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Every week, if not every day, it seems like a new uproar has flared up somewhere in the podcasting ecosystem. Some breakout torches and pitchforks. Some clutch pearls. And a scant few say “Well, that’s an interesting position I hadn’t considered before. Let me give that some thought.”
But what strikes me as I read these articles or pitched Twitter fights isn’t the voices entering the fray. Instead, It’s the continual realization of just how little control podcasters have as publishers of the content that without which there would be no podcasting at all.
Yes, I realize that podcasters have near-ultimate control of the content they make. There’s no FCC or equivalent governing entity breathing down the necks of most of us, leaving us free to do and say things on our podcast episodes that we want to say.
But our control ends as soon as we’ve mastered our .mp3 files. After that, we cede control to other entities. Entities with their own goals, incentives, positions, and perspectives on what podcasting should be.
Podcast Media Hosting Companies Have More Control Than Podcasters
Unless you’re one of the vanishingly small podcasters who self-host, you likely upload your mastered .mp3 file to your podcast hosting company. They in turn propagate your media file across their content delivery network (CDN) and update the RSS feed for your show, allowing your episode to be distributed to various listening points, actual and potential. They also likely provide an embeddable player to be used on various webpages. They might send posts to your connected social media accounts automatically. And in a growing number of cases, they’ll use direct connections and API calls to send your episode to bigger platforms.
You, the podcaster, have almost no control of this. Yes, you can control what content goes in some of those fields. And you may have selected which distribution points would be in the chain. But the technical aspects of how much of that transmission of data happens are obfuscated.
Perhaps rightly so. We have to trust the podcast hosting company to act in our best interest and take care of the low-level bits so we can stay focused on making great content. If we wanted to have 100% control, we’d roll our own hosting and RSS solution. But for most of us, that way lies madness!
But that means we’re ceding decisions to the company we’ve chosen as our podcast hosting companies. Not just some decisions. Most of them. Decisions that might impact our listeners. Decisions that might limit our ability to work with partners. Decisions that we don’t get a say in.
Podcast Listening Apps Have More Control Than Podcasters
With a few notable exceptions, most podcast listening happens via listening apps. Most of the time, the app is created by a third party. And all of the time, it’s the listener who makes their own choice as to which app they will use.
We podcasters really don’t care which app listeners use, since we’ve done our level best to ensure our podcast episodes are distributed everywhere a potential listener might choose to listen. That's the kind of decentralized democratization we want in podcasting.
But listening apps and the companies who make them are the ones that own the relationship with the listener. Not us podcasters. Not our hosting providers. The makers of the listening apps have much direct information about and control over our listeners than we podcasters do.
When you think about it, you realize that you don't have any control over how your podcast episodes are displayed in a listening app. Yes, everything displayed there is pulled from your podcast’s RSS feed or from a direct connection with your podcast hosting company, and you control what info you plug into the hosting company to describe your episode.
But they're pulling data from the RSS feeds and direct connections of over 1.5 million podcasts. They have to display content in a uniform way so that it looks what they think of as “best” for their customer - your audience. Do you wish they’d display your subtitle more prominently? Or that they’d use the episode-level artwork you painstakingly create to give your listeners a better experience? Dream on, podcaster.
The listener experience in podcasting is controlled not by you, but by the listener’s chosen listening app. And if you think that experience is shitty, you have little control over getting your listeners to switch to a listening app you think does a better job of properly displaying your content the way you want your content displayed. Tough titties, as my mom would say. Switching costs are just too high for most listeners, and your listeners probably listen to more podcasts than just yours, and they’re not about to put your desires over their needs.
Brewing Battles Over Podcasting’s Power Dynamics
Of course, there are other entities beyond podcast hosting companies and podcast listening apps who also take part in power dynamics. I’m limiting this article to just those two, mostly due to ubiquity. That, and I don’t want to depress you even further.
Conflicts in podcasting’s power dynamics - past, present, and likely future - break down into a few common areas.
- Privacy and security of listener data is a big and important topic right now. And you, as a podcaster, have almost no control over how your podcast impacts someone’s privacy and security.
- Metrics and analytics are rather important to our success, but we’re stuck just receiving what the hosting companies and apps provide us. Sometimes, when we try to use third party sources to help us better understand, we’re shut down by entities with more control than we have.
- Standards and conventions can influence or inhibit both of the prior points and have a big impact on the listener’s experience. But we’ve no power beyond adding something to a suggestion box.
What Role(s) Will You Play, Podcaster?
I don’t say any of this to depress you. Though, granted, it is rather depressing. Sorry about that. But while I do think we’re outclassed by the true power hosting companies and listening apps have over the podcasting process, we’re not without options.
As podcasters, I think we have to choose a position to take. Specifically, we need to choose what kind of minor role we’re going to play, And then play it as loudly as we can. Here are five I came up with, though I’m sure there are more:
I clearly fit into this role. What is Podcast Pontifications if not my own outlet and outreach vehicle to make podcasting better? As an activist, I have positions on every single power dynamic and pitched battle mentioned previously. Many of those spill over into articles like this. Others are incorporated in various advisory roles I’ve assumed within the podcasting industry. I think we need more activists. But like any good activist, I’d prefer more activists who take a similar stance as mine.
The vast majority of podcast hosting companies and makers of podcast listening apps are good people doing what they think is best. They need podcasters on their side (apologists is a lousy name but here we are) to defend their actions and spread their message. I often play this role, especially when the actions of those I support run counter to conventional ways of thinking. So if you really love the approach one or more of these entities take, wave their flags proudly.
Maybe, either as part of or in conjunction with being a working podcaster, you work for one of these service entities. If so, you can apply pressure from the inside, exercising a little (or a lot) more control than the rest of us have.
Perhaps your profession is tangentially related to podcasting. Or maybe podcasting has spilled into your area, as it keeps expanding. You’re in a unique position to not only bring an outside perspective, but you’ve likely seen how similar power dynamics have shaken out and are able to offer some assistance.
Or maybe you're uninterested in these arguments and you just want to make great content that your audience enjoys. I totally understand that. There are many days when I want to do that same thing as well. Congrats on making it this far in the piece!
I’m not trying to push you towards one role/position I’ve laid out. Honestly, I think it's a spectrum. I know I ride most of these roles from time to time, and I think you probably do as well. I think it’s a good start to understand where our power limits are, but also what roles podcasters can play to affect some changes in our chosen medium.
I’m rapidly approaching “Evo’s long winter's nap” time, where I take a much-needed break from the show for the month of November and December. Last year, I opened it up to guest voices who wished to pontificate on my platform. I’m doing that again, so please reach out if you’d like to contribute and we’ll talk about your idea. I’m easy!
Please go to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra to support the show, and please tell a friend about Podcast Pontifications.
See you tomorrow for another Podcast Pontifications.