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Luminary: Seven Days In

It’s been a full week since Luminary officially rolled out into the marketplace, and what a maelstrom it’s been. I’m sure many of you have been following the incremental updated as they spilled out into the open, but for the benefit of those who didn’t, let quickly recap to get us all of the same page.

When last Tuesday’s Hot Pod went out, the big headline had been the pre-launch pullouts of The Daily and Spotify’s various podcasting assets from the platform. The Verge, which broke the story, framed the move as the first overt sparks of some budding platform war. I didn’t fully share the interpretation, believing this to be more rooted in a procedural pushback over licensing and lack thereof.

Since this time last week, Luminary’s rough rollout worsened in multiple directions. To begin with, several other major podcast publishers followed the New York Times and Spotify’s lead in moving to pull their shows off the platform citing licensing issues, including The Joe Rogan Experience, Barstool Sports, and PodcastOne. (Though, again, the Times’ withdrawal is currently only limited to The Daily.)

But another node of controversy quickly emerged. On Thursday, a number of smaller and/or independently-minded podcasters — including Overcast creator Marco Arment and Mac Stories founder Federico Viticci, both prominent open publishing advocates — found that Luminary had been populating its free tier using an inappropriate technical methodology. That methodology, which involves the use of proxy servers, could send incomplete and non-IAB compliant listening data back to publishers as well as break dynamic advertising insertions. (Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton has a great overview here.)

Meanwhile, other podcasters, like The Greatest Generation’s Benjamin Ahr Harrison, had found that Luminary was altering their show notes on the platform, most notably taking out links. This is exceptionally problematic, because linking to sponsors and direct donation pages in show notes are fundamental aspects of how many podcasters, particularly smaller ones, do business. Many of those podcasters, too, joined the growing chorus of publishers requesting to be removed from the platform, ultimately broadening the arguments against Luminary’s free tier.

Luminary has since responded to the proxy server-related pushback, and subsequently said they were implementing the proper adjustments. But the company appeared to double down on its removal of show note links, citing “security concerns associated with the links.” This is a curious and questionable position, and once again, I’ll point you to another post by the dude Joshua Benton that effectively lays out why. All of that brings us to mid-Friday, which I capped off by publishing a summary-recap not unlike this one for Vulture.

The publisher withdrawals continued, among them two noteworthy additions: Stitcher and PRX. On Friday evening, Stitcher sent out an email to its network of publishing partners informing them that the company had also decided to move to pull its owned and operated shows from Luminary and that they recommended those partners to do the same. This is significant, of course, because Stitcher represents a considerable portion of the podcast industry in advertising sales and revenue efforts via Midroll Media.

When contacted for a statement, a Stitcher representative sent this over:

Stitcher has asked for its Stitcher Originals and Earwolf podcasts to be taken off the Luminary platform until we have had a meaningful discussion about how this arrangement might work. (The shows were added to the platform without our consent.) We have also offered to work on behalf of our partners – the shows we represent for advertising — to have similar discussions with Luminary for their shows. We look forward to continuing the conversation with Luminary. Our goal is always to keep our creators’ best interests at the forefront; we believe shows should be distributed on platforms where there is mutual benefit to the creator and the platform.

Note the use of the term “mutual benefit,” as the concept was featured prominently in the email to partners, which was forwarded to me by several people.

Meanwhile, at around the same time, I also came to learn that PRX, as well, had moved to pull its podcasts off the platform. In case you need a refresher, the organization has deep show portfolio that includes Radiotopia, Night Vale Presents, Gen-Z Media, The Moth, and a host of public-minded programs like Reveal and Scene on Radio.

PRX’s decision to join the withdrawing ranks is notable for several reasons, but the biggest one lies in this: as an organization, PRX has long carried out its operations based on an explicitly-cited commitment to the open ecosystem.

(At this writing, both PRX and Stitcher’s shows are still listed on the platform.)

Luminary’s abysmal launch week didn’t simply end with more publisher withdrawals. By the weekend, the startup was dealt another blow to its lead generation efforts: Apple appears to have delisted several podcast feeds belonging to several Luminary Original shows from its platform, which generally contained little more than a promo pointing listeners towards the Luminary app. Some of those podcast listings, like On Second Thought with Trevor Noah, could have been seen floating around the Apple Podcast Charts as recently as Friday afternoon.

Okay, so. Now that we’ve laid all that out, let’s think through some things.

Bad Precedent? The cascade of publisher withdrawals — at first in response to a lack of license agreements, and then eventually branching out to include allegations of technical bad behavior — illustrates, among other things, the fact that podcast publishers, as a patchwork of different constituencies, can exhibit meaningful collective power against any one particular platform should the occasion arise.

But the reality of this has unnerved some corners of the podcast community, prompting the following question to pop up here and there: does this episode of publisher withdrawals set a bad precedent for podcasting? To frame the problem in more anxious terms: what’s stopping some politically-aligned consortium of publishers from applying similar pressure to any other podcast app they’re not happy about at any point in the future?

Your mileage on this inquiry, I think, probably depends on the extent to which you buy into the justification that’s being offered by the withdrawing publishers.

There are several reasons powering different corners of the publishers withdrawals, but if there’s a common theme that threads through the whole lot, it’s a certain expectation around a notion of equal value exchange — what Stitcher articulated in its statement as “mutual benefit.” Though both camps — the ones who focus on licensing agreements, and the ones who focus on Luminary’s lack of adherence to open publishing norms — approach the notion from arguably different directions, both sides generally share a dubiousness over the fact that there is simply no guarantee Luminary, as it stands, will give back in proportional measure to what it’s taking via its free tier, whether or not it’s RSS-compliant.

Let’s dig into that concept a little more. It suggests an alignment with an environment where, should a given podcast app monetize content from the open podcast ecosystem that it does not own (whether by one-time payment or visual advertising overlay or whatever), that app should provide adequate value back to the creators of that content in specific and/or the open ecosystem more generally. In most cases, this takes the form of sending usable analytics back to the creator (something that Luminary had stumbled on) and/or growing that creator’s audiences over the longer term. In other words, it’s the difference between mutualism and parasitism.

When phrased in these terms, you can rephrase much of what we’re talking about to a finer point: many withdrawing publishers are working off a concern that Luminary is engaged in a parasitic long game, given its apparent strategy of using their open content via a free tier to drive its closed subscription-first business model (which will only bring value to itself on a platform-level), its commitment to the Netflix analogy, and its $100 million worth of venture capital motivation.

To be fair, it may well be the case that Luminary genuinely means well and/or intends to truly engage in a “rising tides raise all boats” framework. But for one reason or another — particularly the use of inappropriate technical methodology to populate its free tier and the way Luminary has handled the push-back in real time over the past week — the company has just compelled many podcasters to become severely wary of it. (I’m still hearing from people who simply do not trust Luminary, believing them to lack a fundamental level of transparency.) The push-back, then, along with the demand for formal licensing agreements, can be seen as defensive measures by some publishers to ensure some equal value exchange, should Luminary go on to build the future it wants using content it does own.

Whether or not you buy any of that justification is up to you. For what it’s worth, I generally don’t there has or ever will be anything to stop any one entity or coalition from attempting to pressure any one podcast platform that they might not agree with, and that’s just the reality of how power works. It’s just that, up to this point, podcasting has largely conducted itself in accordance to the spirit of open publishing, and this is powered by the fact that there hasn’t before been a single entity or coalition strong and/or motivated enough to attempt such a pressure campaign. Until now, perhaps.

(Before you say it, I’ll address the two exceptions: the first being Apple, whose defining oddity as a neutral ward in many ways allowed podcasting to flourish to begin with; and the second being a seemingly similar debacle that surrounded early Stitcher years ago, when considerable corners of the podcast community took issue with the app’s technical methodology around distribution. The key difference there is that, unlike Luminary, Stitcher’s primary business model revolves around its ability to distribute other podcasts — Stitcher Premium came much later, and to this day remains a secondary concern — which, I think, structurally incentivized Stitcher to ultimately adhere to the demands of open publishing.)

Sounds depressing, no? I don’t know what to tell ya, other than to raise the question: will the spirit of open publishing, or at the very least good conduct, have enough political appeal and advocate to the strength of its norms over the long term?

Some final notes… Before I move off this topic, I just want to get a couple of things on how I’m reading this story — which has proven to be a political lightning rod that’s crumpled a bunch of different narratives together — just so we’re clear:

  • I don’t think this story has said anything at all about whether a paid “premium” podcasting platform can be successful or whether people will pay for podcasts.
  • Rather, as it stands, the Luminary story is almost completely about a superbly bungled roll-out, which comes on top of what appears to be a monumental failure in proper outreach to almost every aspect of the podcast community — from the independents to the open publishing advocates to the bigger publishers and so on.
  • Despite its horrific first week, I’m in no position to say anything about Luminary’s success over the long term. The way I see it, there remains more than a few lanes through which Luminary can move forward and go about its business, and I imagine a $100 million war chest can buy you at least a few more rounds at the rodeo.
  • I just wanted to say this again, because I really do believe it: all of this, I think, could have been avoided if Luminary simply ditched its free tier and completely committed to its actual hypothesis all along — will people pay for a suite of exclusive “premium” podcasts?

Okay, that’s all I’ll say for now, unless another major development pops up.