I recently signed Podcasters Declare, an open letter to Apple designed to pressure the tech-giant into adding Climate Change as a top-level category inside of Apple Podcasts.
The goal of the group is awareness building with a clever twist: If they are successful in getting Climate Change as a new top-level category in Apple Podcasts, then every podcast hosting company will have to add that new top-level category to their interface. Because of that, every other podcast listening app, directory, or other services will have to follow suit, so that anyone browsing the list of podcast categories on any device will see Climate Change as the scroll through. Clever activism at its finest!
Still, I had reservations about signing the petition. Not because of the topic, you understand. I fully accept what scientists have been telling us for years about climate change and how humanity’s progress is accelerating and exacerbating the delicate balance that lets our species—and others—thrive on the surface of Earth.
No, my reservations were much more mundane. A quick examination of Apple Podcasts’ categories shows several sub-categories where shows on the topic of climate change are already listed. Was a new top-level category warranted? And if so, did that put us on a slippery slope where a myriad of topics worthy of increased awareness would demand their own top-level listing? There are already glaring holes, like no LGBTQI+ category. What about eating disorders? Or personal finance or debt? Or just about any topic that has it’s own “Awareness Week”?
There are already over 100 categories inside of Apple Podcasts. Can the categorization system handle the pressure of giving every category its due?
No. No, of course it can’t. And therein lies the problem.
100 is 100 Times Too Small
One hundred categories sounds like a big number. I know I’ve quickly grown weary of scanning those 100 category names to find the right categories for my clients’ shows. Increasing that list certainly won’t reduce my weariness, I think we’d all agree.
But we’re not approaching the problem from the correct angle.
Your average bookstore has a few thousand titles on its shelf at any given time. Not tens of thousands. Not hundreds of thousands. And certainly not millions. Yet those bookstores have categorization systems that are incredibly expansive. Heck, the Dewey Decimal system your local library uses is nearly infinite.
But in podcasting, we do have millions of titles. Yet only around 100 categories to sort them into. That’s never going to work. Sure, it’s great that we podcasters can choose up to three categories for our show, where a book can only be shelved in a single location. But that’s small comfort, at best.
Building Awareness For Podcastings Fundamental Categorization Problem
If the Podcasters Delcare petition showed me anything, it's that we clearly need more awareness around this issue. Climate change, sure. But also, we need more awareness on the fact that that we’ve ceded control to Apple on how podcasts should be categorized and stored. That’s untenable.
I was pleased to learn that the Podcasting 2.0 initiative is considering re-defining podcast categories as part of its third phase. But even that only lists 112 categories currently. And that's just not enough. Nor do I think it will ever be enough. Because I don’t think cataloging podcasts into nice and neat categories is all that helpful at our current scale.
Look no further than Yahoo!’s attempt to categorize every website on the internet. The Yahoo! Directory stopped being relevant at least a decade before it was finally shuttered in 2014. Google ate their lunch, realizing that relevance was much more important than some arbitrary structure. Google even rejected keywords after realizing that humans, for all our great pattern-recognition skills, are largely shite at categorizing for people other than ourselves.
The solution isn’t to add more categories. The solution is to ditch categories altogether and do something fundamentally different.
Maybe the Podcasting 2.0 initiative will be better. At least it’s run from the bottom up and has some dedicated and smart people addressing several concerns and limitations. So I’m not counting them out.
Maybe we need more heavy pressure on Apple to add more and more top-level categories to their directory, gumming up the works so that the limitations of their current approach become more obvious to all of us and them as well.
Or maybe you and your fellow podcasting compadres have a novel notion worthy of consideration? Discuss this topic the next time you’re on a virtual call together. Or share a link to the article in an online discussion group to seed the conversation. Because what we have right now hasn’t worked for a while, and we need a better way.
If this sparked an idea for you, please visit BuyMeACoffee.com/evoterra and slide a virtual coffee my way. That's always nice.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.
Podcast Pontifications is written and narrated by Evo Terra. He’s on a mission to make podcasting better. Allie Press proofed the copy, corrected the transcript, and edited the video. Podcast Pontifications is a production of Simpler Media.