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Quality Control: Apple Podcasts and Persistent Technical Issues

Over the past week, we’ve received a noticeable spike in reader emails complaining about problems regarding the Apple Podcasts platform — specifically, around irregularities in the time it takes between uploading episodes and seeing those episodes appear on the Apple Podcasts directory… which, you know, is an important variable when managing a business contingent on moving product.

At least some of these messages were prompted by the latest edition of a newsletter Apple sends out to individuals who’ve submitted a podcast feed in the past, which contained a section that read: “Apple routinely checks each podcast RSS feed to detect new episodes as well as metadata or artwork changes. Our system will display these changes on Apple Podcasts within 24 hours after detecting them.” The “within 24 hours” phrasing was cited as a vexing hedge, given the deep implication in that variability. One reader, who manages a daily podcast, expressed anxiety over the uncertainty this can bring to their production. But the aggregate response to that Apple email appears to be the tip of an ice-berg; a good deal of these reader emails also note that they’ve been experiencing this sort of problem for some time now.

This is a pretty tricky column to write, because when it comes to Apple Podcasts — notoriously a black box — it can be hard to get a full sense (and thus, the underlying reality) of any problem pertaining to the platform. This quality is sharply expressed in the messages we received, which describe a wide range of detail while sharing the same general dysfunction. One said episodes took 48 hours to appear on the Apple Podcast listings, while a few others cited longer latencies. Some noted that they began experiencing the issue since mid-January, while others claim it’s been happening as far back as the fall. Some others pointed out an additional difficulty, one that’s believed to be long-standing, where episode updates are thought to happen more slowly with non-subscribers of a feed compared to subscribers, which makes it harder for the podcast publisher to get a clear sense of whether an upload was successful.

At least some of these readers feel like they weren’t able to get an adequate response, explanation, or acknowledgment from the Apple Podcasts team when they tried to inquire about their situations. And for what it’s worth, Apple declined to comment for this column.

Historically, my temptation with a story like this is to explain it away as yet another quirk of Apple Podcasting. Something that can be easily grouped with, say, the opacity and volatility of the charts, or the trustworthiness of the ratings and reviews system. Reality has always been slippery within the Apple Podcasts context — though, I suppose, this tenet also applies to internet platforms more generally — and so when I hear about something like this, my gut reaction is to think, “Well, that’s just Apple, their mediation of the podcast space has always been kinda weird.”

But such weirdness feels ever more untenable in what has been a rapidly changing podcast context, fueled in large part by increased monetary stakes and the specific increase in platform competition by Spotify. Indeed, it’s getting harder to swallow the continued persistence of these technical oddities in the face of any discussion about Spotify vs Apple “rivalry,” any speculation around some “grand strategy” governing Apple’s reported interest in original programming, and any consideration of what appears to be an actual tangible push to expand the Apple Podcasts team. (At this writing, active podcast-specific job postings currently include: a server engineer, a business planner, two product designers, a head of partner relations, a data scientist, an iOS engineer, and a marketing project manager.)

This can’t possibly hold, can it? Something’s gotta change, or something’s gotta give.