Why Apple Needs to Fix Its Podcast Problem

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Apple treats podcasting like an unwanted stepchild. 

I think this is a huge missed opportunity for Apple — and for audio and video content creators.

Here’s what Apple is doing wrong, and how they could do it right. 

Apple is famous for re-thinking content consumption from the ground up, for rejecting knee-jerk assumptions about how things are supposed to work.

Apple has a powerful instinct in its DNA for blank-slate thinking.

One example comes from the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs. In that book, Jobs’ wife Laurene recalls why it took the Jobs family eight years to choose a sofa. She said: “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’”

Jobs’ idea was not to just go buy a sofa because you’re supposed to buy a sofa, but to determine what problem a sofa is supposed to solve, then solving that problem in the best way possible (even if that solution doesn’t involve a sofa).

Another comes from a recent interview Apple Senior Vice President of Industrial Design Jony Ive gave to the UK children’s TV show Blue Peter. In the interview, the presenter asked Ive to judge children’s lunch box design contest entries.

Before he looked at the drawings, Ive said: “If we were thinking of lunch box we’d be careful about not having the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas that could be quite narrow, because you think of a box as being square, a cube, and so we’re quite careful with the words we use because those can sort of determine the path you go down.

This instinct is to avoid conditioned thinking before design, so that the designed object satisfies the requirements and solves the problems you desire to solve regardless of any preconceived ideas about how things are supposed look or work.

For some reason, it seems to me, Apple appears to have failed to think this way about podcasting.

Apple used to include podcasting on iOS as an also-ran feature in the Music app. Last year, they launched a dedicated Podcasts app.

The app has been universally panned. Mashable called it “horrible.” Business Insider called it “horrifically bad.” C|net called it the “worst app Apple ever made.”  

A rough consensus has emerged in some quarters that Apple neglects the podcasting and the Podcasts app because there’s nothing in it for Apple. Podcasts are free, so Apple gets no cut. There’s no money in podcasting, so who cares?

I have no idea why Apple decided to separate podcasts from music or what series of blunders led to the release of an embarrassing Podcasts app.

But I do believe that Apple is missing an enormous opportunity by neglecting podcasting.

The Apple Way to Think About Podcasting

If Apple applied its famous blank-slate thinking to podcasting, I’m sure they would think different about it.

There are three basic Applesque questions to be asked and answered about podcasting:

1. What is a podcast, really? 

The answer to the first question is simple. A podcast is simply serialized audio or video content that can be streamed over the Internet, downloaded and subscribed to.

Other types of audio and video content, such as radio and TV shows, used to be broadcast live. But now and in the future, content creators want to stream them live over the Internet, and make them available for downloading and subscription.

In other words, radio and TV shows want to become podcasts.

Yet nobody ever says this. The radio industry and Hollywood want to podcast without calling it podcasting so they can maintain the lie that what they’re doing is fundamentally different from what podcasters are doing.

So let’s be clear: The whole future of all media is podcasting — streaming, downloadable and subscribable — but the legacy producers want to exclude grass-roots competition by never, ever calling themselves podcasters.

2. What’s wrong with podcasting, currently? 

The biggest problems for podcasters are 1) finding audience; and 2) monetizing the content.

The truth is that podcasts are often shunned and ignored in part because of the artificial distinction described in Question 1 between different types of content.

It’s easy for people to gravitate to YouTube or harvest content on social streams. But it takes some effort for users to find a good podcast they like and subscribe to it — especially if they’re using Apple’s lousy Podcasts app.

The “market,” if you will, for podcasting is artificially suppressed in part by Apple’s neglect.

And when good podcasters do find big audiences, they can struggle to get paid.

Some, like Leo Laporte’s TWiT network of “netcasts,” are very successfully monetized through advertising. (Full disclosure: I appear on three TWiT netcasts from time to time.)

Others, such as Adam Curry’s and John C. Dvorak’s No Agenda podcast are successfully monetized through listener donations.

Still others, such as Cult of Mac’s own Cultcast, both monetize through advertising and also provide additional content and context to readers of another medium (such as the Cult of Mac blog).

But for every successful TWiT, No Agenda or CultCast, there are thousands of podcasts with zero prospects of making significant revenue.

And this shouldn’t be the case. Vastly inferior programming on the radio and on TV makes far more money, simply because there’s a monetization model in place that everybody is used to. Without monetization, there’s little investment. And without investment, there are no budgets for production or marketing.

Another problem with podcasting is that there’s no single, unified place to do everything.

Podcasts that broadcast live, then make their audio and video podcasts available later tend to be scattered all over the Internet, combining custom-built web sites with RSS feeds with multiple places for the live stream plus multiple more for the downloadable file.

3. What are the opportunities for Apple and the world in podcasting? 

Apple should have an advantage in the future of audio and video content. After all, it was the iPod that mainstreamed digital media entertainment. The word “podcast” was even named after that product.

Rather than joining Hollywood in the debasement and neglect of podcasting, Apple should be holding it up as the future of all serial media.

Yet Apple is losing (by forfeiture) the battle for new kinds of online content. The big winner is YouTube, where all kinds of innovative programming are going online. People want to listen to “radio” in the car and elsewhere — satellite and terrestrial — and yet podcasting would be a bazillion times better because there are several orders of magnitude more selection and because the user is in total control.

Apple should strive to replace talk radio, including satellite radio, with podcasting.

And Apple should strive to become the Internet’s biggest facilitator of whatever it is that will replace television, and ultimately use its market power to bring TV shows into its podcasting network.

From a business perspective, Apple should realize that all kinds of companies are making all kinds of money on recurring audio and video content. Properties like Funny or Die are pioneering a new TV-less form of serialized comedy. They’ve got an app, so they’d dying to be on the Apple platform. Yet where’s the “Between Two Ferns” podcast?

Why should users have to stumble across new episodes by hearing chatter on Facebook, then go do a search on YouTube to find it? Zach Galifianakis fans should be able to simply subscribe to the “Ferns” podcast and have new episodes download automatically.

By offering the content creators a clear, simple, flexible and profitable way to monetize, Apple could essentially create a new business that’s forward-looking (rather than its backward-looking approach to simply selling TV shows and seasons, for example).

In Apple’s view of the world, a TV show shouldn’t be a TV show. It’s should be a podcast.

And a podcast shouldn’t be considered a file that’s like a song, but un-monetizable. It should be considered a form of content equal to a radio or TV show.

Apple should destroy the culturally constructed and needless boundaries between podcasts, radio shows, TV shows, university lectures, vlogs and all the rest.

The only meaningful distinction is whether it’s audio only, or both audio and video. Any streamable, downloadable, subscribable content is either listened to or watched.

All those other distinctions are simply accidents of media history and now obsolete.

I think Apple is making a huge error by neglecting podcasting.

Rather than sweeping the medium under the rug and buying into the Hollywood fiction that old-school media is superior,

Apple should instead set up a brilliant, flexible model for all content creators to showcase their work, and enable users to live-stream, download, pay for, subscribe to and enjoy any kind of audio or video content regardless of who produced it — from the smallest, one-man podcast to the biggest-budget Hollywood TV series.

And call it podcasting. Because that’s what it is. All of it.

(Picture courtesy of This Week in Tech.)

Related
  • Michael Breed

    Mike,

    Maybe you should try reinstalling Apple’s podcasting app. It’s been updated and I find it quite usable now. You don’t really say what you think of it from your own experience, which makes me suspect you haven’t looked at it lately yourself. Quit taking your cues from Leo. He’s far too biased these days.

  • Frank Lowney

    “Monetizing” is like the “box” in “lunchbox.” You described the trap and then fell into it yourself.
    Apple supports things like podcasting because it sells hardware, First, it sold a lot of iPods and now it also sells a bunch of iPads and iPhone. Software and content drive hardware sales.
    That said, Apple does have a podcasting problem due to a few poor executive decisions. That exec is no longer with Apple so perhaps the following items will get fixed:
    The Podcast Capture app and its server-side companion, Podcast Producer were dropped in 10.8. This was a very promising and powerful podcast origination and post processing system.
    No podcast creation app for iOS has seen the light of day. Originating a video or audio podcast from an iOS device would have been awe inspiring.
    Both Podcasts.app and iTunes U.app were poorly conceived, executed and prematurely launched. Scott F struck again.
    Support for RSS has not been kept up-to-date. Example: You can include an *.epub file in an RSS feed and it will be recognized and properly handles in the iTunes.app and subsequently synched to iOS devices but you cannot do the same thing with *.ibooks files. The only way that you can make an *.ibooks file available in Apple’s ecosystem is via the iBookstore or in an iTunes U course (only if it is free).

  • James Smith

    Thank you for this informative article. I’ve been using Apple’s podcasting app since it was released and until I read this article, I had no idea there was anything wrong with it. Likewise, I didn’t realize that podcasting was designed to make money. I thought it was like public radio or community-access TV, which seek to inform the public rather than make money off us. But no, it’s all designed to make oodles of money and Apple just doesn’t get it.

  • Yelmurc

    Apple should come up with a way using iAds to help podcasters find advertisers and place ads in their content (podcasts). Also setting up a subscription model would be useful as well.

  • dibarnu

    You started with a question, “Why Apple Needs to Fix Its Podcast Problem”, but never answered it. You didn’t even come close. You sort of ragged on Apple’s podcasting app, then talked about media in very general, broad terms and sorta-kinda equated it to podcasting. Then you said Apple needs to fix a problem without even really identifying the “problem” (unless it’s that their app is rubbish?)

    I guess it makes sense that you didn’t answer the why question when you didn’t even identify the supposed problem.

    But allow me to identify the problem. Podcasts for the most part are shit. That’s because there is no barrier to entry. Anyone with a mic, a computer, and an internet connection can make a podcast (think about blogs for example). Finding a good podcast is a lot of work. Finding a TV show that can keep you entertained for 20 minutes when you’re bored…. not so much work. What you have is a medium where a large portion of the creators put less effort into creating their content than a listener would need to put in to find it.

    Why should Apple “fix” this? They shouldn’t.

  • stefn

    Shh. If Apple got interested in podcast, it would have to ask 30 percent of their revenue, when and if podcasts sold shows.

    It’s all about the software engineers. Inside Apple: Nobody is going to make a career out of work on the Podcast app. Nor can Apple afford to hire great engineers and put them to work on it. Podcasts make nothing for Apple. A Podcast app would make next to nothing. It has to be very low priority. Outside Apple: Several developers have created very nice podcast apps for a couple bucks. Next to nothing to Apple might be rewarding enough for a developer. Also, Apple needs to leave nifty morsels of apps for outside app developers to profit from.

  • DrSportello

    How about this ….

    For traditional podcasts (e.g, audio-only talk shows), Apple recommends a price of $0.25 per episode. (For video, maybe $0.50). I’m a fan of Marc Maron’s WTF, which has about eight podcasts a month. So I’d be out $2. Fine — money well spent.

    Maron is one of the more popular podcasters out there — one Google-based internet showed him with over 200,000 listeners per week. If 25% of his listeners were to subscribe, this would work out to $50K gross a week, or about $32K after Apple takes its 30% cut. Nice work if you can get it — and Apple gets a revenue stream to support broadcasting (including the free ones).

    Obviously, most podcasters aren’t as popular, but these numbers show that many of them could a living with this arrangement. And it would give them the resources to improve the production values of their shows. All for what you tip your coffee guy.

    For TV, it’s more difficult but still potentially viable. Right now, you pay your cable company, which pays whatever network you watch (and which also charges for advertisement), which then pays the studio which produces your favorite sit-com/medical drama/police procedural. It’s an incredibly inefficient system, with numerous hands talking a grab at profits. With something like an iTV, Apple could turn the cable companies into dumb pipes, much as they have with the wireless carriers. In this world, a show like Community might not worry about being dropped from NBC because of how many subscribers it had on iTunes. In other words, it might not be profitable for NBC to carry Community, but it could make sense for SONY to produce another season or two.

    I love my podcasts, and I’d happily chip in some change to keep them afloat. And I would love to see what shows are out there that networks/cable companies/advertisers deem to be too smart/edgy/controversial.

    Not a perfect plan, but perhaps worth some thought. Podcasts and television shows would just be different points on a spectrum.

  • kavok

    Mike

    You totally missed why podcasts exist in the first place. They were created so that the regular person could be empowered to share their thoughts with anyone who would listen. It was never meant to be monetized. It was never intended to be used exclusively by “professionals” such as Leo LaPorte (who, in my opinion, is more of a hack that will say anything he is paid to say, rather than being objective in his evaluations.) Once you start wanting to monetize it, it will turn out like Facebook, or Cult of Mac’s own über-tracking / ad-ridden website. If you don’t like the app, make a better one.

  • JimMcMill8

    A key problem with podcasting/streaming is lack of standards. Even from the same company, NBC, I get podcasts with wildly different audio levels (Rachel Maddow will blow you out of the room). Organizations like the SMPTE that should be dealing with these standards problems steadfastly ignore them, which is why these dinosaur standards organizations are rapidly becoming irrelevant. And Apple is guilty too, they refuse to participate in any standards process they can’t dominate. It’s a mess, and it’s not getting any better with no leadership.

  • djcolley

    You guys must be cheap. Just buy Downcast. Problem solved.

  • Skywaytraffic

    Frank… I hate to break it to you man, but no one has EVER bought any Apple device, for the sole purpose of listening or watching podcasts. “Hey I really want to do something that’s readily available on the internet for free… What should I do?” “Bro, you need to drop half a grand on an iPAD SON.” “But wouldn’t it just be cheaper to use iTunes and a compu…” “Nope”

  • LordPachelbel

    Skywaytraffic, I bought an iPod Classic to listen to podcasts, mostly lectures and teaching series and debates and sermons and stuff like that. In the past few months I have listened to 996 of 2757 episodes (64.29GB) so in about a year I will have gotten through all of them. I use iTunes to download them on my PC but I usually use the iPod to listen to them because it’s portable.

  • YodaMac

    I guess podcasts are OK for people who like to watch talk shows, critics, anchors and reviewers ramble on about what they think they know better than you. But on television you find so many creative programs with quality writing, acting, direction, etc. that range from funny to dramatic, and I just don’t know of any podcasts that provide that sort of entertainment.

  • LordPachelbel

    The author’s point is that conceptually there’s no difference between a television show and a video podcast, or a radio show and an audio podcast. If you can deliver the content episodically, then it’s all the same thing regardless of its delivery mechanism.

  • djrobsd

    One reason why Apple ignores podcasts is legal. There are thousands of DJ’s around the world that make several podcasts each month but pay zero royalties to the recording industry who owns the rights to all the songs contained in their podcasts. If podcasts became a monetized product, then Apple would be on the hook for paying the royalties for all those podcasts, not to mention they would have to track every single download to figure out how much royalty to pay – something they can not do today because the files aren’t stored on Apple’s servers, they are stored wherever the creator wants to store them at (I store mine on my own web server LOL).

About the author

Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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Posted in Apple, Media, Podcasting, Top stories |