Podcasting—the platform battle

Picture of young man wearing headphones by Gauthier Delecroix

UPDATE 2022. I got this completely wrong – at least the bit where I decided who will win the podcast battle.

If podcasting is going to become a real business it’s going to have to leave the commercial dark ages behind, evolve some more sophisticated audio platforms and —let’s face it— pick a winner. This is the second of two posts about the evolution of podcasting. Part one is about the explosion of new formats.

How did we get here?

One of the geeky pleasures of the audio boom is the secret knowledge that the whole teetering, upside-down pyramid of podcasting stands on the back of a simple technology that’s nearly twenty years old.

It’s called RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication) and it was designed as the simplest possible way to share content on the web —a way to publish lists of stories so that other web sites could receive them automatically. We use the word ‘feed’ when we talk about RSS and that makes it all sound very active — as if you’re firing your content out into the cloud when you create one — but an RSS feed is really just a regularly-updated list with its own URL — a text file that’s so simple you could create one yourself, right now, if you felt like it.

RSS is simple and it’s not perfect — in its origin it was almost the definition of ‘quick and dirty’— but it’s been exceptionally effective. The fabric of the mid-period web – the explosion of sites that became the blogosphere – was essentially a product of RSS. It’s impossible to calculate the number of articles and episodes shared via RSS since the late 90s, and, although you may not know it, you’ve certainly used it — you’ll use it today, in fact.

And the lovely, unforeseeable breakthrough that made podcasting happen was a minor tweak to RSS (thank you, Dave Winer) that allowed publishers to add media files to their article feeds. Suddenly you could syndicate your store of audio files (and video, for that matter), turning it into a globally available broadcast channel with hardly any effort. Then, in 2005 when Apple allowed users to plug these RSS feeds into iTunes, the idea of ‘subscribing’ to a podcast was born and the whole thing took off.

But the simplicity that produced the extraordinarily dynamic DIY content industry we call podcasting has also radically limited it. This passive, statelesspublish and subscribe’ model means that publishers can know essentially nothing about who is on the other side of the transaction, downloading the audio. So, while creativity in podcast formats and content is essentially out of control, innovation in distribution, ad-tech and in understanding audiences has hardly begun.

The upside, of course, is that Podcastland, at least so far, is a near-Utopia for privacy and freedom fans. The simplicity of RSS effectively inoculated podcasting against intrusive ads, data harvesting, fingerprinting and the rest of the miserable ad-tech toolbox. At least for the time being, subscribing to a podcast is the least compromising thing you can do online. In the increasingly predatory 21st Century digital marketing landscape, RSS is a glorious 20th Century anachronism. Long may it last, cry the listeners.

For podcasters and advertisers, though, the technology is irritatingly non-dystopian. It lacks some really basic features that they’re going to need if it’s going to become a real business, a self-funding medium in its own right.

What’s wrong with podcasting now?

User data is laughably thin. There’s some subscriber data locked up in Apple’s servers but, even if you could get it, it’d be close to useless, at least from a voracious ad-tech perspective. Podcast owners can now get nice-looking listening graphs from Apple and your own server data will tell you how often each episode is downloaded but that’s essentially it. There is no equivalent for the insane level of detail you get from Facebook Insights or Google Analytics.

You’ll learn nothing useful about how people listen. Want to know where your subscribers listen? What time of day? What they’re doing on their phones while they listen? Are they running? Commuting? On holiday? And what else are they listening to? Sorry. Not happening (you can ask them, though).

You can’t serve ads with any kind of intelligence —no pre-rolls or mid-rolls, no dynamically served audio at all— so no holiday ads during the commute, no Bisto ads on the way home and no control over frequency or day part. No geotargeting, no retargeting, no tracking, no spookily accurate robo-ads, no personalisation of any kind. For the time being it’s mattress ads all the way down.

But, of course, this low-tech Eden —this splendid anachronism —is not long for this world. Be sure, the ad-tech is coming, and it’s not just commercial podcasters who want to personalise audio —public service media will want access to these tools too.

The new audio platforms are already here

There’s a generation of new podcast hosting platforms. They’re offering podcasters a way to understand their audiences and —finally —to make some money. These new platforms deal with the holes in RSS by, well, getting rid of it all together. Run a search at tech business portal Techcrunch for “new podcast platform” and you’ll get a list of a dozen new and evolving businesses —ACast, Megaphone, Anchor, BuzzSprout, Stitcher… The business models vary but the pitch is obvious. In a hundred boardrooms, this week, someone will say— “audio is the new video, something, something, true crime podcasts are like crack for millennials, something, something, there’s no Netflix for audio, something, something, the targeted ad opportunity is enormous, something, something…”

So these platforms are going to start acting like platforms. Expect them to fight it out for ownership of the big podcast brands —just like Amazon and Netflix do with the TV brands. The audio business is inevitably going to look more like the crazy mosaic of rights, territories and exclusive deals of the video business. Your latest binge listen will be on ACast or Apple Podcasts or Stitcher but not “wherever you get your podcasts.” And the abandonment of cuddly old, simple old RSS will result in a wave of new and more intrusive ad formats. Get ready for personalised ads, ads that know where you are, ads that follow you from platform to platform and —you’ll like this —ads you can’t skip.

Common sense suggests that even the fancy end of audio is never going to be worth more than a decent fraction of the video streaming business but the investors diving into podcasting now are serious about it and want to build a business with real scale. And, let’s be honest, it’s in everyone’s interest for them to succeed —the mattress ads are not going to sustain a heterodox commercial audio ecology for long and the planet’s already stretched public service providers certainly can’t do it on their own.

Realism (and good evidence from the rest of digital media) also tells us that although we’d love to see a hundred flowers bloom, the audio business is going to pretty quickly shake out to a small handful of big platforms —with one global player making the rules, setting prices, shaping supply.

Can we take an educated guess as to who that will be, though? Which of the handful of serious-looking platforms will dominate podcasting?

So who’s going to win podcasting?

All right, I’m just going to say it: it’s going to be Amazon (I’m taking bets —leave a comment if you want some of the action). “But hold on”, I hear you say, “Amazon’s audio platform is called Audible. It’s a repurposed audiobook catalogue and, despite years of effort, they haven’t made even a tiny dent on the non-audiobook business. An audio outsider like Amazon doesn’t stand a chance!”

You’re right, of course. They’re slow off the mark and Audible itself is a pretty charmless environment in which to win over the next generation of audio nuts. There’s even a reasonable chance that Amazon will just ignore the podcast revolution all together, write the whole thing off and focus on the Billions they make from retail, video and web services. But I doubt it. Here’s why it’ll be Amazon that wins podcasting:

They’re everywhere. Amazon apps —shopping, video, music, Kindle, Alexa —have hundreds of millions of installs between them. Installed on audio-ready devices and pre-loaded with credit card numbers and a detailed purchase history.

They have a billing relationship with millions of people. There are around 90M Amazon Prime accounts in the US and it’s estimated that each spends $1,300/year with Amazon (about a third of UK households are already paying members). Few have even a fraction of Amazon’s customer base, let alone paying customers. Audible itself is a subscription platform that’s cross-promoted to Prime subscribers and Amazon has made clever use of cross-promotion in launching a dozen other services over the years.

They know how to sell media to millennials. They’re no Netflix but Amazon Prime Video already reaches millions of people in podcasting’s demographic sweet spot. Audible, in fact, already commissions a small number of ‘original audio series’ (they don’t call them podcasts, of course) and cross-promoting them to the company’s other audiences will effortlessly produce the kind of listening figures that most podcasters would kill for.

They own the most promising new interface to the global store of audio. Echo is the best of the voice-controlled devices and it’s already in 11% of US homes (an adoption rate that looks similar to that of radio in the 1920s). Better yet, it turns out that audio is one of the most popular services among users (according to this RadioPlayer research, from the UK, radio is the most popular category of audio on ‘smart speakers’). The affordances are perfectly aligned. Who knew?

Their platform will permit all the scary ad-tech. No dependence on sad old RSS here so there’s nothing stopping Amazon from dynamically serving you ads, right into the audio stream —and all targeted with insane precision, because…

…let’s face it, they know everything. It’s not clear exactly what information the Audible app captures as you listen but it’s safe to assume that —in addition to Amazon’s detailed understanding of what you like to buy— they know where and when you’re listening, how often you listen, how far you get through a download, how many sessions it takes you to complete a listen. And it would be trivially easy for Audible to capture a more detailed picture, using the sensors in your smartphone to learn what you listen to while you’re working out, while you’re commuting, on your lunch break, in the woods, on an aeroplane, in bed, in the vicinity of a military base

This level of detail —especially if passed on to producers— would profoundly change podcasting, becoming the primary influence on choice of formats, voices, themes and styles across the business —just as it has in journalism and video. More, it might secure commercial viability for an industry that, frankly, still looks shaky.

The only question, for Amazon, is going to be “how much is this worth?” If podcasting turns out to be worth a tenth of video streaming, it might be worth the engineering and marketing effort to relaunch Audible as a podcasting platform. If it’s a hundredth, they’ll hesitate and may not even bother. And, incidentally, this may explain why Amazon has been slow to capitalise on Audible’s ubiquity. Is Amazon holding back because their data tells them that podcasting’s just not worth it? I do hope not.

Bonus episode

I’m aware that I’ve left out some fairly important platforms. Not because I don’t think they’re important, although, actually, I don’t think they are quite as important. But I accept that some of these stories are going to be as interesting and influential as the big ones above…

Spotify’s Podcast offer is pretty rich but it sits alongside music uncomfortably —and there are some pretty hideous interface issues. The Swedes are about to raise a lot of money via an unusual direct listing on the NYSE, though and they could choose to blow a chunk of that money expanding their catalogue of commissioned audio content (and tidying up the UI). That would be interesting in itself, because it would represent an opportunity for institutional and retail investors to get involved in the next generation of podcasting platforms pretty directly.

Meanwhile, Who We Be, a new podcast tied to one of the platform’s big urban music playlists and presented by British DJ and broadcaster DJ Semtex, is probably a model for the next wave of speech audio from Spotify.

Soundcloud is also a podcasting company. Their stock of audio is enormous and the “wherever you get your podcasts” model means that lots of producers publish their stuff on Soundcloud automatically. But the money Soundcloud raised in 2017 is going to be devoted to keeping the company afloat and finding new focus. Building a new podcast brand is off the to-do list.

Google’s approach to podcasting is to make it another checkbox on the long list of services you can access via the mobile app. This checkbox approach commodifies the business, though, and makes it difficult to build a big, prominent brand. But we probably shouldn’t rule them out: they’ve already commissioned at least one original podcast series (although it seems to be on hiatus).

Apple’s podcast app got better in 2017. The data available to producers also improved. And no other platform can match the support the company’s podcast teams supply to producers in big markets. The charts and category pages they curate remain the primary way of finding the good stuff for listeners. There’s an obvious opportunity for Apple to convert this epic organic advantage (and a tiny shred of that enormous cash pile) into a serious new commissioning platform —although the company’s careful progress into video commissioning is probably a good guide to how this will unfold (Apple has commissioned eight TV series since hiring Jay Hunt in October last year, though).

Smartphone apps are very interesting (they’ll need a post of their own, really). They’re interesting because they can deliver a lot of the important platform benefits —a logged-in experience, dense listening data, recommendation and discovery, even a billing relationship —while piggy-backing the existing RSS-and-string-based infrastructure. No need to reengineer the distribution layer. These apps depend on the continued availability of content via the old RSS infrastructure, though, so if the big podcasts disappear into walled gardens, their catalogues will shrink and they’ll be left with only the DIY end of the market.

The podcast category in your app store is packed with interesting apps —some of which have been there for years and some of which promise an improved experience for listeners and even some income for producers (if you’re using one of these apps and you like it, leave a comment —I’d love to know which apps are doing this right).

The podcasting boom will support a complex services ecology. Lots of smaller businesses —usually with a national or niche focus —are providing services to the flourishing DIY end of the business. Hosting, audience measurement, editing, audio optimisation and —in some cases —advertising/sponsorship services. This is a good sign —a complex services ecology = a viable industry. Some of these businesses will try to scale up to become platforms. One or two might actually achieve it.

The BBC and other big broadcasters and publishers are in a tricky position. They feel an obligation to participate in the audio explosion. Some, of course, are grizzled pioneers in this business —try to count the number of online audio products launched by NPR, The Guardian and the BBC over the years and you’ll soon run out of fingers. They have big existing audiences, production talent and engineering know-how to bring to the game but they can’t easily challenge the mega-platforms on range or promotional clout. This is going to get interesting.

The first of this series of posts about podcasting is about the creative battle. Also read my 11 essentials for the modern podcast.

Picture by Gauthier Delecroix, on Flickr.

Amazing Radio – an interview with Trevor Dann

[You might want to know: when I wrote this I worked at BBC Radio (and still do!) but these are the opinions of a civilian radio nut and not those of the BBC. Also, Amazing still exists but the ‘unsigned music only’ policy described here does not]

I’ve developed a bit of a radio crush on a new station called Amazing Radio. Amazing‘s a national digital station mounting a head-on challenge to the music radio status quo. Unless you’re a radiohead like me you’ve probably never heard of it, though. And it’s worth a listen because it’s very different. For a start, there are no stars, no record labels and no ads. The station plays only music by unsigned artists, uploaded by those artists to the amazingtunes web site where it’s sold for 79p per track. The station even carries an ‘ethical’ label, presumably because artists keep 70% of online sales.

Listening is a fascinating, slightly disorienting experience. What you hear sounds like a conventional music station – music grouped into recognisable genres and linked in the usual, slick way by DJs (apart from the off-peak hours when the robots are in charge). The music goes out in familiar slots – there’s a breakfast show, a rock show and a chart show… But listen for twenty minutes and it’ll dawn on you that there’s something odd here: you haven’t heard any of this stuff before. It’s all new.

And listening to a radio station without the elemental familiarity of even the most ‘challenging’ conventional stations is a bracing experience. Tracks flow by without the contextual cues you’re used to: no history, no celebrity, no personal memories. And none of the credibility that comes with a play from a name DJ. Amazing DJs sometimes help by defining a track in terms of an established artist: “here’s a Crystal Castles-style track from…” or “if you like Florence…”

I’m a convert. I like the DJs and I enjoy the unanchored listening experience. There’s something compulsive about this stream of new stuff and you get a sense of the ocean of talent that’s out there waiting to be discovered – but I can’t listen for too long. It turns out that providing your own context is quite hard work.

And the experience highlights just how dependent we are on DJs and stations for their judgements and their stories and their categories. In fact, listening to Amazing helps to explain the function of mainstream radio’s unfashionable props – the cosy playlists and charts and the guiding hand of the DJ.

Amazing must be doing something right. The station has just tempted Trevor Dann, grizzled radio veteran and outgoing Director of The Radio Academy, to join as Director of Programmes (he’s been presenting a show for a while now). So I asked Trevor if he’d answer a few questions about Amazing:

Does Amazing represent an alternative to the mainstream, label-based music biz? A kind of parallel music economy?

Yes. We think of it as a music-based social network which takes the power out of the hands of the playlist committee and the A&R men and gives it back to the artists and their fans. In the digital world we need tastemakers and trusted guides but we don’t need gatekeepers.

Do you aim to break artists?


If an Amazing artist crosses over and becomes a big star will you participate in their ongoing income – will you become a kind of label?

In tune with our ethical stance, we don’t seek to control or exploit anyone but we are here to help artists on their musical journey. First, they upload their material to amazingtunes.com. Then, if it’s popular on the website, it’ll be featured on Amazing Radio. If they get in the Amazing Chart and there’s a real buzz about them, Amazing Music may offer to help with everything from management and gig promotion to publishing and even record manufacture and distribution. But none of these services are compulsory.

If Amazing’s a hit, do you expect record labels to join in and upload tracks to amazingtunes? the way they came to trust iTunes and later Spotify? Will you encourage them to do so? Will you support a more conventional royalty scheme, for instance?

We don’t have any plans to broadcast music by artists signed major record labels. That model is in decline. Ours is the future.

It’s fascinating to hear a playlist assembled entirely from unplayed music with not a label in sight. How does the process differ from playlisting at a conventional station?

The playlist is chosen by the consumers of amazingtunes.com. There is some human intervention to prevent too much of one genre dominating the sound of the station and to take account of the time of day. But broadly speaking the playlist is ‘crowd-sourced’.

Will you build domain expertise? Hire DJs who have deep regional or genre knowledge? Will you give them freeplays? Will they become curators?

The ‘specialist’ presenters – Jim Gellatly (winner of the Radio Academy John Peel Award in 2008), Mark Ryan etc. pick their own music from the wealth of material on amazingtunes. I wouldn’t want to put words in his mouth but I think Jim in particular would be happy with the word ‘curator’. Part of his mission (and everyone’s at Amazing) is to encourage more bands to upload music so they can get airtime.

What does your research tell you about listeners? Who are they?

We are not part of RAJAR and we don’t publish any audience data.

What’s the natural audience for unsigned artists? Do you think that younger listeners are more open to unfamiliar sounds?

Feedback shows that our audience is very varied. It’s certainly not exclusively young or old, male or female. Rather like 6Music I think we have a very varied audience which encompasses old fogeys like me (and dare I say you Steve!), teenagers with an appetite for emerging music and everyone in between. I think the traditional radio obsession with demographics is rendered obsolete by a service like ours.

How about live shows? Will you add a few hours of live output so that DJs can interact with listeners?

We launch our first live daily show in January. Details shortly.

Is there enough good stuff out there to fill a radio station? Are you surfacing artists overlooked by the labels? Is an Amazing artist different from one with a record deal?

I’m constantly amazed by the quality of music uploaded. The radio station could fill its playlist many times over with really brilliant stuff from all over the world. The weekly review show I present has music from 7 different countries this week.

What do the labels and the collection societies think about the Amazing model?

We don’t know about the majors and don’t really care. We are licenced by PRS who have been very encouraging of our effort to give exposure to more talent.

Thank you Trevor!

  • Listen to Amazing on DAB (“just to the left of the BBC”, as they say on the station) and online.

Doctors. Don’t talk to me about doctors

I’ve not been well. Two weeks laid low by a mystery virus. My doctor disagrees: I’m in perfect health, he says, refusing me medication. He’s pursuing some kind of Californian mind control strategy. I take him nasty symptoms and he denies they exist. The other day I told him I was feeling breathless. “Listen”, I said, wheezing. He countered with an oxygen saturation test – “100%” the little read-out blinked. “You’re in perfect health. You could join the fire brigade. In fact here’s their number. You’ll be up a ladder by tea time”. “No thanks” I said. “Coast Guard?”

The other day Russell was complaining about space film music and proposed Palestrina as an alternative to the usual orchestral stuff. I can see his point but I think I can hear something different, something muckier and a bit less heavenly out there in the void. So I made a Muxtape: my first go is a kind of fantasy space-noir movie soundtrack. Muxtape is really addictive fun and, incidentally, exactly the kind of thing the music biz should be embracing. Imagine millions of these things legally doing the rounds. Of course, what they’ll actually do is ignore it then complain about it and then probably shut it down (UPDATE April 2022 – you guessed it, that’s exactly what happened to Muxtape).

An Athens by the Central Line

So UpMyStreet – apparently a latterday Athens peopled entirely by cool, fun people who worry about things like geo-encoding their web site – has gone bust. Over at NTK the shock was so great they announced a total cessation of sarcasm for a minute to record the company’s simultaneous slashdotting and receivership. Elsewhere, no one can find a bad word to say about UMS.

The thing is, this wasn’t supposed to happen. While I was running another.com, we thought the UMS guys were golden. They were supposed to have survived the bust, they were supposed to have a bullet-proof (at least not chewing-gum and string) service-based business model with recurring revenues. They had groovy, meaningful technology and excellent people who weren’t running-dog dot.com opportunists. What happened, guys?

Paddy Barwise at The Oxford Media Convention

Paddy Barwise heads the London Business School’s Future Media programme and is a perennial commentator on broadcast regulation issues – particularly ownership and quality. He’s usually defending quality thresholds or opposing foreign ownership. He wasn’t speaking at the event but he told me, intriguingly, that beyond the Communications Bill lurks greater peril for British public service media – in particular he?s worried about the next round of the GATT negotiations which will attack the UK Government’s right to ‘protect’ a state broadcaster and fund it via a compulsory licence fee. The worst case could result in the abolition of ownership rules, content quotas, the license fee and much that British people hold dear. I think that radical change is likely in all these areas but it’s obviously vital that we get a public debate going before it’s too late to influence the outcome.