The open podcast ecosystem is dying — here’s how to save it.

It’s time to compete. Not complain.

Years from now, we’ll look back on this week's exclusivity agreement between Spotify and Joe Rogan as a turning point for podcasting. 

Most likely, this deal will come to symbolize the moment when the open, RSS-based podcast ecosystem began to collapse. It’s a nightmare scenario for people like Overcast’s founder Marco Arment who depend on open podcasting.

There’s no better quote that captures the mood in the industry than this one, from Nick Quah of Hot Pod:

“Shortly after the news dropped, the chief executive of a major podcast company texted me, ‘Game, set, match.’ It’s hard to really argue against the sentiment at this point, frankly.”

But, remote as the chance may seem, there’s still another possibility. Years from now, we could look back on this week as the moment the open podcast ecosystem finally got its act together and decided to compete.

I’m writing this as a fan of the RSS-based world — an extremely frustrated fan. Unlike most open podcast advocates, I don’t hate Spotify at all. I don’t think they’re an evil juggernaut trying to screw over indie content creators. I actually think they’re doing good for the industry. (In full disclosure, I used to work for Gimlet, which was acquired by Spotify, but I don’t have a relationship or financial interest in either company anymore.)

But — I also value a world where there’s a thriving open ecosystem alongside integrated players like Spotify. I don’t want the industry to become totally dominated by one or two big companies, like it is in search and social. And in fact, I think I see a path to get there.

But before I go into the things the open podcast world can do to compete, it’s worth defining what “open podcasting” even means, and why people value it. 

Here’s my understanding:

  • A podcast is considered “open” if it publishes an RSS feed on a URL that conforms to the standard that most podcast apps expect. (This includes free and paid, password-protected URLs.)
  • A podcast listening app is open if it reads from these RSS feeds, allows users to add their own feed URLs, and plays content directly from the publisher’s server, rather than re-hosting audio files.

These may seem like obscure technical details, but people care about them because, if abided by, they prevent any one company from having too much control over the podcast industry. The technical architecture of the open world allows anyone to create a new podcast, and anyone to create a new podcast app. (The same way anyone can create a new website, or web browser.)

Here’s how Marco Arment, the guy with the angry tweet, explained it four years ago: 

“[Podcasting is] completely decentralized, free, fair, open, and uncontrollable by any single entity, as long as the ecosystem of podcast-player apps remains diverse enough that no app can dictate arbitrary terms to publishers (the way Facebook now effectively controls the web publishing industry).”

The fear is that a centralized platform like Spotify or Apple would exert their control in ways that make life worse for podcast creators.

“What could they do that would be so bad?” you might ask. Well, here are a couple examples: 

  • They could overload a bunch of annoying ads you can’t skip into every episode.
  • They could make it difficult for individual podcasters to sell ads directly to brands, the same way Facebook and Google made it difficult for individual websites to sell their own ads. This could transfer power from podcasters to ad networks, and reduce podcaster earnings.
  • They could make it difficult to offer a paid subscription podcast, because nobody wants to deal with multiple podcast apps, and if your main app doesn’t include a way to subscribe to creators, then creators are screwed.
  • Worse, they could make it easy to offer a paid subscription podcast, but take a huge cut of creator earnings and stand between you and your audience.

This isn’t some theoretical concern. All of it is already true in the video ecosystem that’s grown around YouTube, and the text ecosystem that’s grown up around Facebook. If you play their game, you can get a huge audience. But it’s a pain to monetize it, and you are totally dependent on the platform to access those users. This is why podcasters are freaking out.

As with everything else in business, this isn’t really about money. It’s about power. And in the case of Spotify vs the Open Podcast Ecosystem, we’re witnessing a struggle that’s not between two opposing companies, but instead is between two opposing value chains with two different architectures.

On the left, you have the open podcasting ecosystem with a modular architecture. No one has much influence or control. It’s all based on a standard RSS format that nobody owns.

On the right, you have Spotify, with an integrated architecture. Podcasters submit their work directly to Spotify, some magic happens, and listeners stream it directly on their Spotify app. There is just one layer between creator and consumer, and that layer has a decent amount of power to introduce innovations.

In the open podcast world, on the other hand, it’s really hard to change anything. Which is kind of the point, but it’s also a huge problem. It keeps the user experience stuck in time, which leaves the ecosystem vulnerable to integrated players like Spotify that can create a better end-to-end experience.

As an analogy, consider YouTube. What if they didn’t have the power to do stuff like let creators add cover art, or create playlists, or recommend other channels they enjoy? What if they couldn’t guarantee a fast and secure video payload, because they relied on an assortment of 3rd party video hosts with varying degrees of competence? What if they couldn’t share viewing data with creators, because they had no direct relationship with them?

It’s not complicated: YouTube would be a lot smaller.

These kinds of optimizations can stack up to make a big difference. Because Spotify is the only player with scale and end-to-end control of everything that happens between podcast creators and listeners, there’s a lot of problems they’re in a good position to solve. But I also think many of these could be solved in an open way.

For example, here are some of the problems with podcasting today:

  • It sucks that podcasts can’t create playlists of their episodes. It’d make it a lot easier to navigate their back catalog.
  • There’s no way for podcasts to link to other podcasts or specific episodes. You can link to the webpage, but there’s no link that will jump you directly to another show or episode inside the app you’re using. This adds a lot of friction to cross-promotion.
  • Podcast assets are currently really janky. You get a square cover art, and a title and a description, and that’s it. No extended “about” page, no recommended episodes to start with, no cover photo, even.
  • There’s no way for podcasters to go live or interact with listeners in any way. Clubhouse gives us a pretty strong hint this is something people might want.
  • Advertisers have no way of targeting the kind of listener they want to reach other than by picking specific shows. Compared to Facebook, this is practically neolithic.
  • Advertisers have no clue how many actual humans listened to their ad, or what the demographics of those people are. So brand advertisers especially are reluctant to commit big budgets.
  • There’s no way for a podcast to create a “trailer” for each episode, to help users decide if they want to listen.
  • There’s no good algorithmic suggestions for podcasts I might like, given my previous listening activity. This is a huge driver for YouTube and it’s hard to see why that wouldn’t also be useful in podcasting.

These are the kinds of problems you can only solve with some coordination between different layers of the value chain that, in the open ecosystem, are not currently coordinating. Everything you can do as an individual podcaster, hosting provider, or listening app that doesn’t require coordination is pretty much “good enough” now. “Smart Speed 5” is not going to move the needle.

Improving along the new basis of competition requires greater integration.

It wouldn’t be that hard for Spotify to build these kinds of features, because they control the experience end-to-end. They own some of the most popular podcasts, influence many more, and control the hosting and listening software entirely.

If the open podcast ecosystem wants to compete, they have to figure out a way to implement ideas like these. They cannot stay stuck in the status quo. This currently feels impossible, but fortunately, they have a good example to look up to: the web.

Back in the late 90’s, webpages were very different than they are now. CSS was barely a thing. JavaScript was totally different. There were no advanced technologies like WebGL and websockets. If you wanted the best user experience, you had to use a proprietary system like Flash.

But, eventually, the W3C and companies like Apple and Google got their act together, and the open web caught up. The web standards movement won. 

Of course, we still ended up with Google and Facebook dominating a lot of the advertising business on the web. But there’s a healthy, open web ecosystem that both companies still contribute to. We’re not living in a world that has to comply with a standard controlled by Microsoft or Adobe.

Why couldn’t the same thing happen in podcasting? I think it totally could. It just requires the open podcast ecosystem to get off their ass and build new standards.

Apps like Overcast and Apple Podcasts should build new capabilities to support the user experience and monetization of podcasts if they want to remain competitive with Spotify. This means embracing new ideas (like I listed above) and designing them in an open way.

A perfect example of this is the emerging “payment button” standard. If there is some way to support a podcast financially, and you include a URL in an episode’s show notes with rel=”payment” in the HTML, then Overcast will display a little button that hopefully increases your conversion rate. But nobody seems to know about this or use this, I think mostly due to lack of coordination with podcast hosting companies. How many of them make it obvious for podcasters that this is possible? Not many.

Another fascinating example is an initiative from NPR called Remote Audio Data (RAD). People in the industry have known about this for years, but nobody has cared enough to implement it. The basic idea is that publishers can use MP3 metadata to tell podcast apps what timestamps the ads are at, and give the podcast app a URL to ping when a user listens to that ad. It’s a tiny step that sacrifices very little user privacy, and unlocks a whole new level of monetization opportunity from brand advertisers within the open podcast ecosystem.

Instead of complaining about Spotify or policing the use of the word “podcast”, it’s time for advocates of open podcasting to, uh, build :) The onus is on leading open apps like Overcast, hosts like Megaphone, and publishers like NPR to collaborate and create new standards that make the experience better for listeners, creators, and advertisers. 

If I were someone like Marco Arment, I’d immediately schedule a meeting with the founders of all the top indie podcast apps, podcast hosts, and podcast networks, and form a new standards body. If at all possible, I’d run it through W3C — the body that governs web standards. At the first meeting, I’d develop a roadmap for experimental new RSS features like allowing podcasters to create playlists of episodes, enabling RAD for advertisers, and making paid subscription podcasts easier. And then I’d start building. I’d publish my implementations of these standards as open source where I can, to enable others to build faster. I’d make sure my podcast and all podcasts within my sphere of influence used these new standards, and I’d coordinate with hosting companies to make sure they gain broader adoption from podcasters.

If just one big player like Overcast is aggressive and leads the way, others will follow. Apple might even follow! And the tide could turn.

But, the way things are heading now, I’m afraid nothing will change, and it will be as if Adobe won the internet and we all had to write our websites in Flash.

Nobody wants this. I don’t even think Spotify wants this. But if the open podcast ecosystem wants to survive, it will have to compete.

What do you think?

Do you agree that open podcasting needs to build? Hit the “like” button and leave a comment. Do you see things differently? Well then, definitely leave a comment! I would love to hear from you.

Learn more about the strategy framework that this post relies on

They were inspired by an extremely powerful and underrated idea from Clay Christensen called “The Law of Conservation of Modularity.” Anyone can read an extended preview of my explainer of that idea here, and Divinations Premium members can access the full thing here.

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