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A Thoroughly Unremarkable Theory of Apple Podcasts

But one that governs all.

If I were to sketch out a theory of Apple’s influence over the podcast ecosystem, I’d hang the whole thing on three pegs:

  • The power of defaults;
  • Being the dominant arbiter of value;
  • Mystery (or the opacity of methodology).

The first is pretty straightforward to illustrate. Much of the way I read podcasting’s growth over the years places heavy emphasis on advances in structural accessibility as facilitated by Apple, as I sought to portray in a piece for Wired earlier this year. There were three phases to this: Apple’s original insertion of podcasts into its iTunes offerings in 2005, breaking the experience out into a standalone app in 2008, and ultimate default bundling with iOS8 in 2014, the company drove (and eventually owned) the majority of new listener share throughout that period. Each of those developments were fundamental progressions on two fronts: (1) they dramatically increased the awareness of podcasting and the freely-available media products that were being made for the technology, and (2) each step dramatically reduced the friction for new audiences to begin developing a relationship with the medium. Of course, it remains the case that not all listening takes place within the context of the Apple ecosystem, but the underlying idea is this: with each of those three moves, Apple consistently established itself as the default facilitator of podcast listening by securing most first touches from would-be casual listeners poking around their phones. For most people trying out the medium for the first time, the Apple Podcast app is the first choice, because it’s the easiest one to make.

Apple’s default power carries over to the way discovery is moderated in the space. According to a WNYC Studios report from September, “podcast app” is listed as the second primary driver of discovery for listeners, second to word-of-mouth. But given Apple’s assumed market share — which is anywhere between 50-80%, depending on who’s coming up with a methodology — as well as the deeply fragmented nature of secondary options (Overcast, Breaker, Spotify, etc.), we’re really just talking about Apple. Hence, if we were to think about how the podcast ecosystem is generally represented to potential new listeners for the first time, Apple holds disproportionate power in the representation of the space as a whole. (There may well be strong individual publishing brands or personas — WNYC Studios, say, or Marc Maron, or Gimlet, or TWiT, or Night Vale — but those identities represent themselves more so than the peer space around them.) No true secondary representative group exists: no platform at a level competitive to Apple, no formal industry identifier or association, etc. etc. (Which is just as well, I suppose, given the space’s originating tenet as an open publishing ecosystem.)

What falls from this is the second peg of Apple’s influence, which is its de facto presence as the prime arbiter of value for the space. This is troublesome, of course, because it’s not entirely clear what the value system is, and it’s further unclear whether much thought is given to the weight of how that value system extends influence.

Consider the major touch-points for discovery within the Apple Podcast infrastructure. In my mind, there are three primary sites — the Charts system, the Editorial Front Page, and the Search Engine — and all three channels are deeply flawed in their own special ways. The charts are volatile and capricious, ostensibly built on some notion of a “heat” or “buzz” meter instead of a leaderboard that periodically experiences what appear to be spot resets, which is perfectly fine, but only if it’s adequately communicated as such instead of potentially conveying the sense that it’s a leaderboard. (I published my read on this in a Hot Pod issue from last March.) The editorial front page is built on a team of human curators, which some constituencies within the podcast ecosystem could view as a deeply inadequate (and inequitable) structure to shed light on shows within an open publishing ecosystem that’s made up of hundreds and thousands of active entries. And the search engine is a lemon in two ways: firstly, it’s neither precise, efficient, or relevant in the queries it sends back, and secondly, it’s unclear whether its search logic is built on any strong thesis of how listeners relate to the product. When a generic listener sets forth to find a podcast to explore, does that person search based on interview subject or topic focus? What does a preference set look like? Etc. etc.

Despite these inefficiencies, the Apple Podcast infrastructure — empowered by its position as the default portal, a function of its sheer scale — nonetheless serves (perhaps inadvertently) as a prime conveyor of the ecosystem’s values. When a potential new listener wades into the space, what does she see? She sees a snapshot in time of a chart telling a deeply incongruous, incoherent, and un-contextualized story. She sees the value judgment of the Editorial Front Page, which has political power in ways that are not unlike magazine covers of a past era. (Or maybe magazines still have cultural power these days? I haven’t been keeping track of that neck of the woods. All I hear is chaos.) She sees a search box that spits out… a chaotic spool of yarn. How a platform understands, organizes, and presents are expressions of its values; it follows, then, that in the case of Apple and the podcast ecosystem, for most people, Apple’s values are de facto the industry’s values.

All this is further enforced by the third peg: the opacity of its methodology. Where Apple solidifies its influence on the listener-side through the combination of scale and default power, the company wields power over the publisher-side with a relative opacity. A lot of that power is soft; say, the necessity of (limited) human interactions with editorial teams for potential placement on the front page, or how the decontextualized feedback loop of the charts cultivates more production of certain genres. (True crime, true crime, true crime that picks up cold cases and interacts with the real world, etc. etc.) Sometimes, that power is wielded explicitly, as was suggested in this Digiday article from April where it appeared that Apple may have retaliated against Midroll for engaging in a windowing strategy, the potential success of which is at diametric odds with Apple’s incentive. Here’s the money: According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Apple was excited about promoting Missing Richard Simmons until it heard about the windowing strategy. They subsequently abandoned all the marketing plans for the show, those people said. But we haven’t really talked about Apple’s incentives much, have we? As I hypothesized in that Apple Charts write-up from last March, I think you could derive that from how the underlying mechanisms that facilitate the then-iTunes/now-Apple Podcast architecture: The charts are particularly biased towards new subscriptions, and to some extent interactions with the iTunes link and engagements through reviews. Which makes sense: iTunes, like Facebook and every other platform that actively benefits from keeping users within its ecosystem, is incentivized to maximize engagements. Thus, achieving half a million downloads outside iTunes won’t reward a show as much as getting that same number in iTunes — and so on. It’s always been a strange kind of coupling. Apple’s values are de facto the industry’s values, but given Cupertino’s opacity, the industry has thus far possessed comparatively little understanding of — and even less control over — what those values are, and subsequently, how they are represented to the convertible masses. And it’s clear that Apple’s incentives doesn’t necessarily align with the industry’s; unless one desires to be a serf on another’s land, this is inverse from an optimal world: one where a publisher has good control over one’s image, expressed value system, and self-knowledge.

It’s an impasse that’s long doubled as the status quo.

***

This week, I led the newsletter with news of an acquisition: Apple picking up Pop-Up Archive, the Oakland-based company that builds tools focused on transcribing, organizing, and searching audio media. As I mentioned in the write-up, I don’t have any additional insight into the terms or strategic thinking behind the move. But the implications of potential changes that comes with the pick-up are pretty clear, at least to my readership. Since Tuesday, I’ve received tons of questions and speculation from readers, as expected, but perhaps notably, a good deal of it comes with significant unease.

Among the questions articulated:

  • Have Apple’s intentions with podcasting shifted, given the Pop-Up acquisition and the in-episode analytics that are rolling out?
  • Does this signal that Apple is going to get more involved in picking and choosing winners?
  • Will Apple’s attention be focused on big ticket partnerships, and how will it cater to new entrants into the space?
  • Is this in response to Apple losing market share, and wanting to get it back?
  • Will Apple get involved in ad verification, or in any part of the ad layer?
  • How will the new analytics layer be linked to any improvements in discovery tools?
  • (Here’s one I thought was super interesting) Will Apple start testing personalized recommendations? How will that change the charts? Is that bad or good?
  • (Here’s one that I could get behind) Will Apple start appending transcriptions to episodes?

Obviously, I don’t have answers to any of this, though I am asking many if not all of the same questions.

But I am wondering if this actually changes much of the fundamental terms that defines the relationship between Apple and the industry. Prior to this moment, it may well have been the case that Apple had been losing some market share — but to who or what remains unclear to me. And this may well be a situation where Apple seeks to adjust that on two fronts: (1) to incentivize publishers to double as Apple representatives, or (2) to deepen its lead on new first touches. You could read the two major plays of 2017, the analytics roll-out and whatever may come of the acquisition, as touching on both strategic imperatives interrelatedly.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking about. Oh, and maybe some hope that Apple re-redesigns the podcast app, which I just completely abhor right now. And I’m not the only one.