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On Podcast Apps

Around the same time the newsletter went out on Tuesday, Fast Company published a piece by Glenn Fleishman — veteran tech journalist and a podcaster himself, via The New Disruptors — that, similarly, sought to sketch out likely pathways into the future for podcast apps. And it seems we were thinking about the same things.

I wrote Tuesday’s Spotify column, basically, as a concession. To show the sausage-making a little bit, I had spent much of the previous week trying to think through the remaining pathways for third-party podcast apps, in part by threading together a survey about non-Apple non-Google non-music streaming platforms podcast listening apps that are spread across the smartphone universe: Overcast, of course, but also RadioPublic, Breaker, the upcoming Luminary, Stitcher Basic and Premium, Pocket Casts, Castro, something called Himalaya, that quirky thing called Wilson that I wrote about a while back, and NPR One as well, I suppose, among others.

(Audible, by the way, continues to factor into my thinking about the competitive spread of podcast apps despite the breakup between the audiobook Kraken and podcast-style original long-form audio, in large part because I persist in viewing all forms of on-demand audio as attached to the same listening pie.)

I was trying think through the following: has the plight of third-party podcast apps weakened over the years, between the steady march of preexisting platforms like Spotify/Pandora and the continued centrality of Apple Podcasts, and to what extent? Put it another way: if I built a new podcast app and brought it into market in the year of our lord 2019, what are the chances it’ll become a growing, or at the very least viable, business?

And you know what? I don’t really have a gut feel on this. I went into the research process thinking that prospects are pretty slim, but then I started thinking about how the podcast business feels really rigid right now — particularly in its emphasis on advertising, and the fixation on the way it’s currently bought and sold — and then I started thinking about how a lot of things either feel the same or that they simply haven’t changed very much, in the fundamentals, over the past few years, and how all that lack of dynamism tends to engender an environment that’s open to invasion. Problem was, I couldn’t think of how I’d invade this environment.

So I punted on that column, and decided to write about Spotify instead. Turns out, though, that maybe something was in the air with the whole podcast app thing. Around the same time the newsletter went out on Tuesday, Fast Company published a piece by Glenn Fleishman — veteran tech journalist and a podcaster himself, via The New Disruptors — that, similarly, sought to sketch out likely pathways into the future for podcast apps. And it seems we were thinking about the same things:

Counting advertising alone misses an important and growing part of podcast revenue, however. Other forms of income come from paid content that’s either charged as a premium or included as part of a subscription. This money is collected by companies as varied as Audible, Spotify, and Stitcher. They don’t disclose details about the income they receive that is solely attributable to selling podcast content, but some observers believe it could reach billions in a few years, based on rapidly growing demand.

Note the focus on direct revenue; not just in terms of a “Netflix for Podcasting” straight-up paywalled garden construct, but also, the possibility for direct contributions.

One other thing. Midway through the piece, Fleishman raised the idea of a structural podcasting “monoculture”:

For all the benefits of Apple’s support of podcasts, its dominance has led to an advertising monoculture. Podcasters couldn’t charge directly for episodes or shows, and couldn’t assemble rigorous information about listenership or, critically, how long into a podcast people listened before dropping off or whether they skipped over ads. Advertisers on terrestrial and satellite radio rely in part in listening data collected by Nielsen’s tracking systems.

In this monoculture, “host-read ads” leapt to the fore. A throwback to old-time radio, they involve the podcast’s host reading ad copy – often improvising a bit or speaking from personal experience – in the same natural cadence of the rest of the show.

None of this is particularly new for the Hot Pod readership, though I’m fascinated by the whole “culture falls from structure” aspect of this discussion — i.e. the culture of podcast monetization being fully determined by the structure of Apple’s analytics, which de facto is the structure of podcast analytics given Apple’s still-understood majority facilitation of the space — if only because it’s slightly more elegant way to talk about what most of us have known viscerally for a long time.