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The Remote Audio Initiative (RAD) Initiative is now live

A group of podcast companies and publishers, led by NPR, have officially begun rolling out their gambit to usher podcasting towards a "true" listening metric.

After almost a year of organizing and development, a group of podcast companies and publishers, led by NPR, have publicly announced the rollout of the Remote Audio Data (RAD) Initiative, what they’re describing as an open-source technology standard that’s meant to help shift podcasting’s measurement paradigm from downloads towards a “true” listening metric.

Here are the key things you need to know about the rollout:

  • Companies that have committed to implementing the new standard include: Acast, AdsWizz, ART19, Awesound, Blubrry Podcasting, Panoply, Omny Studio, Podtrac, PRI/PRX, RadioPublic, Triton Digital, WideOrbit, Whooshkaa.
  • Companies that have supported and helped advance the standards include: Cadence13, Edison Research, ESPN, Google, iHeartMedia, Libsyn, The New York Times, New York Public Radio, Voxnest, Wondery.
  • According to the accompanying blog post, the standards were developed with particular emphasis “on security and data integrity, with the goal of keeping user privacy and measurement goals in alignment.”

If, for some reason, you still need a primer on the significance and context around an industry shift from downloads to listens, I highly recommend going back over last Tuesday’s column on the new Apple podcast analytics and its impact a year later.

But to break it out here:

  • The podcast industry has historically conducted its business — editorially and commercially — on the basis of the download, which is considered a relatively crude metric in the current digital world: a download tells you whether an episode was sent over to a podcast app, but it doesn’t tell you whether that episode was actually consumed. In an age where fairly granular consumption data points are table stakes, this gives podcasting a reputation of being a little hard to feel super good about.
  • Download standardization has substantially improved throughout the podcast industry; many have credited this development to efforts by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in publishing centralizing guidelines. But there remains strong belief among considerable portions of the podcast community that brand advertisers, and more meaningful advertising dollars, won’t enter the space until it is able to provide better metrics — particularly, metrics beyond the crude download. There is also an associated desire for better analytics to reap better editorial insights.
  • It should also be noted, though, that there is also a strong counter-belief in other corners that it is the medium’s very crudeness that’s allowed it to remain relatively decentralized, and subsequently, remain one of the few publishing spots in the digital world that hasn’t been ruined or closed up by aggressive corporate control, invasive user tracking practices, and other such wacky capitalistic hijinks.
  • There is also another pulsing counter-argument: that the industry had already been able to reliably and substantially grow under the download paradigm. This was something I heard from a few podcast industry folks after the RAD announcement came out yesterday afternoon, and I thought the argument was interesting. Generally speaking, they raised the following point: there is broad agreement, hard-fought nowadays that podcast advertising works, and a staggered and/or clumsy shift towards a “listen” paradigm is going to raise hard questions and/or complicate the narrative is such a way that could be deleterious for way too many people for way too long before the benefits can be enjoyed by everybody.

So that’s the big picture. With all that in mind:

I poked around yesterday for good analysis on the actual technical aspects of the thing — not my strong suit, frankly — and found this blog post, from Ben Werdmuller at Matter, fairly useful. One thing he flagged that struck me as important: What’s not listed in the spec is a standard way to disclose to the listener that their analytics are being shared. This may fall afoul of GDPR and similar legislation if not handled properly; to be honest, I’d hope that any ethical podcast player would ask permission to send this information, giving me the opportunity to tell it not to. Still, at least in the five minutes that everyone isn’t sending their listening data to be processed by Google Analytics, this is an order of magnitude better than using Apple as a clearinghouse. For what it’s worth, I don’t really have a strong take on RAD — hey, I’m no Stephen A. Smith — other than to say, this is really one of those things that matters more in the execution than in the theory. And so I figured I’d reach out to Bryan Moffett, the Chief Operating Officer at National Public Media, who is pretty involved in the leadership of this thing.

Q&A with Bryan Moffett, COO of National Public Media. This email exchange took place across December 11, 2018, in case that’s useful context for you.

HP: I think I have a good sense of what RAD is and is meant to do, but could give me the elevator pitch on the technology?

Moffett: Remote Audio Data allows publishers to securely and anonymously get information about if/how people listen to their podcasts, while protecting user privacy. Right now, the only universal information publishers get is whether a file was downloaded. Some tools like Apple Analytics, or publisher-owned apps, can give publishers insights into how segments of the audience listen to that downloaded content, but there’s no way to understand that across all the places podcasts are available.

The best analogy I can think of is running a restaurant. I could run a decent restaurant simply by keeping track of what stuff gets ordered from the menu. I know what items interested customers, and what sounded good from a menu of options. But unless I’m also keeping tabs on the plates that come back into the kitchen, I don’t know if people actually ate what they ordered, or if they took a bite and decided it was no good. Downloads let me see what people order. Listening data lets me understand the whole picture better. And I don’t need to know anything about the specific customers to get that extra value.

As a publisher, NPR has learned tremendous insights from anonymous listening data. It’s helped us make better shows, make smarter distribution decisions, and know where to spend our limited time and energy for the most benefit. And of course, for our sponsors, knowing that their sponsorships were not only downloaded, but actually played, has a lot of value.

HP: In my mind, the effectiveness of RAD is contingent on (a) a critical mass of podcast companies accepting its analytics picture, and (b) a critical mass of advertisers also accepting that picture. Is that the right way to read this?

Moffett: That’s accurate. Dozens of companies have participated in discussing the initial RAD spec, and worked to make the required effort as small as possible. And user privacy is a core principle of RAD. My hope is all that effort, the freely available Software Development Kits (SDK), and the obvious commitment from the biggest podcast infrastructure companies will encourage fast publisher and platform adoption. That all has to happen first. The benefits to podcast advertisers come after that, and I think those will be an overall benefit to the industry.

HP: In your mind, what are the biggest hurdles right now?

Moffett: We’ve actually already gotten over the biggest hurdle of all – that is we have gotten more than a dozen of the largest players in podcasting to agree on implanting one standard in the coming year, and another group of the largest players including Google, IHeartMedia, New York Public Radio and the NYTimes to support the effort. Technologically, I don’t really think there are significant hurdles. If people look at the spec and work required, it’s fairly easy. NPR has done it. Others have committed.

I think some people misinterpret what we’re trying to accomplish here, and that some worry RAD will be tracking users in a way that’s unacceptable. RAD has never been about identifying WHO listened. The spec does not allow for that, and NPR would never support that.

For those who ask why publishers need this data, it’s fairly simple. Publishers spend a lot of time, effort and money producing these shows, and pay substantial storage and bandwidth costs to make them available for free via the multitude of podcast apps out there. And it’s worth noting, many of those podcasts apps have built business models around delivering that free content that publishers create and also pay the distribution costs for. The listen is the payoff — it tells us all that work and effort had an impact. The download alone doesn’t necessarily tell us that.

And another core principle is that this is publisher data – not public data; it should come right back to the publisher for security and to preserve the value for the publisher – not just the podcast app. Obviously, we need broad adoption from the biggest podcast playback platforms. They know that. We know that. I don’t think the barriers are too high, and RAD has been developed with everyone’s concerns in mind.

HP: What are the immediate next steps for RAD?

Moffett: Because of the importance of podcasting to NPR, we took it as our mission to pursue a missing piece of the analytics puzzle. We spent a year working with others in the industry and testing in our own apps. We now want more people involved. There’s already a large number of companies either committed to deploying RAD in 2019, or actively following it. The more, the better. And in fact, after today’s announcement, we heard from a few more folks who want to be involved. RAD is an open specification and it needs to work for everyone. If you own a podcast app, please check out the spec and SDKs and provide your feedback, if you see any roadblocks. If you’re a publisher, check it out and let us know what you think. A lot of people have pushed RAD to this point, so there has been broad consensus that it’s one possible path forward. The more the better.

HP: In, say, a year from now, how will we know if RAD has been effective?

Moffett: The evolution of the download over the past five or so years has been a great success for the industry. We now have a common definition. I think if by some time in 2020, I can get RAD-like data from 85% of the places where NPR’s podcasts are played, this will have been a success, and we’ll have a much more valuable way of understanding how our podcasts and on-demand audio are serving our mission with listeners. We’ll create even better programming, and more people will listen.