Issue 273,  published September 8, 2020

Rich Text

At least as far back as the earliest iteration of Acast, when it sought to be a mere fancy listening app, there’s long been some belief by certain corners of the community that podcasting would eventually evolve to incorporate other media into its default experience. Sometimes, this idea would take the form of layering text or visual elements onto the listening flow to immediately provide audiences with additional context for whatever is being discussed in a given episode. Other times, the idea is simply rooted in advertising imperatives, like embedded a “Buy” button somewhere in the listening app to radically reduce the distance between someone hearing an ad and acting on the call-to-action.

But the essential problem with these ideas is that realizing them involves having some control over the podcast apps that listeners are using to consume shows. Specifically, if you wanted to make this brand of fetch happen, you’d typically have to do so by making your own app where you could build in the features that support this new way of listening, because there’s likely very little you can do to get Apple Podcasts to build those features themselves. And if you were to try and build that app by yourself, the challenge that comes after lies in the fact that you actually have to get people to download and use said app, which is a really hard thing to do these days. (Just ask Luminary or Quibi.)

Because of this challenge, the dream of “rich media podcasting” was largely stagnant for a long while, stuck in place with no viable path forward. Things are marginally different these days, particularly since Spotify decided to toss its hat into the video ring once again with its bet on “vodcasting” that could theoretically open up a pathway to combine and consolidate a given podcast’s audio and YouTube audiences.

It’s still too early to discern whether that particular gambit will work, but very soon, we’ll see an experiment by another company that gestures towards these questions of “post-audio podcasting.” Curiously enough, that other company happens to be Apple.

Next Tuesday, the book publisher Macmillan will launch a new project that involves a significant collaboration with Apple across its ecosystem of services. Called “Driving the Green Book,” the project will primarily take the form of a living history podcast featuring the broadcaster Alvin Hall and the activist Janée Woods Weber as they drive from Detroit to New Orlean to retrace the path laid out by the titular historical resource that was made to help Black Americans travel safely and with dignity across the country during the height of segregation. In what is being billed as a first, the podcast will take advantage of the new Guides feature that recently rolled out on Apple Maps — which provides users with recommendations on places to visit and things to do in a specific place — by delivering in-app content tied to the material discussed in the show. The podcast is also being adapted as a book to be published by Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, which will probably involve further collaboration with the Apple Books service as well.

Macmillan, of course, is no stranger to podcasts. It was perhaps the very first book publisher to seriously take up a position in the podcast ecosystem when it forged a partnership with Mignon Fogarty’s Quick and Dirty Tips network in the late 2000s, and it has since steadily built out a vibrant in-house podcast publishing division. For Macmillan, the potential here is rooted in the possibility of building a bridge between books and on-demand audio that goes deeper than mere audio books. This project appears to be yet another expression of that on-going enterprise.

I should that this piece of news is also noteworthy for the Apple of it all. Now that the whole story about Apple getting into original podcast production largely turned out to be a situation where Apple is building marketing products to support its original content efforts in other media businesses — most notably, Apple TV+ and Apple Music — this specific development can perhaps be interpreted through that lens. This Macmillan-Apple collaboration, then, seems to be a fascinating piece of co-marketing more than anything else.

That said, it does make me a little more interested in the notion of “rich media podcasting” than I was before. As a fan of the now-defunct Detour augmented walking tour app, I have my own notions about the appeal of using podcasts as a component of a larger augmented reality tool, and I kinda hope that we’ll see more of this stuff in the future.

I run this thing.