Did…Did People Forget How Podcasts Worked?

The term “Netflix for podcasts” or “YouTube for podcasts” has been thrown around in a number of recent articles about the future of the format. Specifically, a handful of companies are trying to position themselves as the leading portal for anyone interested in listening to podcasts and therefore bring in the lion’s share of advertising that’s forecasted to double this year.

Spotify is betting on exclusive shows, as are both Pandora as part of its expanded push into podcast hosting and the newly-launched Luminary subscription service and . That approach is certainly akin to the Netflix model, which is increasingly reliant on exclusive material to draw in subscribers.

It’s also antithetical to the approach that podcasts have taken since their introduction over 15 years ago.

In a recent interview, Anchor CEO Michael Mignano summed up the open nature of podcasts perfectly.

My point is that the distribution of podcasts, unlike these other platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram, is that the distribution of podcasts is fragmented, and it’s because of RSS. So the way podcasts work now is you have an RSS feed, and then the RSS feed can be consumed by a number of different players or consumption platforms.

As he explains, that RSS feed is platform agnostic, working on any service that acts as a reader. To date that’s included iTunes, Overcast, Spotify and other services, all of which have made podcasts available for free (unless specified by the publisher) and available for listening on any of a variety of devices. That Podcast app on your iPhone? It’s an RSS reader, as is any other software that catches the feed of the shows you subscribe to.

When someone talks about creating “the Netflix of podcasts” what they’re talking about is restricting access to only those who are paying for it. That payment is necessary for the platform company because the ad revenue isn’t going to be sufficient to cover the cost of licensing (or even producing) the shows being offered.

What results is the same sort of fragmented podcast landscape that can currently be found in the streaming video industry Netflix operates in. If you want to watch “Russian Doll,” “Homecoming, “Star Trek Discovery” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” you need subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access and Hulu. There’s no one clearinghouse for all those shows as well as any others you might be interested in.

Spotify, Audible, Pandora and other players want to do likewise for podcasts. But the user experience for audio is much different than it is for video, and having to actively switch between apps to listen to all the shows you’re interested in may not be something the audience will do when all they want is to listen to a bunch of recent episodes while in the car, on the train, while working or in some other situation where the ideal is to hit “Play” and just work through a reverse-chronological feed.

Such fragmentation is likely to only get worse. There’s a substantial disconnect between podcast audience interest and ad revenue and some of that revenue may be cut further as companies like those in the direct to consumer market produce their own instead of advertising on other shows.

Ironically, almost all the companies seeking to carve out a piece of the podcasting territory emphasize “discovery” as one way to help surface more shows to the audience. While there are a few massive hits, most shows have audiences under 200 listeners, something that’s attributable to the outsized promotion of the biggest producers at the expense of the long tail of niche shows. While there are certainly problems with single sources like iTunes, none of them are solved in a situation where 10 different services all have completely different show lineups because of exclusive deals and other restrictions.

The first couple waves of podcast popularity were fueled in large part by the fact you could listen to whatever show you wanted on whatever platform you preferred. Not only could you choose from iTunes, TuneIn and others but you could listen directly on a show’s website. Google Reader, before it was unceremoniously shut down, even supported podcast listening, which could be done right within the feed.

Efforts to become the “Netflix of podcasts” are about gaining control over the industry and format, as podcast/RSS/blogging pioneer Dave Winer points out. That’s the opposite of what’s good for the future of the format, which will become a collection of conflicting interests and proprietary approaches, as a whole or the audience.

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