Podcasting and Big Media

I’ve felt a creeping sense of dread ever since the New York Times ran its now-infamous article about pocasting. I’m not a podcaster myself, but I do listen to quite a few of them, and the Times article has me worried that things are about to change for the worse. A great many podcasters have responded to the article, including fantastic written responses by Marco Arment, Federico Viticci, and a great discussion between Myke Hurley and Jason Snell (43:11, skip directly to it here).

Those responses did a great job of covering things from the podcaster’s perspective, but there’s something else bothering me as a listener. It’s a feeling that podcasting as it stands today, a medium that I get a great deal of enjoyment from, is about to change for the worse. Regardless of whether Apple or any other company caves to their demands, it’s clear that the Big Media world is coming for podcasts, and that doesn’t sound like a good thing.

Based on the Times article, the changes requested by “Leading Podcast Professionals” won’t do anything to increase my satisfaction as a listener. They’re not about providing me with new features that are currently impossible. They’re all about business. In fact, I think we could boil the requests down to one simple premise: Make podcasts more appealing to advertisers. If the Big Podcast world gets what it wants, they stand to make significantly more money. Users, on the other hand, will get…mostly nothing. User don’t need data or analytics, nor will those things improve our listening experience.

In fact, the only changes I’m likely to see (hear?) as a listener are ones that will make my experience worse. Suppose, for example, that some shows become exclusive to tailor-made podcast clients that provide analytics data that others don’t. That only makes my life harder. Instead of using a big playlist that can play all my shows one after another, I’d suddenly have to switch apps between each one. Even worse, it’s easy to imagine that the big podcast players would love to make it impossible to skip ads. (This is also why I don’t think the streaming-TV future is really all that bright. I’ll take my TiVo, thanks.) Plus, clients run by media companies tend not to be very good. Take a look at streaming video off most TV networks’ web sites, or even using the DVR that comes in your cable box. Not so great.

Of course, it’s possible that making podcasts more lucrative will lead to new podcasts that wouldn’t have been possible without a bigger budget. It’s possible. But I’m already pretty happy with the shows that are available to me today. Frankly, I don’t have a lot of room in my listening schedule for more of them. And as should be obvious by turning on network TV, a big budget is no guarantee of quality.

I’m guessing that most of the shows put out by these big players aren’t really ones I’m interested in. Most of my favorite shows are from smaller (but still great!) producers like Relay FM and The Incomparable. My biggest fear is that if Big Media succeeds in collecting all this data and walling off their shows, ad rates for independent podcasts will plummet, putting their viability in jeopardy.

Fortunately, the Times article makes it sound like Apple wasn’t particularly receptive to the demands of the “Leading Podcast Professionals.” Hopefully that means that independent podcasters are safe for the time being. But the writing is on the wall. There’s nothing to stop the big players from building their own apps and services and walling off their content in them, or making deals with other third-party podcast clients. If they do, the best-case scenario is that enough listeners refuse to follow that open podcasts remain viable.