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NPR’s Feed Jumble, and its Implications

On 30 April, NPR made a change to their web server caching configuration that caused the same RSS to be served for all of their feed urls. The end result of this, as they described in a statement they published on the matter, was a distribution sequence that “caused podcast apps to act as if all of our podcasts had changed their titles and added hundreds of new episodes,” and users who have enabled automatic downloads on their apps woke up to find their devices flooded with dozens of new episodes and notifications. Yikes!

The problem was quickly sorted out at the source, but the change took some time to filter through to all the various apps listeners were using to access the affected feeds. “We’re incredibly sorry for the inconvenience,” NPR said.

It’s an unfortunate fumble, but one that was swiftly resolved and apologised for. However, since there’s been so much discussion recently of the open (or indeed now sometimes closed) nature of podcast feeds, I felt this might be worth a deeper think-through. Third party apps and podcatchers pull whatever data is served to them by the feeds that they index, and that’s how users receive episodes, metadata and notifications. When a major provider like NPR has a problem like this, how does that affect a third-party/non-Apple podcast app which has no way of fixing the issue, but from a user perspective is the point of contact with the bug?

Leah Culver, co-founder and CTO for the podcast app Breaker, told me that the glitch was a big deal for them. “There’s an assumption in the open podcast ecosystem that big publishers will return reliable feeds,” she said over email. “We spent most of the evening fixing up our users’ subscriptions and sending apology emails and tweets.” This is worth remembering, I think — even though it was NPR’s technical problem, it was third party apps like Breaker that found themselves delivering at least some of the customer support around it.

Given the way podcasting currently works, i.e. largely via openly distributed feeds, apps like Breaker have no way of safeguarding against a problem like this. “There’s not much apps can do except trust that publishers are doing the right thing and potentially remove the feed URL from the platform if something goes wrong,” Culver added. “Currently, the vast majority of feeds function properly and apps are able to correctly display podcast and episode information. It’s fairly rare that major issues such as the one with NPR happen.”

Since the launch of Luminary, the conversation about where feeds are indexed, how their content is monetised, and who takes what share of any resulting responsibility has kicked up several gears. It’s worth noting that although unplanned hiccups like this are by no means the same thing, all of this now happens in what feels like a heightened and more febrile atmosphere.