Disintermediation is a constant threat to most service providers, especially if the services provided in the middle of the transaction aren’t visible during the transaction. In our podcasting space, a trend towards disintermediation has been quietly developing for years. And it leaves me wondering when, not if, the big apps, namely Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, and Google Podcasts, will disintermediate a mainstay of podcasting; podcast media hosting companies.
Just today, Apple released a new quasi-exclusive podcast called Apple News Today. It is a short form daily reading of the headlines, much like Podnews, only not just about podcasting. It’s a collection of headlines narrated between two hosts over the course of seven to eight minutes.
That this new show isn’t being published to other apps/directories isn’t surprising. It’s not “news about Apple, today”. It’s worthy news curated by Apple, for Apple customers. So, of course, that’s exclusive to the Apple ecosystem.
What is surprising is that Apple isn’t using a podcast media hosting company to host this podcast. (Thanks for tracking that down, Dan!)
Which means that, at least in part, Apple had to build their own podcast media hosting service to make this happen.
And if they dedicated precious developer resources to do this, they must have designs on hosting more podcast audio content directly.
Why Borrow When You Can Build?
Hosting content directly gives Apple a lot more flexibility than relying on media files hosted elsewhere. We already see that here: Apple News Today is pushed out to the Apple News app. And it might make sense to be made available in other Apple-owned destinations -- apps, operating systems, etc. -- in the future.
Spotify is marching quickly down the exclusive path. They recently bought the biggest podcast on the planet with publicly-stated plans to make it completely exclusive to Spotify. That means being served directly from Spotify servers, not relying on a third-party hosting platform.
And as with Apple, Spotify isn’t going to spend the development resources to build a podcast media hosting service unless they plan on doing more.
The Trouble With Aging Technology
Here’s my current thinking: With the possible exception of Google Podcasts, none of these really big apps need to rely on podcast hosting companies. None of these really big apps need to ingest content from RSS feed.
Yes, I realize that the entire 16 years of podcasting was built and continues to run on RSS feeds and third-party hosting companies. I am not suggesting that bedrock of podcasting will disappear tomorrow.
But I am saying that as these big podcast directories and apps continue to grow and look for ways of differentiation to maintain and/or increase market share, they’ll come to this realization. They probably already have.
The cost of hosting and serving podcast media files and is, at least for these power players, pretty low. When you’re a big company already paying big money to serve other forms of media files, hosting and bandwidth are already part of your cost structure, with several economies of scale already built-in. So what’s one more type of media file hosting and serving? No big deal.
Google Podcasts might be an exception here. Google's entire charge is linking to content that lives somewhere where else (and monetizing SERPs). And Google Podcasts rolls nicely into their search engine results pages, so they don’t have as much incentive to move away from the current system.
But for the others, self-serving is powerful. Having exclusive shows on their respective platforms is nice, but it’s just the start of what they can do when they host and serve podcasts directly.
Unlocking App/Directory Creativity
For as powerful and democratizing as RSS fees are, by definition, they limit what information apps & directories have to work with.
Imagine for a moment, a different world without podcast hosting companies. In this alternate universe, podcasters would log into Apple Podcasts Connect and upload the media file directly to Apple, filling out a form and supplying additional content Apple could use to publish the episode across Apple’s ecosystem.
Then the podcaster would do the same for Spotify, probably filling out a similar form and supplying different additional content to Spotify because they do things differently.
And then the same for Pandora. And maybe Amazon if Audible finally gets deeper into the podcasting world. And then whoever else jumps into the fray.
That sounds a little dystopian, doesn’t it? But before you say, “No one would do that! It’s the one-size-fits-all uniformity of RSS feeds that enabled the 1MM+ podcasts to exist in the first place!”, I suggest you look at ebook publishing. Because what I just described is exactly what independent publishers have to deal with. Logging on to multiple accounts, uploading similar (but not exactly the same) formats, filling out similar but different forms, and providing extra content in formats specific to each publisher.
That rigamarole hasn’t slowed down ebook publishing.
One Middleman Falls, Another Rises To Take Their Place
Here's the thing about disintermediation: new companies almost always rise to take advantage of the churn caused by the disruption. If the alternate world I put forth comes to pass, rest assured that a new player will crop up to streamline that process. They already exist in the publishing world and provide a single interface that collects all the relevant files and data, then pushing to each publisher just the ones that publisher needs. And, naturally, taking some form of payment or percentage for their troubles.
So it’s that just further evidence of why RSS feeds and third-party podcast media hosting companies exist? Isn’t that the service they provide?
Not really. Right now, all the apps and directories are forced to accept the standard RSS feed. Sure, they can (and have) extended RSS feeds to accommodate special needs, like the <serial> and <episodic> tags that Apple Podcasts convinced podcast hosting companies to include a few years ago.
But that’s an inefficient path. Why convince the third-party to spend dev resources when you could just ask the second-party -- that’s you and me, working podcaster -- to give you additional info?
Efficiency Trumps Exclusivity (But Both Are Nice)
Apple is already collecting and presenting data not contained in our RSS feeds. I’m speaking of the “Cast & Crew” section of select podcasts you might have noticed in Apple Podcasts. Those data aren’t passed in the feed. That’s direct input from the show owner.
Spend some quality time with the Apple Podcasts app (or web app), and you’ll realize there are often show-specific graphics of different sizes and formats than just the square artwork. Again, those aren’t coming from the feed. They come from direct input from the show owner.
Requiring direct input from show owners is a risk in a fractured landscape... unless your company name is YouTube.
But I can’t look at these recent moves and see any future where each of the big apps/directories doesn’t start hosing and serving media files on their own. That sure does seem to be the direction they’re all headed right now.
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No episodes on Friday, so I’ll be back on Monday with yet another Podcast Pontifications.