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Tracking: March 1, 2019

Confusion over an Apple Podcast Update, a substantial upheaval in UK radio, and more.

(1) Apple set plenty of podcasters a-flutter with an email update that went out on 27 February. It included new guidelines for how to “Optimize Your Show’s Metadata”, and warned that “poor-quality podcast metadata” could affect both new feed submissions and existing shows currently appearing in Apple Podcasts. The particular examples they cite to avoid include avoiding placeholder text, “irrelevant content or spam”, and — most alarmingly in some quarters — episode numbers. “These practices could result in your show being rejected or removed from Apple Podcasts,” says the email, which then goes on to unveil a new process for resubmitting rejected feeds through the Podcasts Connect tool.

A lot of podcasters, some with hundreds of numbered episodes on their feeds, started wondering aloud on Twitter and Facebook about whether they would need to reformat all their metadata in order to avoid removal from Apple Podcasts. The platform clearly got a lot of questions about this, because on 28 February they sent a further email update, making clear that “Your Show Won’t Be Removed for Having Episode Numbers in Episode Titles” but still urging podcasters to use Apple’s series and episode tags rather than putting that information in the title.

This is all an interesting development to the ongoing attempts by Apple to remove feeds with spam-like or keyword-heavy descriptions — I’ve seen dozens of examples of podcasters saying their feeds were pulled from Apple Podcasts and then allowed back in once the offending metadata had been removed. Apple has so far chosen to run Apple Podcasts as an open-access platform, with anyone able to submit a feed and (aside from guidelines about copyright and illegality) list their show, and as a result it’s always been home to the whole spectrum of stuff from the highly produced professional show to the SEO-heavy spamfest. (Sidenote: I personally think that if more fields were searchable on Apple Podcasts, people would be less in love with including keywords in those that are. But that’s just my opinion.) Overall, Apple has traditionally been relatively hands-off about the podcasts they showcase, and that’s part of what’s enabled podcasting to develop as it has.

As we’ve been covering the Spotify-Gimlet-Anchor story in the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly wondered how Apple might respond to other platforms getting into podcasting in a big way. This clean-up strategy has been running for months already, but this looks a lot like a signal that it’s going to intensify, and I wonder if that’s part of an effort to prune the overgrown podcasting jungle into a slightly aesthetically pleasing shape.

(2) A substantial upheaval in UK commercial radio occurred this week, when major player Global announced the cancellation and merger of dozens of local and regional breakfast shows. The Capital, Heart and Smooth stations are all to get national network morning shows, replacing the current arrangement of 40+ locally made programmes, and a lot of evening and weekend shows will go too. Ten of the 24 dedicated Global studios around the country will close, and it’s expected that it will mean a lot of journalists, presenters and engineers will lose their jobs. Stuart Clarkson has done some estimates for RadioToday, and his piece makes for grim reading. The key part:

“[This] news could prompt some of the biggest changes commercial radio has ever seen in terms of staffing numbers. Analysis by RadioToday suggests Global’s changes to Heart, Capital and Smooth could result in a reduction of more than 95 presenters as licences take 21 hours a day of programmes from London (including breakfast) and the remaining ‘local’ shows are consolidated across bigger areas.”

It’s a regulatory change that has empowered Global to make these cuts to local radio provision. In 2018, Ofcom lifted the requirement for local radio stations to produce their own breakfast show (usually considered the flagship programme and often the most popular with listeners) and reduced the mandated minimum number of daytime hours of locally-produced radio from seven to three. Stations must still deliver news with a strong local element, but there’s nothing preventing that being created in a newsroom hundreds of miles away — in London, for instance. Current news teams could even be enlarged as part of “refreshed structures”, according to Press Gazette. Other commercial radio groups like Bauer will also now be eyeing the potential of networking shows, of course.

As well as the job losses at Global, which will affect lots of people who do great work making audio for their communities, this looks like a major shift in the way commercial radio works in the UK. Global argues that the regulatory system that protected local commercial radio was designed for a pre-internet era. There’s been a spate of investment in the sector recently, most visibly with Rupert Murdoch’s big-name acquisitions at the Wireless Group, but the interest is all at the national level. I grew up with the eccentric jingles of local businesses constantly floating around my head because of their regular spots on my local commercial station, but that kind of advertising is on the wane. A more centralised, London-centric style of broadcasting might make business sense, but it does feel like it will leave a cultural gap as the idiosyncrasies of particular areas no longer get any time on the airwaves. I’m also sceptical about how good local news coverage can be when studios around the country are closing — there’s no substitute for getting someone on the spot with a mic when a big story breaks, and that will be much harder to do once journalists are relocated.

Of course, the BBC will still provide local radio stations. As I have written about before, there are some at the corporation seeking to do really interesting things with the output of these local and regional stations, such as Becca Bryers’ Multi Story podcast feed, which I thought was a great example of how traditional local radio could interact with new formats and listeners. I can only hope that there’s more of that kind of thing to come, given what will be lost as these studios and stations are shuttered during the course of 2019.

(3) On a related note, Spotify just launched in India. The app’s got a load of geo-specific features, including language support for Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu and locally-curated playlists. Also, interestingly, the Indian version currently has the ability for free users to pick and play any song on demand, rather than having to shuffle through playlists as you do elsewhere. Whether that’s just an introductory extra to get people to download or a long-term feature isn’t clear. Related: if you know a lot about the podcast scene in India, hit me up, I want to learn more.

(4) Finally, a question from an MP in the UK parliament has revealed the download figures for the “Local to Global” podcast that I wrote about in the Insider of January 19. This six-part podcast, you will remember, was commissioned by the Department for International Trade (DIT) via Acast as part of the government’s “Exporting is GREAT” information campaign for business owners, and a completely bizarre thing to launch in the midst of Brexit negotiation stalemate when nobody has any idea how the UK will do any trade after 29 March.

The downside of using public money for something like this is that the impact has to be accounted for transparently. In response to a question about how many downloads this series had actually seen, Trade Minister Graham Stuart said: “As of 10am on the 22nd of February there have been a total of 8,398 downloads/listens of the ‘Local to Global’ podcast.” The Daily Mirror newspaper has worked out that since the budget for the series was £107,000, it cost each UK taxpayer £12.70 per listen. Which. . . doesn’t seem great. Another MP has already condemned it as “vanity project” and “a complete waste of money.”

When I wrote about the series in January, the DIT spokesperson told me that “When looking into producing this series, we determined that it would represent good value and was a good use of public money.” I wonder how they feel about it now.