AfterPod — Not Hosts, Podcast Hosting

Being a podcaster or a podcast host, creating podcasts, is great… and listening is wonderful… yet we all depend on podcast HOSTING SERVICES to deliver the media — audio or video — that IS the podcast.

But wanting to go into the podcast HOSTING BUSINESS today should be grounds for questioning one’s sanity.

Only somewhat joking.

Podcast hosting, as a business niche, is NOT for the faint of heart nor lover of sleep… a never-ending stream of actual and perceived problems with round-the-clock hospital-like urgency in an unbelievably multi-technical arena serving a global customer base requiring a deep investment for average grocery-store margins (if that).

Yet, we SHOULD praise those brave enough to ignore good reason and provide a necessary — no, CRITICAL service — to this emerging industry. It is with the substantial help of these businesses that INDEPENDENT PODCASTERS have been able to establish their individual and collective audience bases, a power unto itself.

Grateful

Vendor relationships in any industry are important, in podcasting they are “meaningful”. Without them, podcasters would have been at the mercy of many gatekeepers and the cost of entry would be way out of the reach of most individuals.

Without podcast hosting companies — most of which offer a simple-yet-solid set of services specifically for small podcasters at pretty affordable prices — independent podcasters would be forced the DIY route, permanently categorized as a “hobbyist” activity, and consist of far fewer people .

INSTEAD, the most democratic medium has evolved where virtually anyone can afford to become a podcaster, can distribute their personal and business views (with multimedia) to the world via RSS, and build an audience significant enough to generate an income stream if they work at it. People are making careers where none have been before!

And a movement began.

Truly, podcasting is a phenomenon. It is an amazing communications medium and is open to virtually all! I also think it may prove to be part of how we come to better understand each other in this complex society we’ve created for ourselves.

Once again, we have confusing terminology… sorry about that. “Hosting” refers to the service of providing an internet server— a host— to deliver the audio (or video) file upon request from the application that we, the listeners/viewers, use to listen/watch a podcast. Like a web host delivers a web page, an HTML file, a podcast host delivers the MEDIA file, often an .mp3 file. A host might provide both services, depending on how they are set up to handle network traffic (which is what media content delivery is all about).
A “host”, of course, could ALSO be a lead person on a podcast, a creator of content, often the podcaster themselves. Different topic.

A few podcast hosting companies recognized the potential business opportunity years ago but it has been a long, slow climb for them.

Only recently has momentum reached the point where, after more than a decade of steady growth and development, the “industry” is now attracting enough attention to warrant actual discussion of “industry-size dollars”, a true sign of maturity. Unless these older, more established hosting services lose focus, they will likely to continue to be leaders in the industry, rightfully so.

Not all hosts are created equal, of course.

Businesses are a bit like people, some innovate, some follow — big, middle, and small in size — many have experience while a few are novices, some fly with eagles and a few feed at the bottom, most play by the rules yet some do not.

From an admittedly different point of view, here are some types of podcast hosting “solutions” (as they say)

DIY Hosting

Let’s start at the ground level… do it yourself. That’s what happened in the beginning, of course. Many were called hobbyists yet were quite serious. A few figured out the details, shared that knowledge, and a multitude simply copied them thereafter. As so often demonstrated in history, monkey see… monkey do.

If I had a weekly podcast with a handful of listeners, I might get a low-cost web hosting service for a few dollars a month. I can handle a little tech so I’d install a WordPress website. I’d use some WP plugin to integrate some podcast functionality into my website. I’d record my podcast on my smart phone and upload the .mp3 file to that web server. It would update the RSS feed and my audience will get the new episode. A low volume podcast and website CAN even be done at NO COST using some of the “free” services, but don’t expect a race car (instant responsiveness), of course.

For low volume users, there really are no “special” requirements unless you want to get fancy.

WARNING: IF you catch the podcast bug, you’ll eventually want to get fancy. What’s great about podcasting is the enthusiasm behind the topic.

Concierge Hosting

At the other end of the spectrum are custom podcast services… HOSTING IS ONLY ONE! There are many ways an expert might be of assistance (even for the DIY-minded). As any beginner business-person knows, the price of high-level services typically is, well, high-level. Compared to DIY. Or most anything in between.

Some podcasters “farm out” parts of the job, others outsource the entire thing and create only the “art” (content). For a price, almost any skill is available for the many other tasks related to producing podcasts, such as:

Would you like fries with your order?
  • Show Formats and Season Strategy Consulting
  • Graphics and Copywriting
  • Guest Scheduling
  • Episode Editing
  • Voice and Music Intros
  • Show Notes and Transcripts
  • Voice and Interview Coaching
  • Social Media Promotion

Hosting FOR Amateurs

Some podcasts exist for reasons beyond commercialism and, in this context, can be classified as amateur podcasts. For example, a large segment of podcasting is oriented around FAITH and RELIGION. “Spread the word” applies literally, in this case… and the vast majority of these efforts are VOLUNTEER. They are amateur, which says nothing at all about the quality of the production and such (that’s a different topic).

Suppose something happens at a hosting service used by a member of a local congregation for their podcast and the last sermon is lost. That is, the world-peace-org-2017–10–22-sermon.mp3 file has gone missing; no copy can be found anywhere, no original, no backup. Bad news for the small number of listeners but all involved will try to do better in the future… and move on.

The requirements for a professional podcast, however, are different since the podcaster is accepting money and contractually obligated to certain performance standards. It is a higher level of delivery.

Which is not to say amateur podcasts are less valuable. Indeed, some hobbyist content is on a par with the very best in the world. There are some who should and do treat their content just like the big shows, working with professional vendors and expecting a higher level of service.

Hosting BY Amateurs

Even if an amateur podcaster, there are risks in depending on amateur podcast hosts. Some pitfalls are:

  • Data loss — after uploading files to the host server and entering metadata info for the RSS Feed (title, description, etc.), a podcaster could lose that data. A copy of the show is usually kept but what about that metadata?
  • Feed entanglement — some hosts take tight control of the podcast RSS feed and any podcaster deciding to switch to another vendor is completely dependent on them to complete that process. No problem… if they are cooperative.
  • Poor performance — generally slow or inconsistently server connections are a symptom of a poorly managed system or a management overloading systems (typically driven by economics).

Commodity Hosting

Many web hosting businesses play a statistical game with their customer mix, betting that most will use some nominal (and targeted) level of service at the offered rate while only a few “abuse” (exceed) the targets. They calculate the odds and take a gamble. Most of these are oriented toward serving regular web pages, which seldom deliver volumes of large multimedia files. The majority of these types of hosting companies are not modeled with podcasting in mind.

With a BIG host of this type, some podcasters may get away with using them indefinitely. Some will “get caught” and offered an upgrade option or summarily terminated for excessive bandwidth usage. With a SMALL host, abusers typically get recognized swiftly as real costs accumulate and some have been given little or no notice of a change in price or suspension of service.

Mainstream Podcast Hosting

Let’s use Pareto… 80% of active podcasters probably fall into this category.

Most podcasts use vendors who specialize in the industry, as might be expected. Most hosting vendors are of a size and possess the expertise to handle podcast data IN BULK, have been doing it for years, and participate actively in the growth and education of the community. They are widely known.

These niche service providers have user tools designed to help support tasks related to the production and distribution of podcasts. Remember some of those “fancy” things you’d want to do if you catch the “podcast bug”? Those are pretty standard here… no DIY.

Many have been (or still are) podcasters, so these companies continue to hold a very strong grass-roots mentality. This is important if there is to be any chance of maintaining the traditional podcasting ethos (to be defined another day).

A few hosting companies also offer additional services to their podcasting customers by acting as internal advertising* brokers, negotiating a purchase on the advertiser side with fulfillment spread across a selected spectrum of shows hosted on the platform. This accommodates the general requirements of ad spot distribution but mostly via manual means, which is OK for a “proof of concept” stage… but unscalable.

Prime Show Hosting

Many of the very biggest podcasts — in terms of listener downloads — work with a mainstream podcast host. Some big shows, however, prefer to handle hosting internally or under direct vendor contract and control. The difference is often the VOLUME of downloads these popular shows attract, which means TERABYTES of data… and, even though they are “just” digital bits, it costs REAL MONEY to transport them around the world.

It’s actually pretty impressive how a relatively small organization can create a quality audio or video production and deliver it worldwide with so FEW intermediaries AND at such low cost. Ya gotta love technology!

Given the sheer numbers of listeners of some of the wildly popular shows — multiply downloads (millions?) by size of episode (50–500 MB?) and you’re talking some major network bandwidth (petabytes??). With a monthly bill ($$$,$$$.oo).

Shows of this caliber are serious businesses, no matter how much emphasis they may publicly put on creativity (which IS valuable AND a team to be paid along with the bandwidth bill). Taking on any big cash burn rate — whether startup or established company — must be covered SOMEHOW… and that, at this scale, it inevitably leans toward advertising*.

Remember some of those “fancy” things you’d want to do if you catch the “podcast bug”? Those are pretty standard here… but it’s private access only and usually more sophisticated, custom programming, often integration with a special media player (with better in-app analytics when the podcast is played), and much more.

Podcast Network Hosting

Similar to the single, bigger show described above but an affiliated network of popular shows from the same podcasters, or a formal collection of podcasts from a range of creators, all demanding a large, reliable hosting environment to serve a vast, expectant audience. Again, real business but multiplied by some factor.

Some network aggregation has occurred simply to enjoy the economies of scale while others group for strategic reasons. To better serve this arena, several hosting operations have developed custom solutions to streamline the production process or provide better analytics via proprietary media player monitoring. It is a top-tier offering generally intended for a limited clientele with the ability to pay a premium.

Future Hosting?

Given the technical convergence occurring right now, new vendors are TRYING some innovative approaches. These are exciting times!

After more than a decade, podcasting is “new” again and with any bright, new, shiny object comes attention… but not all who enter the game have a sense of context. That CAN be good because there are things that were tried in the past that failed, that the veterans gave up on long ago, but that now are technically viable… if someone is brave enough to try them again.

It can be BAD, too, in that new entrants are clumsy and “get in the way” of others who are trying to maneuver in smarter ways. Uninformed pricing would be obvious evidence of this. Novices have a tendency to “muddy the water” more than “generate heat” in an industry.

Some of the new ideas have technical merit but lack an understanding of podcasting, the most basic component being the RSS FEED.

Others have the potential to extend the scope of “podcasting” beyond what it is today. Stretching, whether in a gym or of a consumer mindset, however, requires significant energy and moving a market is not trivial. These alternatives carry bigger risks for an individual podcaster but might yield a return by riding that product’s popularity wave.

Archive Hosting

As mentioned in my Podcast Movement 2017 recap, Dan Carlin expects his podcast content to have some meaning — some value — well after he is gone. I agree, much podcast content has significant cultural and historical value. It should be archived for future reference (and enjoyment!).

Perhaps someone in the future will be able to explain the current political turmoil worldwide by examining our collective thinking… some retrospective deep-AI study? I’m assuming civilization survives into the future, of course.

Though not performant in the day-to-day podcast scope of use, archive.org DOES provide the means to save old podcast episodes. If a podcaster has good content from an old show that is no longer active, this is a way to make it available on the web without incurring any ongoing cost.

Please don’t just “throw away” old podcasts… preserve them.

Any Hosting

Any reasonable media hosting service should be reliable and responsive at a reasonable cost FOR THE VOLUME of activity. It is a diverse market and, focusing on podcasting, it’s easy to find a couple of dozen hosting options… and most of them will probably do a good job for the average podcaster. Find the service level and price point that best fit your circumstances.

ALSO, while there are “free” services in every industry, they are never really free and there is some kind of “price” to pay. If the goal is to build a podcast audience, you may discover you now have a “partner” with your audience. Just make sure it is an equitable trade. Otherwise, pony up and pay the basic rate for a basic podcast hosting plan, focus more on your podcast content, and sleep well at night.

Basic Podcast Hosting Features

  • RSS Feed Import — it is not hard to “slurp” in the feed itself, and sometimes that’s enough, but it’s also nice to be able to facilitate the transfer meta data from any previous service
  • Outbound Migration Tool — IF you become a customer, how can you leave (and take relevant data)?
  • Easy Publishing Tool — after recording the podcast, you upload the file to your host using whatever facility they provide. Normally, such a dashboard will do a lot of work for you — episode numbering, metadata handling, and RSS feed generation — streamlining the production process is important in any business.
  • Control Your RSS Feed — this seems so basic…but it does involve networking, and some people don’t understand it. Do this: register your own domain name, it’s cheap. This will be core to your “brand”. Use it for your website, which might reside on one hosting platform and available on the internet via https://MyGreatPodcast.com. Use it for your RSS feed, like https://MyGreatPodcast.com/feed/ or https://feed.MyGreatPodcast.com and “route it” to your chosen media hosting service (this way, if you decide to change hosts, YOU can point it to another one yourself and are not dependent on the “old” host for such a change… think: hostage). You can use your domain for email and other things, too… each service can be on a different host. Networking is fun.
  • Analytics — this can range from basic to sophisticated and is a deep topic, which we will address in even greater detail… another day. Critical to this component, however, are integrity and consistency. NOTE: we’re talking SHOW analytics here, from the initial download request to in-show segments. Most podcast hosting firms offer some version of this. If you talk to a “regular website” hosting company (not specializing in podcasts), they will be referring to WEB PAGE analytics, which is a different thing.

Note to Podcasters:

(AKA: Customers of Podcast Hosting Companies)

Disasters are not the norm but it is smart for podcasters to talk to both current and potential hosting providers about “worst case scenarios”. Understanding how their business is SUPPOSED TO operate in such circumstances will inform your decision as to who you can trust more with YOUR podcast data.

Likewise, every podcast hosting service should be prepared to address critical situations. Things break, mistakes happen… the difference between a good vendor and a bad one is how they treat the customer when the situation is NOT a happy one. If a vendor pushes back on mere questions, doesn’t understand the concern, has no REAL answers that would mitigate potential issues… they probably aren’t adequately prepared and not a good choice.


*Advertising

We’re talking decent money, around $220M this year, for this nascent industry… and the future looks ever-so-bright.

How soon will it cross the $1B mark?

When will it hit $10B?

I’m serious.

ONE of the requirements to reach these heights — and I believe it is fully achievable — is a strong level of trust between the advertising industry and the podcasting medium.

In today’s world, another word for “trust” is “data”.

In the podcasting medium, that data is related to downloads (or streams)… or even more precisely, byte-range requests. What parts of a podcast requested, when they are requested, by whom, in what sequence, from what source all figure into how to more accurately track podcast consumption. That data is the first step to better matching advertisement to consumer, which SHOULD be a PLUS for both seller and potential buyer. If I must see an ad, I’d rather it be for something of possible interest rather than something irrelevant that I would absolutely never buy.

Since they manage the delivery of podcast media, the demand for better consumption data is focused largely on the hosting side of the industry. When “they” can “get on the same page” by means of defined standards, then the advertising industry is more likely to regularly direct big brand campaigns toward podcasts. It all hinges on the quality of the data… if it is trustworthy, it will reinforce higher values for podcasts ads and higher income for podcast producers.

It’s already clear podcast advertising works AND delivers greater value. It has been proven repeatedly via direct response ads that command (relatively) high rates.

Better consumption data will lead to a different, bigger stream of advertising revenue. Automated deployment technologies will allow transactions to scale. Together, they will lead to significant growth in the podcasting space.

Faster than most think.

In the near future, most of podcasting will broadly support quite detailed consumer analytics of audience behavior throughout a show. This will actually put the podcast medium ahead of all others — radio, television, newspapers, magazines — with unprecedented near-real-time deeply-granular insight into audience listening/viewing behavior.

It may also provide useful feedback to the producers of content but I see that more as a double-edged sword (where “reading the reviews” changes the “authenticity” of the creator… another story for another day).


Are you new to my series examining web media and podcast consumption?

The last article suggests podcasters and listeners are different.

You may want to read the first article, which establishes much of the foundation for these views, or the second one that begins to forth our intent to purposefully (and positively) modify podcast consumption behavior.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my views on podcasting. Also, if you are interested in my web media development project, let’s talk!