(photo: Shunichi Kouroki on Wikimedia Commons)

Apple’s Big Move in Podcasting

An unsolicited prediction of what The Big A will do next. Well, even if they don’t, then they really should.

Despite what you might think, not one second of Apple’s podcasts are actually hosted by Apple. “But how can that be”, you may ask, “when they ‘host’ hundreds of thousands of them?” It’s simple. When you download a podcast ‘from Apple’ what you are really doing is using them as an index — a pointer, if you will — to a file located somewhere else. That’s why you might find some podcasts really sparkle on iTunes, downloading quickly and streaming promptly, while others really stink. I know because I’ve done it both ways. Incidentally, not stinking is a great way in increase download counts, as I eventually discovered.

But I‘m ahead of myself: when I launched my podcast I knew that iTunes was where I had to be. I assumed there would be a fairly arduous process to be accepted into their fold because they would be committing real resources to me after all. Well, there was a pleasantly ‘lite’ approval process, sure, but when I got to the part about conveying details of my podcast to them, they simply required I provide a URL to my podcast’s RSS feed. That was almost too easy. For those not familiar with this concept, an RSS feed is simply a regularly updated text file in a public location and formatted in a particular way. It contains all of the descriptive material for said podcast. The next part is what shocked me:

The RSS feed Apple requested included URLs — that is, pointers — to the locations of the audio files for my podcast with absolutely no limitations or guidance whatsoever. It quickly became obvious that Apple couldn’t care less where those files were: on the most basic, pokey Amazon S3 storage or a stellar content delivery network as bundled into a service like FiresideFM, which is the one I use. Basically, Apple was saying “that’s your concern” and washed their hands of it. In effect, iTunes Podcasts was simply a high profile directory of other places you can go to find podcasts, presented in a way to make it look like they’re all on iTunes. Sort of Amazon-ish, in a way and that’s worked out pretty well for them.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, some would argue it’s a more democratic and candidly, a distinctly un-Apple-like way of doing things. However, you really have to wonder if Apple had foreseen how hot podcasts would eventually become — with popular ones now into the millions of downloads — they might have done things differently if they could somehow turn back the clock.

This is why I predict Apple is about to make a big move in podcasting, the first concrete hint of which is the recent rebranding of iTunes Podcasts to Apple Podcasts. The next step, I further opine, is for them to offer a full blown, really great podcast hosting service for next-to-nothing or even free. However, that will include the mandatory hosting of the podcast’s audio files on Apple infrastructure. OK that may be optional for a while, perhaps, but eventually it will be mandatory. Apple will claim it’s for reasons of performance which is quite valid. To be crystal clear, however, if you want to be on the future Apple Podcasts, you will sooner-or-later have to host with them and the main reason has nothing to do with performance.

The reason, of course, is money.

Like some other Apple products that long occupied second class citizen status — Apple TV, for example — it seems as though podcasts started out as bit of a hobby for Apple. The structuring of iTunes Podcasts was an easy and inexpensive way of appearing to create a lot of content quickly. It was also a great way of hedging a bet. If those predicting the eventual demise of podcasting turned out to be right, not a lot ventured, not a lot eventually lost. On the other hand, if those predicting podcasting’s eventual breakthrough turned out to be the winners “we can always rethink things later” Apple might easily have said at the time.

Well later is now. Or, at the very least, really soon.

The quietly understated truth of podcasting metrics is that download count is nothing more than an analogue for audience size, not an accurate count. Download count is likely better than many ways of measuring media audiences, but not without some rather gaping flaws which significantly impair its value. A download is just that: moving a file from their place to yours. Whether you listen to it or not, well, that’s an entirely different matter. I know I optimistically sign up for lots of podcasts on iTunes, listen to one or two episodes and perhaps lose interest or just get busy with other things. If I forget to unsubscribe, episodes will continue to download automatically, at least for a while. Guess what? A download to which a real person listens counts exactly the same as a download that sits in storage until the downloader eventually remembers to unsubscribe and delete all those never-listened-to episodes.

So how big is the audience, really? Trickier still, how big is it if you define a member of that audience as a given pair of human ears which have listened to more than a minute or two of a particular episode? It’s really hard to know. That’s really got to bug Apple. It certainly bugs me. Particularly when a potential sponsor asks about audience size and I have to reply with this nebulous concept of ‘download count’. Or how about if I download a given episode on multiple devices. Is that one listener, or more than one? Dunno.

There’s another thing that has got to be bugging Apple right about now: the techniques undoubtedly already being used by Apple to thoroughly ‘understand’ the listening habits of Apple Radio customers are not currently available to them on Apple Podcasts. Whether the listener listened to five seconds, five minutes or the entire episode five times over is completely invisible to Apple. Who might be able to gather that data — maybe — is the independent service hosting the files to which iTunes Podcasts points in that aforementioned RSS feed. Even then, if the service provider is simply being used as a file host as opposed to streaming the episode, the opportunity to thoroughly understand how the podcast content is being consumed is lost forever to everyone.

As a result, that’s all about to change, and here’s how it could rollout.

Initially, Apple will offer a competitive option to independent services such as the one I use (and love!) for my podcast and intend to continue to use for future podcasts. The cost of the latter is low enough that not even a free offering from Apple would convince me to change, at least in an otherwise undifferentiated offering. If nothing else, I know how hard my service provider is working to keep me and their many other customers happy. I’m nothing if I’m not loyal to that effort as I think many others are.

The second step will be for Apple to offer two versions of Apple Podcasts. If a podcaster wants to be listed on iTunes and allow their listeners to download episodes as they do now, there will either be a small charge to the podcaster, a small charge to the listener of the podcast, or both. That may not seem right, but it will actually be in Apple’s best interest to gently discourage this mode of consumption of podcast content over time.

As a consequence, they will offer a second, free option perhaps tied in with major telecom providers. This would allow all of the podcast content to be streamed for free wherever and whenever, wired or wirelessly. When the content is streamed to a device, now Apple can really ‘get to know you’ as the listener. Listen to five seconds? They’ll know. Listen to five minutes? They’ll know. Binge listen to an entire season of Serial in one sitting? Well, I think you get the idea. This is a source of data, and its subsequent analytics, that will prove too tempting for Apple to continue to ignore.

This will be particularly true if the vast majority of listeners never realize, or even care that much, that something may be different under the covers. They’ll think “I went to iTunes Podcasts for podcasts before and it was free, and I go to Apple Podcasts for podcasts now and it’s still free.” Arguably more so because it will come without the hassle of a download and all that entails. Heck, it may even be possible for Apple to provide the old-fashioned download for free, just like the good old days. However, this will come with Terms of Service that permit Apple to collect the same data collected during a streamed episode. This data will simply be picked up by Apple the next time you connect to iTunes for the next episode.

If that sounds like Apple Podcasts becoming a lot like Apple Music — Apple’s streaming music service — it’s because that’s exactly what it is. In fact, as I’ve sent up trial balloons for this notion with friends and colleagues, some of the push back has been, surprisingly, that “Apple is not setup for that.” With respect, that is 100% not true. Apple could run the new Apple Podcasts on exactly the same infrastructure they have now for iTunes and Music. Better yet, they would add a revenue stream to an investment which is largely sunk cost. However the big payday will come with the analytics that spin off with this new distribution scenario. The mind boggles at its potential value.

As somebody who absolutely loves podcasting and can easily see myself doing it well into my dotage, you would think I would be concerned about these Machiavellian machinations. Surprising, I’m not, or at least not a lot. As a podcaster, my core desire is to have my content in the hands of the broadest possible audience and for that audience to be able to consume it in the easiest possible way and in a manner entirely of their choosing.

But to my advantage, I would also love to know what parts of my episode work and which ones don’t. If I knew — really knew — that the first five minutes of a particular episode have a huge audience which subsequently disappears for some reason, that would be incredibly useful. I would also like — no, love — to know exactly how many and what kind of listeners I have. More importantly, so would my future sponsors, I’m sure.

In other words, what I’m pretty sure Apple Music and Apple TV are doing already, as are others like Netflix or Spotify, is about to happen with Apple Podcasts. It makes nothing but sense for Apple, at least from their perspective, to lead that charge.

Whether I like that idea or not? Let’s just say that I don’t think Apple or anybody else is going to ask for my opinion.

©2017 Terence C. Gannon


Now available as an episode of the Not There Yet podcast. The author is also writer, producer and host of The WorkNotWork Show on iTunes — which is really to say Fireside. There is also a companion publication here on Medium. All trademarks are property of their respective owners. This article is based entirely on speculation and is in no way endorsed by any party noted herein. On the other hand, if any of this turns out to be correct, well, you heard it here first. Like what you’ve read? Please click the little green heart below — it really helps!