Podcasts and Indie Media02 Jun 2020
I was recently in a chat where people were asking why I don't recommend Spotify as a podcast client, and my response became long enough that it was basically a mini article and still didn't really say what I meant to.
So, I thought it was worth writing up properly and posting as a proper article here.
I actually think people's choice of podcast client matters a lot. People are increasingly using a client which feels familiar, such as Spotify, or ones from big names, such as Apple and Google's respective podcast apps. These aren't great choices. Large podcast apps aren't made by people who care about the quality of the actual content in the podcasts, and are treating the medium as a business venture. This is not always a bad thing, but with podcasting specifically this is an issue because podcasts are the only mainstream media where this is not currently the case.
I thought I would break this down in list form.
- Detailled user analytics allow advertisers to change the nature of the market, giving money to podcasts which deliver user data to the advertisers and, in return, eventually only funding podcasts which feature ads users fully engage with. The nature of the content gradually becomes more ad-centric.
- With more user data comes tighter algorithmic control. Recommendation features on sites like YouTube make it really hard to gain visibility as an early content creator without "playing to the algorithm". The nature of the content we consume gradually becomes more dictated by these algorithms as a result.
- Large companies don't really understand the protocol podcasts work on, which is shocking, but true. Marco Arment has reported frequently being asked by major companies if he'll implement changes to podcast feed structures for features that his client, iOS' Overcast, already has using the existing format, because they either haven't paid close enough attention to the original or want to change the way the system works so as to collect more information on users. The lesson: Indie podcast clients are made by people who care enough to have already got it right, and their product shows this. Major podcasting apps are still catching up with chapter support, for example, which has existed for over a decade. Their clients are just worse.
- A protocol not under a monopoly makes it easier to make changes to the podcast system that actually benefit people. If a feature is missing in the typical podcasting protocol (for example, I'd quite like subtitle/transcript support), indie podcasters can agree on a format that makes sense for everybody and clients can implement as makes sense. Large companies are less likely to do this, and less likely to innovate on new features. For example, YouTube could have had chapter support for a long time, but podcast clients have implemented it for a while, and once google podcasts integrated the features YouTube began to offer it too.
- (part 2) An open ecosystem of clients allows people to play with new features other developers haven't considered yet in an effort to prototype them. Client-side features like voice boosting or silence clipping were developed by individual developers, and when the system worked and people responded favourably it was adopted by other clients too. There's no need to push the status quo in a monopolised system, so indie clients are essential for pushing better experiences for everybody. The lack of any change whatsoever in ebook clients over the last decade and a half is a testament to how Amazon's monopoly of ebooks really fucked the format's growth.
- Large companies controlling a media can and will censor content. A free and open mainstream media format allows people to more easily publish what they want with some visibility. TikTok has routinely quashed videos made by people it considers ugly or poor, for example.
- Indie hosting matters. The people who develop large clients also typically host content. That content risks becoming exclusive to the client, drawing more people in, encouraging more people to host content on that platform, and drawing yet more users in and the whole feedback loop constructs a monopoly on that client. Once you've got that monopoly it's hard to break out of it, because you can't gain users to make an alternative platform viable.
How long as YouTube been the top of the food chain? Folk try to dethrone it; you can't. But Podcasts don't get have a monopoly, so we can avoid one, so long as we don't allow single clients to monopolise the scene. When no large company produces the client and hosts the podcasts, creators have to host in indie podcast systems like Fireside (or anything else that produces an RSS feed). Without a single large client, these indie hosting platforms have to cater to a range of popular clients to add value for the content creator, keeping the client ecosystem vital. It also helps to foster good conversations by removing the need to conform to an algorithm's expectations. If that's not enough, it keeps a healthy, opaque veil between creators & distributors and the advertisers who would seek to get their claws into another platform. And we don't need the features those advertisers push on us anyway! Automated discovery can be implemented in non-invasive ways via things like download / listen charts and editorial picks-of-the-day, without collecting detailled listener data.
The most important part of all of this is that most writing, music and video sit on monopolised systems, even if indie ones exist. This means new creators are likely to join the monopoly, new consumers are likely to join the monopoly too, and breaking out of these situations therefore becomes a Sisyphean task. We owe it to ourselves to have something that remains open and outside of the control of large companies.
Honestly, if you don't have the energy to care about this stuff, I get that. We can't care about everything all of the time and I'll admit that this is a very stereotypical tech bro hill to die on. I'm not here to gatekeep your podcast client, especially not right now. With that said.
Avoid if at all possible: Spotify will very easily make a podcasting monopoly; it's already massive for streaming music and is producing original content, which should be a massive red flag. The same goes for Google podcasts, although to a lesser degree. Audible have made motions to try to get in the space and you should avoid this at all costs; Amazon will also continue to try to push into the space, using things like Audible when it can, and you should resist that too. (Although if you still shop at Amazon, know that they treat their workers like dirt and covers up the deaths of its workers crushed in their awful conditions by manipulating law enforcement with its economical weight. Jeff Bezos will cope without your money and you should cancel your Prime account.)
On Android: I'm not very familiar with the Android ecosystem, but Pocket Casts is one of the old players, so it's very easy to use, and it's made by people who really care about this stuff. It's got some issues: in particular I don't like that they're beginning to offer hosting to paying users. It's a fantastic choice for an indie app, though. You can get it on Android here.
On iOS: You should try Overcast. It's free and my personal app of choice, having spent a lot of money and time trying a lot of different apps. Brilliantly engineered by the single person behind instapaper and Tumblr (before it got weird). You can get Overcast here. An excellent paid alternative if you're really keen is Castro, which you can find here. Castro has a lovely interface and is honestly kind of genius in its interaction mechanics, treating your subscriptions like an email inbo and a system for triaging it, but it's not for me and, if you're not already a podcast client nerd, maybe not a good first port of call. If you just want something easy, Apple Podcasts is OK --- but Pocket Casts is better! You can find that on iOS here, too.
A brief note on Apple
I've recommended Apple Podcasts. Apple Podcasts is a large app by a large company, with a history of having an important role in the development of the podcast as a medium, and I'm typically quite biased in favour of apple products, so I wanted to say a word on Apple's system.
Apple have no history of collecting user data or making money from advertising, although they've had a role in it. That neutralises a lot of the issues I'm listing above. They also don't typically host podcast content; they take an RSS feed and produce an index of articles on it, so the creator retains control over the hosting.
This has its own issues. Apple's podcast index is what a lot of indie clients use to search for and download podcasts, giving Apple the ability to censor content if they choose to. I'd argue that if that index was at the hands of any large company Apple is a pretty safe bet, but I can see some arguments against this and I'd certainly rather something open, but it's a good alternative. I'd recommend an indie client over Apple Podcasts anyway for the reasons listed above, especially one that keeps its own index, like Overcast (if you're of an iOS persuasion).
That said, Apple's the best of a bad bunch. They've been in situations in the past where they could have monopolised this medium and haven't taken the bait, so there's a good precedent for choosing them, indexing issues be damned. You're worse off with people like Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher, worst of all.
I know this was a long post on a topic you probably didn't think could be made so political or divisive. This really matters though, and your choice of podcast client makes a difference. "We are winds to the structures we live in", and this particular structure is the only one we still have control over. Podcasting is a wonderful thing precisely as a result of this. Thanks for sticking with this rambling all the way to the end!