Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger. Not sure if you've heard, but the world of public radio podcasts ain't doing so great
News clip: NPR planning to lay off about 10% of its current staff due to the soft ad market.
News clip: It's a wrenching time here in the newsroom due to what NPR's chief executive calls an existential threat.
Micah Loewinger: Those layoffs in March were followed in the fall by a string of cuts at WNYC, our producing station. On the Media's team shrunk. Many great shows across the industry have been canceled altogether, which we'll get to. It's a depressing reversal of an extraordinary boom in podcasting that saw the expansion of meaningful deep-dive reporting, a generation of new celebrities, and for a select few, staggering payouts.
Podcasting is a rich and varied part of the media industry nowadays, but we wanted to take stock of where our particular slice of the industry is today and how we got here because podcasting transformed our sleepy world of public radio and we transformed podcasting. First, we're going to take a look at the unlikely story of how the medium became a thing in the first place and the company at the center of it all. Producer Molly Rosen has the story.
Molly Rosen: It's impossible to tell the story of how podcasting came to be without Apple. About a month ago, the company rolled out a new operating system.
News clip: iOS 17 for iPhone is now out for everyone.
Molly Rosen: Some of the updates might have an impact on how you're listening to this show right now.
Speaker 19: There's actually huge changes to the Apple Podcast app. You can now create custom episode artwork that's prominently featured on the Listen Now and your show page. There's updates to how-- [crosstalk]
Molly Rosen: The update to the Apple Podcast app also includes a tweak to how podcast downloads work. It's a small change that might mean fewer automatic downloads of a podcast back catalog. As a podcast user, you're free to shrug and move on, but for podcast creators, this could be a big deal. Lower numbers, while a more accurate reflection of listenership, could translate into less ad money, less ad money means fewer podcasts. We'll get to that later in the show. I wanted to know how a small change in Apple's software is capable of sending ripple effects across an entire industry. The story starts in the early 2000s.
Kevin Marks: The same year the iPod had launched in 2003 while I was still working on Apple, there was this group doing audio blogging.
Molly Rosen: Kevin Marks is a software engineer. He worked at Apple from 1998 to 2003. He was trying to solve the problem of streaming audio and video on the internet. The problem being, it didn't work. The files were too big. They needed too much bandwidth, more than early 2000s internet could handle. He became very interested in what those audio bloggers were doing.
Adam Curry: The power of pure intellect.
Kevin Marks: They'd record a radio show, put that on their blog as an MP3 file, and link to it from the blog.
Adam Curry: Dominating world leaders, welcome to the Daily Source Code. I'm Adam Curry, coming to you from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Molly Rosen: The Daily Source Code hosted by the DJ, Adam Curry, was one of the first podcasts ever made. The term itself was coined by a Guardian journalist, mashing up iPod and broadcast, podcast. Adam Curry with Dave Winer, a software engineer, came up with the idea of sending sound files like a blog post down an RSS feed. In the early days, you'd listen to these podcasts on the computer like reading a blog, but then in October 2003, the programmer and blogger Kevin Marks wrote a script that would download podcasts, copy them to iTunes, and sync them to his iPod so he could listen on the go like people do today. He demoed the script at a blogger conference at Harvard.
Kevin Marks: There was a dozen people in the room. They were like, "Oh, that's a good idea. Yes. Interesting," and then in 2005, Apple launched integration of podcasting into iTunes.
Steve Jobs: Podcasting started off as Wayne's World for radio.
Molly Rosen: This is Steve Jobs on a stage at the All Things Digital Conference in May 2005. He's in his trademark look, jeans and a black long-sleeve shirt, brimming with founder energy. He pulls up iTunes
Steve Jobs: There's a little thing called podcast right here. You click that and we've got a page full of podcasts. All these things sync up with your iPod every time you sync your iPod. Remember, this has been really hard to do so far. You've got to download this third-party app. Already millions of people are subscribing to these podcasts and I think this is just going to send it into orbit.
Molly Rosen: Can you tell me about your experience before Apple really got in the game and then how Apple changed things?
Rob Walch: There was no guarantee that podcasting was going to succeed before Apple got into it.
Molly Rosen: Rob Walch is the VP of Podcast Relations at Libsyn, one of the first hosting platforms.
Rob Walch: I always say there's three inflection points in podcasting. The first inflection point was September 2005, and that was iTunes. The second big inflection point was 2007, which would have been when the iPhone was released. Then the third inflection point, it's not serial, it's iOS 8 going native on the iPhone.
Molly Rosen: When you say native, what do you mean?
Rob Walch: You buy a phone, what's on that phone? Native. What apps are on there? iOS 8 went native about a month before Serial came out. You can look at the numbers of where podcasting grew. It grew on the iOS side. It didn't grow on the Android side. If it was serial, it would have grown on both sides, but it grew on the iOS side. Android has never had a native podcast app. They still don't have a native podcast app. Apple Podcast app, this past week, 57% of downloads directly across all Libsyn's platforms went directly to Apple Podcast app. Spotify was 15%, number two.
Molly Rosen: Then there's YouTube. More and more podcasters are posting their interviews to YouTube as videos and more and more listeners or viewers are finding them there, but whether YouTube videos actually count as podcasts depends on who you ask.
Rob Walch: People don't like it, but my definition of a podcast is you have an RSS 2.0 compliant feed and it is in Apple Podcasts because if you're not in Apple Podcasts, then you're not in all those different apps.
Molly Rosen: He's referring to Apple's directory which they made public back in 2005. It's like a centralized podcast library. As long as you meet Apple's specifications, you can submit your podcast to it and then the podcast is there for any potential listener to find in any app. Without Apple, none of that would be possible.
Rob Walch: Now, I'll say this, Steve Jobs and Apple had an ulterior motive and people don't realize why Apple did support us, and that was because they wanted to sell iPods. If you're going to sell an iPod in all these countries around the world, you have to have something to put on it. Well, in a lot of the countries, they didn't have rights yet and here is this medium called podcasting which has universal global rights. They could have iPods for sale in Albania and have an Albanian iTunes store that has nothing but podcasts because they don't have the rights yet for music.
Molly Rosen: I hear what you're saying that overall with Apple's role, it's generally been a very open ecosystem and they've been good custodians of the medium, you would say.
Rob Walch: Yes.
Molly Rosen: Does it ever concern you that things could go a different way in the future in that one company has this kind of power over the standards of the medium?
Rob Walch: I'm not concerned it's Apple, what I'm concerned is other companies haven't been able to move up, and I felt that Google Podcasts was going to be the next inflection point. Once Google made that native, I felt we would see a bump like we saw with iOS, and I was obviously dead wrong. Apple's going to continue to be that dominant player in this space. People have to remember podcasting ecosystem is such a tiny percentage of Apple's revenue. The amount of revenue that Apple makes from podcasting, even with the subscriptions, is less than the interest they earned while we've been talking for this hour.
Molly Rosen: That is part of what's interesting to me though, because I don't necessarily see it as a bad thing, but I do see this imbalance. How much podcasting matters to Apple in terms of making money, it's just not that important, I think, but how much Apple matters to podcasting is a lot.
Rob Walch: I would be more concerned if Apple cared about making money from podcasting. That would be my concern. As long as Apple goes with, "Podcasting is a great thing for our consumers and we like podcasting because people that own iPhones like podcasts," I think we're fine. Apple's been a really good steward in this space and I believe they're going to continue to be a very good steward in the space as long as they don't want it to become a profit center.
Molly Rosen: Now, in 2023, podcast technology works pretty much the same as when Kevin Marks wrote the first code to feed podcasts onto iTunes 20 years ago.
Kevin Marks: You have a feed and the feed links to a file on a server, you download the file.
Molly Rosen: Do you feel like its development was a little bit random and then it just stuck, or do you think there was a logic to why the RSS MP3 combination is still what we use today?
Kevin Marks: It's a little bit random, yes. I think the point was it fitted neatly with the episodic nature of blogs anyway, and there was a huge ridiculous standards war between different kinds of feeds and you could make a serial length drama about that. Standards do tend to persist and a big chunk of that is that they become harder to change when you've got lots of people both writing and reading them.
Molly Rosen: We've interviewed Cory Doctorow on the show somewhat recently about his theory of the [unintelligible 00:23:30] of the internet which we always have to bleep because it's public radio. He said that there's one part of the internet that it's [unintelligible 00:23:38] resistant.
Cory Doctorow: Well, I've got some good news for you, Brooke, which is that podcasting has thus far been very [unintelligible 00:23:46] resistant.
Molly Rosen: Really?
Cory Doctorow: Yes, it's pretty cool, which isn't to say that people aren't trying.
Molly Rosen: Do you agree with that and why do you think it's remained such an open ecosystem?
Kevin Marks: Yes. It was this fairly simple standard that anyone could adopt. There was a large ecosystem of people doing different bits of it, and every now and then somebody does try and privatize it. There's been lots of attempts to replace the feed formats with new feed formats, but they're still there and they still work.
Molly Rosen: The same thing that's made podcast technology a little wonky and a little random has also kept it on this different path than other digital media. It was coded by techies to solve a delivery problem and then given a home by Apple to sell hardware. For listeners, well, we can subscribe to a gazillion podcasts for free from the app of our choice. What could possibly go wrong? For On the Media, I'm Molly Rosen
Micah Loewinger: Coming up, What Went Wrong? This is On The Media.
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