On a daily basis, whether it's internally, to clients or even friends I find myself saying "Remember.. podcasts are just MP3s and RSS feeds." It helps contextualise why podcast analytics are a mess, why different directories index things at different times or even just why sometimes podcasts feel difficult for new-to-podcasting listeners to find.
While RSS feeds are brilliant and have been a bastion of openness for the industry for years, podcasting has gone beyond what it started out as, which, if we simplify the whole thing was just an audio blog. We now have true crime shows that boil down masses of legal documents or shows that talk about design in such detail that at the end of the day, you just want to see it.
Podcasting is an intimate medium, it works in moments where other media cannot. Cramped in a train? Listen to a podcast. Doing the laundry? Listen to a podcast. Trapped on the endless nothingness of being on a treadmill? Listen to a podcast. Podcasting gets more focus from a consumer due to the nature of when we listen to them and for longer. It's because of that, that we want to know more. The current setup can't give us more.I'll preface the rest of this post with, yes, I know OPML exists. OPML for those unfamiliar is a file that basically dumps all of your podcast RSS feeds into one place that you can import into a different podcasting app. It's not enough though; it doesn't hold any personalised information nor listener position.
We need an open platform that can give producers the ability to offer more around their shows and easy way listeners to navigate that information.
We're in a splintered word of traditional podcasting apps, streaming services and connected devices. While RSS used to be the ideal rock of owning your own podcasting profile, it's getting difficult. We need a new open system for listeners to use and a way for producers to still own the value they create for themselves and the listeners.
To help understand the need of a new standard I've broken down some new and future trends in podcasting on why we need a better way of people owning their listening identity.
Podcasts have grown up. They're no longer just an endless number of tech or comedy shows just ticking up each week. There are limited crime series, seasonal shows and auxiliary episodes. The industry has shown up to support these structures, but things are still a mess in two areas.
Paid feeds are becoming ever more popular. With Patreon offering support to help creators manage ad-free Patron feeds we've seen multiple shows pick up this model. We've also seen platform owning brands like Sticher and Luminary gate certain premium content from within their apps.
From a podcast host and app standpoint companies like Overcast and Fireside have made inroads to help support podcasters buy creating an RSS container that will trigger a donate button in app.
The rub here is the experience for a listener. Even if the donate button is in your favourite app, you're still probably going to end up having to hunt down a custom RSS feed that you need to paste into an obscure menu of your favourite app.
Paid feeds are a feature that many producers and listeners want. Aside from running your own app eco-system things are tricky to navigate.
Podcasts more than any other medium prompt people to ask for more. They want to see some of the things they are hearing or read up on the latest popular crime shows files. Chapters markers were a good start allowing producers to trigger images or text at particular point in a shows playing. Support for chapter markers can be spotty and incredibly restrictive when shows have the option to offer so much more.
Creating a sitemap structure that goes beyond just the normal show-notes, within a shows metadata may help shows to point listeners in the direction of the content they want uptake though from apps will be tricky. We've already seen apps strip links from show-notes. The bottom line is producers need better tools to open up their work, and share their process. It open up more than just curiosity, for the more practical it's a gateway to tangential content that could also be monetised.
Podcasts are a mobile medium. You'll move apps and use different devices. This is what makes podcasts, well... podcasts. This creates a headache on a couple of fronts.
Recommendations & Discovery
Finding new shows sucks. It always has, and while there have been some solid moves from Pocketcasts and Overcast in pointing people in the right direction for shows they may like, recommendation is nowhere near the likes of Netflix. From the shows I've worked on word of mouth is always the highest volume of subscribers on a show, and most of the time, when I ask listeners about how they found the show there will always be an addendum - "I can't believe I didn't find it before".
We don't need trackers or anything invasive, but a central pool of common links of subscribers of shows that was anonymised and opened would enable networks to create better shows and listeners to enjoy them. Social media is such a weak tool in this area. If you've ever tried linking to a show from a tweet you've experienced this. Where do you send people? Apple Podcasts? Spotify? A strange link that tries to guess?
This needs to be solved in app, by creating an easy correlation feed that would enable app developers to build something personalised and useful to it's subscribers.
Every three months something like this happens to me in my podcast app:
Don't get me wrong, I love a Wondery show. However, what you don't see in this image is, four podcasts down I've already subscribed to Detective Trapp.
I'm an outlier that I still use an app that downloads over streaming, so the impact on device storage space is negligible. Compared to Netflix however this is amateur hour. We need markers to detect when a listener has already bought into a producer's ecosystem. Due to the discovery issues listed above, producer's resort to stuffing their episodes full of ads for other shows. By creating a simple map of where someone is in the podcasting world, we could reduce footprint and listener fatigue.
A few years ago second-screen apps were all the rage. What if you could get more information out of what you were seeing on your TV. Sounds great right? It didn't pan out. Turns out viewers use second screen apps to multi-task. They'd rather check instagram than see a slowly rolling feed of what's going on in front of them.
Podcasts have a opportunity to change this, with the second screen becoming the TV. Listening to a podcast about diving bells, while you're cooking you might want to glance round and see what that looks or feels like. Having a client side trigger mechanism that could work with set top boxes could add a whole different dimension and atmosphere to a listener's experience.
These tools aren't tricky, but they do require a trigger mechanism. Usually these trigger mechanisms come from metadata. We need better listener meta-data.
The Reverse Feed
Podcasts are RSS feed and MP3s. We know this, but to move the industry forward we need something new, a user feed.
In the spirit of podcasting we need a listener owned feed, if you really want it could even be an OPML file, that listeners can share with their app of choice. As an extra, and only if the listener is comfortable this could be hosted by a service for easy sharing.
All of the complexities of podcasting listed above usually are solved by metadata listings. If someone has access to a paid podcast it's a marker on their podcast identity. We've had gated apps try to own features like this, but if listeners could maintain their own database generated by their favourite app it would extend the potential of each show they listen to.
Podcasting's strength in the decades it has existed is... it's not radio. There is no central entity. It is time the industry created some of that openness for it's consumers and create an open format that can be hosted (or not) to provide a better, richer listening experience. Podcasts are the most popular open rich media format on the planet, but they could be so much more if we gave them a little more context.