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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

What’s Apple’s next chapter in podcasting?

Last month at the Code Media conference, Apple’s Eddy Cue was interviewed by Recode’s Peter Kafka about a variety of subjects. The trailer for “Planet of the Apps” seemed to get the lion’s share of the attention immediately afterward, but I was intrigued by what he said about podcasting:

I think there’s a huge resurgence in podcasting. And it’s exactly what customers want because it’s the ability of listening to something on demand when you want. And that’s exactly what it’s about. Can we do more and will we do more? Absolutely…. We’re working on new features for podcasts. Stay tuned.

I’ll grant you, Cue didn’t say much about podcasting. He was cryptic as any other Apple executive on stage at a non-Apple event might be. But I care a lot about podcasting—it makes up a surprisingly large share of my income these days—and Apple’s place in the podcasting world has always been a strange one. It has been a prominent player for well over a decade, but a strangely passive one. So much so that last year a bunch of prominent podcasters complained to the New York Times that Apple wasn’t doing enough to help them.

Cue’s remarks at Code Media could easily be interpreted as mumbly marketing-speak by an executive who doesn’t have anything to say. But I take Cue at his word that Apple is “working on new features for podcasts,” and that the company has noted the huge resurgence of podcasting. I suspect that, after more than a decade of slumber, Apple’s about to become much more active on the podcasting front.

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Apple’s podcast directory in the Podcasts app.

A decade of podcast curation

Apple holds such a prominent place in podcasting because, very early on, it embraced the medium as a way to improve what was available for the iPod. In June 2005—at the very predecessor to the Code Media conference, All Things D—Steve Jobs demonstrated podcast integration with iTunes, as a part of iTunes 4.9. Now you could subscribe to a podcast in iTunes and sync episodes directly to your iPod—a process that seems barbaric today, but was a delightful innovation 12 years ago.

Key to Apple’s strategy was its creation of a large and relatively open directory of podcasts. Three years before the App Store, Apple repurposed the iTunes store infrastructure to build a global podcast directory. Anyone could submit their podcasts to Apple’s directory and, once approved, those podcasts would remain in the directory more or less forever. And it’s been pretty much this way ever since. At some point Apple provided podcasters with some back-end tools to make publishing and promoting their podcasts in the directory a bit more hands-on; it was a scattershot process, but in recent years it’s rolled those tools out to a much broader audience of publishers.

Other than adding some podcasting-related features to GarageBand (which it stripped out of a later version), Apple hasn’t been particularly active in the realm of podcasting. There’s a small iTunes team that promotes podcasts in the iTunes interface, and those promotions can be very helpful in acquiring new listeners. Apple’s release of an iOS app for listening to podcasts, and its bundling of that app with releases of iOS, was a huge step forward in both the visibility of the format and the curation being done in iTunes.

After 12 years, Apple’s directory is the definitive directory of podcasts. You don’t have to be in iTunes to be a podcast, but most podcasts are in iTunes. Other directories exist, but iTunes is the big fish. Google’s trying to build one, sort of, with Google Play Music—but Apple has a decade head start. Even third-party podcasting apps tend to use Apple’s directory data, either as their entire directory or as a verification tool for their own homebuilt podcast databases.

Apple looms large in the world of podcasting, but in all this time, it hasn’t really changed its basic approach from what it was in 2005: A simple, open directory of podcast submissions with a set of curated pages to help people find new podcasts to listen to.

When Eddy Cue says Apple is “working on new features for podcasts,” he might not be indicating a change from Apple at all. He could simply mean that there are some new features coming to the Podcasts app that will make it better. But I suspect that Apple’s planning on some larger moves, given the increased popularity of podcasting and the leverage Apple has built up over a decade.

So, shifting into pure speculation mode, here are some things that Cue could be talking about when he promises new features for podcasts:

What Apple won’t do: Provide a lot of user data

This is, I suspect, what every podcasting startup wants. Unlike the web, where user behavior can be closely measured and quantified, podcasting is a bit of a mystery. In general, we know that you downloaded a file—and that’s it. To know more, you need to be inside of the apps that people use to listen to podcasts.

Apple’s Podcasts app might be the most popular single piece of podcast-listening software out there today; if Apple were to measure how its users listen to podcasts and then shared that data with the publishers of podcasts, it could be revolutionary to our understanding of how podcasts work. Podcasters (and podcast advertisers) could know how many downloads lead to plays, how deep most listeners get into any given episode, and whether people listen to or skip the ads. It would be a flood of data, and most modern digital publishers say they love data.

Consider me skeptical. While I’m frustrated by the lack of detail and consistency about podcast listenership—I’ve got a podcast that regularly hits 30,000 downloads by one measurement and 20,000 by a different one—I’ve see what the flood of user data has done to the world of web publishing. Most web data is used to justify reducing ad rates and increasing the invasiveness of advertising.

Besides, if an advertiser is happy with the result it receives on a podcast that claims 20,000 listeners, doesn’t that mean the advertiser is paying the right price? If it turned out that same podcast only had 10,000 listeners for a regular episode, it wouldn’t change the result. In fact, you could argue it shows that podcasts are that much more effective at connecting with an audience. But someone else might use that data to argue for a 50 percent rate cut for the podcast instead. More data doesn’t generally improve the quality or price of advertising.

I’m also dubious about what anyone would do with that level of data. For more than a decade I’ve been flooded with page-view data, and I have ignored most of it and focused on using my judgment to make good stuff. In aggregate, it could be useful to find out when people tune out podcasts, whether certain podcast topics or lengths are more or less successful, and what makes podcast advertising successful versus unsuccessful. But the day to day drone of stats? On the web, you just let it fade into the background, because there’s too much data and a lot of it is conflicting.

I doubt Apple will do anything that increases individual surveillance on the habits of its users, and then shares that with third parties, because that’s not what Apple does. While this is the progress that many commercial podcasters say they want, I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

What Apple might do: Support paid podcast subscriptions

There is a technical barrier to making money from podcasts: They have to be free. The podcast and RSS format make it essentially impossible to charge for podcasts and protect them with passwords, as you can to subscription websites. You can make your podcast feeds secure-ish via obscurity, but a dedicated person can find their way to the crown jewels. Right now if a podcaster wants to wall off content—whether it’s new podcasts, back episodes, or everything—the only real choice is to use a separate app. I listen to “Presidents are People Too” in the Audible app, and “Offices and Bosses” in the Stitcher Premium app for these reasons.

But I know a company with a whole lot of credit-card numbers and a great facility at taking payments on the internet, including subscription payments. Apple could potentially build a paid podcast subscription system, using Apple’s payment infrastructure and its podcast-playing apps, and open it to all podcast publishers. Listeners would still need to download a specific app—Apple’s app—but they could mix the free podcasts in Apple’s catalog with the ones they’re paying for.

This one feels a whole lot more likely to me. Yes, it means that Apple’s podcast directory would shift from its current emphasis on the open standards of RSS to a hybrid model that also features limited-access content. But if Apple wanted to encourage the commercial growth of the podcast world, it would be entirely within its powers to make it happen.

Of course, for an approach like this to work, Apple might need to expand its podcast-playing empire a little bit, which takes us to…

What Apple might do: Expand across platforms

For Apple to get podcast publishers on board with paid podcast subscriptions, it’s going to need to answer the questions about users on non-Apple platforms, most notably Android. The answer here is for Apple to create a version of the Podcasts app for Android, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. There’s already Apple Music on Android—why not Podcasts, too? Google Play Music’s support for podcasts is weird, and while there are a few good Android-based podcast players out there—Pocket Casts comes to mind—combining standard podcast functionality with the ability to get access to new, subscriber-only podcasts could be a winner.

iTunes for Windows already exists, but it would be great if Apple created a standalone Podcast app for Mac and Windows alike. Failing that, how about a Podcasts web app that syncs subscription status with mobile players? It works pretty well in Overcast today, and Apple’s upped its iCloud game lately. It could happen.

What Apple will probably do: Keep iterating on app and curation

Beyond offering subscriptions, the Podcast app could get better, with better speed adjustment settings and automatic silence removal. It’s a pretty solid basic player today, but there’s always room for improvement. Maybe it’s time to add chapter support?

There’s never going to be an ultimate solution to the problem of giving people good suggestions about what kinds of podcasts they might like, but I expect that Apple will always keep pushing in this direction, both with curated features like the ones currently in the Podcasts section in iTunes, and algorithmic lists tailored to individual listeners. Maybe there’s some intelligence to be gleaned from Apple Music’s equivalents to these features.

If I had to place a bet on a major change in Apple’s approach to podcasting, I’d place it on adding money to the equation. It’s an area Apple knows well, and it’s already got many of the pieces in place to quickly bring on publishers and create its own library of premium, subscription-only audio programs. All while taking its traditional 30 percent cut, of course, at least for the first year. And if it does that, I’d be surprised it it didn’t offer a version of its Podcasts app on Android, too, just to make publishers confident that they’ve got all their bases covered.

It would be the first major change in how Apple has approached podcasting in the 12 years of the iTunes podcast directory. But after 12 years of inaction, maybe Apple finally feels it’s time for podcasting to become more than just a hobby.

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