Juice altogether because iTunes was better, and Juice was abandoned in 2006.

In order to sell music, Apple helped independent developers by opening an API. You could link to a music track on iTunes, and earn a fraction of the selling price as a commission for building it into your app or website. Hundreds of websites did (including many broadcast radio stations, who worked out that it was a really easy way to add now-playing images to their websites). As a happy byproduct of that, there was also an incomplete API into the podcast directory, too, which allows developers to get some detail of the podcasts in the system.

Here’s where we are today

Data from Libsyn, a large podcast host, shows that Apple has a 65% share in podcasting. Nearly two-thirds of all downloads occur in Apple Podcasts, or within iTunes (which still exists for Windows computers only).

But this graph doesn’t tell the whole story. The iTunes API that Apple built to sell music also allows developers to pull in data about podcasts. And so, the podcast directory for many other services is based on Apple’s directory. If you’re listed in Apple, you’re also automatically listed in many others: Overcast, CastBox, Podcast Addict and Pocket Casts from the above list.

In total, Apple Podcasts is probably responsible for 75% of plays, not just 65%.

Now: with an RSS feed, most of these podcast apps let you subscribe to anything. But in reality, most people use the directories in the podcast apps. A directory that is authored by Apple. Apple has approval of when you go into their podcast directory: and if you’re pulled out of their podcast directory for whatever reason, you’re often pulled out of the apps that use Apple’s data.

Is this an open ecosystem?

Open technology

RSS is open technology. Initially developed by Netscape, a browser company, it was enhanced by Dave Winer who added the concept of ‘enclosures’ in 2004: the fundamental building block used by podcasting for audio files.

However, RSS is extensible: that is, you can add additional ‘namespaces’ for additional tags. Apple built their own, and you’ll see this address at the top of any RSS feed meant for podcast apps.

http://www.itunes.com/dtds/podcast-1.0.dtd

This ‘document type definition’ includes Apple’s additional tags that it requires to be listed. One example might be the category that you appear in within iTunes, which you define using one of Apple’s additional tags, looking like this:

<itunes:category text="Technology"></itunes:category>

These tags are Apple’s, and designed by them. They’re the reason why the categories are the same in most podcast apps. They changed them in 2019, in a process that Apple claimed to me was consultative, but in a way which completely blindsided podcast hosts, who tell me they had no prior warning of the changes, and who had to scramble to make the amendments in their platforms. Podcast apps have, by and large, either adapted to Apple’s new categories or stuck with the old ones.

Is this an open ecosystem?

Critical mass

In August 2018, developer Marco Arment suggested a standard for donation buttons for podcasts: a simple HTML tag to allow an app to add a “donate to this podcast” button. Apple hasn’t implemented it, and shows no signs of doing so; so, with it unsupported by 65% of the market, it’s unlikely to gain critical mass and remains unadopted by most podcasters.

NPR worked on a carefully thought-out plan, called RAD, which was a way for publishers to gain consumption data for podcasts — notably, a way for them to know whether “this point” in the audio had been listened to. Apple hasn’t implemented it, and shows no signs of doing so. With it unsupported by 65% of the market, it’s unlikely to gain critical mass, and remains implemented by just one player: NPR’s.

Ever wondered why Apple takes some time to notice you’ve uploaded a new episode? They don’t support WebSub, an open standard to help podcast apps know the second a new episode has been published. Apple, however, hasn’t supported it. And, with it unsupported by 65% of the market, most podcast hosts haven’t bothered implementing it, even though it’s four lines of code in the publish process and one line in an RSS feed.

Because Apple has such a large chunk of the market, it is able to dictate what podcasting features will be available in future. While they’ve helpfully added some tools (like episode numbers, podcast ordering, and others), it’s able to reject and kill new ideas.

Is this an open ecosystem?

Hosts and guests

Apple Podcasts has a feature called hosts and guests. This isn’t something that is based on the RSS feed; instead, it appears to be offered only to the largest, best-known podcasts (and, um, mine). There are no open standards behind it, and only Apple has access to this data, which is delivered directly to them.

Apple launched this service after Podchaser had begun to add this data to podcasts in a crowd-funded fashion. Podchaser’s data is available for licensing by others (and my own website pulls some of that data in, under agreement). Apple’s is closed and proprietary.

Is this an open ecosystem?

The criticisms against Spotify

According to some people, Spotify cynically jumped onto the podcasting bandwagon because podcasts are free, and podcasts were a good way to keep people using the Spotify app. The company have said that Spotify listeners who also use their app for podcasting remain in the app longer, and are less likely to leave Spotify for a competitor.

“Why aren’t Spotify sharing money with podcasters?” say some people. Spotify’s revenue of $7.44bn (in 2019) certainly is an eye-catching one.

However, Apple jumped into podcasting for the same reason (they were free and available globally; and they kept people using Apple hardware). In spite of having the tools to do so, Apple have resisted allowing podcasters to sell their subscriptions, and certainly haven’t shared any of their revenues of $260bn (in 2019) with podcasters. Apple has some exclusive audio content, the iTunesU educational catalogue, which is unavailable outside the platform (and which is clearly an opportunity to be closer to the lucrative education market). Apple killed iPodder, their opposition in this space.

Spotify is trying to kill RSS, we read; though Spotify’s podcasting system uses RSS, just as Apple’s does. (And yes, they’ve their own DTD if you want to add their own tags).

Spotify is dreadful for privacy, we’re told; though Spotify’s default method of caching audio files means that podcast hosts get no detail of their listeners’ IP addresses or devices. By contrast, an iPhone subscribed to a podcast through Apple Podcasts makes a direct request every so often to a podcast host for the RSS feed for that podcast, accompanied by metadata showing their IP address and phone type. A large podcast host with a number of different shows can use this data to literally track a podcast listener on her way from home to work: when she leaves the house, the IP addresses she uses as she drives to work, when she reaches the work wifi. (Most other podcast apps don’t work this way, you’ll be relieved to hear).

So what now for podcasting’s ecosystem?

I don’t seek here to criticise Apple’s work: they’ve done a far better job than Google’s efforts to date. Perhaps through corporate negligence or disinterest, Apple’s been a surprisingly benevolent dictator to podcasting. We owe them tremendous debt.

But for those bemoaning the end of podcasting’s open ecosystem: where were you in 2005, when Apple began to dismantle it? And why are you only now unhappy about Spotify’s 9.5% market share, when Apple’s dominance in the podcasting market has shaped the industry, for better or worse, for the last fifteen years?

To claim that we have an “open ecosystem” is nonsense; and to bemoan a player with less than 10% market share for somehow destroying it is ludicrous.

  • I write Podnews, which is a thankfully rather less opinionated daily newsletter on the podcast industry. You can subscribe, free.