It is my love of podcasts that drives my frustration around podcasts.
Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with podcast content. The shows are weird and niche and long-form and wonderful. That’s what makes podcasts great.
The problems lie elsewhere.
Problem 1: Watch Your Language
Like I said, I love podcasts. I also can’t stand the word podcast. I realize the etymology of it all, and it makes sense. But I also believe that the word podcast has itself been one of the most substantial barriers to widespread adoption of the medium. We need to move beyond that word.
No podcasts, downloads or subscriptions. Let’s use plain language to make this more approachable.
If you are like me–a designer, developer, investor, blogger, or any other kind of person that spends the majority of their time using computers to make digital things–then yes, you are part of the problem. We all got too cozy with the parlance of downloading podcasts through RSS feeds that sync with our latest app update blah-blah-blabiddy-blah. Knock it off.
Problem 2: Playlists Without Any Play
Podcasts apps today are pretty straight forward. You subscribe to shows. Episodes are downloaded. Episodes are sorted under their respective shows and also in a master playlist. A Listener scrolls through shows, picks one. Find the latest episode, then listens. Rinse and repeat.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s dull. The player is dead–a machine. It doesn’t figure out that you listen to the latest BBC news podcast every morning at the same time while you’re in the shower, or that you listen to three brothers telling giving hilarious advice every evening at the same time while you’re on your commute home.
You’re loyal to your shows, but your playlist isn’t loyal to you.
What if your player learned your habits, cued up the shows that you always listen to at the times that you’re likely to listen to them, so you could just hit play?
What if your player knew that you liked to listen to really boring shows at night? It doesn’t have to know that you’re putting yourself to sleep, it just has to know what you like to do, and when you like to do it.
Why couldn’t it work?*
*I also want to make it clear that this is about the point when I appreciate that podcast fanatics (including me) are a bunch of first world spoiled brats, but I digress.
Problem 3: Troubles with iTunes
There is a lot to talk about here. I’ll just cover the big picture: Apple doesn’t like you.
It seems to me that Apple shoulders the mantle of the podcast world with great reluctance. Rather than embrace an emerging media format, and a new revenue channel, it seems that they view podcasts as necessary evil, a byproduct of the media mobility that their hardware inspires.
The iTunes podcast catalog is arguably the most popular tool for finding and subscribing to podcasts, but it’s a sterile, boring environment with the charm of an assembly line robot. It’s ranking algorithm for Top Podcasts is confounding, its featured podcast slots appear random, and its search results are unnavigable.
Most importantly, it is missing a critical ingredient for podcast discovery: recommendations from friends. With hundreds of thousands of available shows, word of mouth has become a critical ingredient for filtering out shows. You can find a better network of podcasts recommendations through Facebook and Twitter, from people you know and/or trust, but neither of these networks has the actual content for your listening enjoyment.
Problem 4: Shut Up And Take My Money
On top of that, iTunes has huge problems for podcast producers and their pursuit of sustainable revenue.
There are dozens of ways to make money off of podcasts. Most of them involve sponsorship for content within a given episode, read: selling ads of some kind. Other revenue can come through selling tickets to events, selling merch, or using the podcast as a tool for getting clients for some other business.
But none of this recognizes the exchange of funds from a listener to a producer in exchange for content. And this is where there is probably room for growth.
A lot of podcasts come from the world of public radio or other non-profit organizations and these shows rely on donations from listeners. This American Life, one of the top podcasts in the world, relies on donations to cover its hosting fees, which can go into the six digits. Today, the listening experience and the donation experience are completely separate form each other, and that should probably change.
In the meantime, there are other podcasts that are building a revenue stream around premium content. While this can sustainable, or even lucrative, there are quite a few barriers to widespread success. As I understand it, based on numerous complaints from podcasters, iTunes does nothing to truly support the sales of premium podcast content. There is no concept of a premium podcast in iTunes, so there is no concept of a premium time-based subscription, which is a popular among producers. If a show goes with a la carte sales, it gets even worse.
The podcaster has to upload each premium episode to iTunes as if it were “music” with each episode as a “track” on an individual “album.” At this point, their premium album is priced at $9.99 by default, while most podcast producers sell premium content for much less per track. The podcaster now must update the price to bring it down to the correct prices, usually around $1.99-$2.99. It usually takes another 24 hours for iTunes to process, during which time, the show’s loyal listeners are wondering what’s up with the $9.99 price tag.
And when tracks finally sell, iTunes takes 30%.
Or… the podcasters will dodge the 30% haircut at iTunes and sell premium episodes through their own site, using platforms like Content Shelf, Paypal, myLibsyn etc. This creates an even worse scenario–logistically speaking–for people who are actually trying to give you money. A listener has to:
- create an account (usually through a desktop site)
- pay with a credit card
- download an episode
- listen on your desktop or
- move that episode to your phone
- open the app for listening to music
- find the playlist on my phone that has the premium episode
- now, listen
This is ridiculous. Why would I ever do this again?
I have found that more people would buy shows if it were more straightforward. And, in all likelihood, more producers would probably sell content if it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to manage.
Premium shows should be easy to find, and easy to buy. A person with payment information in place should be able to one-click their way into super fandom, purchasing subscriptions and episodes whenever they want, and listening to them immediately. It’s digital content, often enjoyed on mobile platforms–act like it!
Problem 5: Where are My Friends?
When I listen to podcasts, I am often doing something else. I might be doing dishes, laundry, working out… These are all things I’m doing outside of the app, in the real world.
But while I’m listening, there’s still something I do inside the app: looking for the next thing to listen to.
With today’s apps, I have to bounce around going from show to show, figuring out what has downloaded. Or, I have a playlist that I can scroll through… this leaves me wanting.
You know how I decide what to listen to next? I find a show that a friend of mine mentioned and check it out. So, let’s make that happen, directly in the player. Let’s make that an easy, seamless way for me to see what my friends recommend.
Why can’t there be something more interesting, merging the episodes I have already downloaded (up next) with suggestions from friends, and doing it in a way that I can view seamlessly while a podcast is already playing?
I should also mention that my boy Pots is hard at work on this very problem and he’s made some exciting progress, creating a feed of his recommendations that you can subscribe to, as if it was its own podcast. I subscribe, and his recommendations just show up in my listening app.
So What Now?
I have a theory. I believe that the distribution, revenue, and–most importantly–enjoyment of shows can be improved by a new distribution platform in the form of an app for listening and a platform for producers to sell premium content.
Here’s what I want to see in how we enjoy shows:
- Plain language to talk about shows, getting away from techno babble.
- A smart playlist that prioritizes my favorite shows
- A straightforward catalog that showcases all shows, free and paid, with easy ways to search for shows I want to hear
- A way for podcast producers to sell their premium subscriptions and a la carte episodes directly in the app
- A seamless transition from listening to discovering new shows, including recommendations from my friends
I’m working on it. I’m not a podcaster and there is a lot I don’t know, but I’m willing to take a swipe at it.