A special announcement

It’s been just over a year since I left my staff job at a magazine, moved out of London, and started working for myself. In every way, it’s been a brilliant decision, and I wouldn’t go back for anything. This newsletter came into being because of this newfound independence and freedom. Because I’ve been working on my own, I’ve been able to say what I wanted, when I wanted — and that feels appropriate, because so much of the podcasting industry that I cover either lives outside the structures of traditional media, or represents fresh developments for existing organisations.

However, the major downside to my current setup is this very solitariness. I work on my own; if I’m sick, or tired, or busy, or lacking motivation, there’s nobody I can turn to for help. The financial side too has been difficult. Generous readers of Podmail have become paying subscribers to this thing, but the revenue I generated from that has never been enough to compensate me fully for the time I spent writing the newsletters, so I’ve constantly been trading off between better paid work that keeps the lights on with my desire to do my best work for this community. This problem has become particularly acute this summer: as I’ve become busier, the newsletter has suffered, and that doesn’t feel right.

To address this, therefore, I’m making a change. I expect many of you will already be familiar with the Hot Pod newsletter written by Nick Quah, which since it began in late 2014 has grown into essential reading for all involved or interested in the podcast industry’s development, especially in the US.

Nick and I have been corresponding about audio on and off for years as our respective work reporting on podcasting has developed. I’ve long respected him as an outstanding authority on the industry, as well as a tenacious reporter and entrepreneur.

We’ve now decided to work together to expand Hot Pod into a bigger publication that covers the global podcast industry. This means that I’ll be mothballing Podmail and instead doing my writing about podcasts for Hot Pod, mainly covering UK and Europe but also writing about US developments too. If you aren’t already subscribed to those emails, sign up here. Together, Nick and I will be writing a free newsletter on a Tuesday, and then I’ll also be taking over one of the two weekly subscriber-only emails. If you have stories or tips to share, you can always email me. You can read more from Nick about our new setup here.

I’m really excited to work with Nick, and to have all of the advantages that come with being a two-person rather than a one-person team at my disposal. I’d like to thank all the Podmail readers who have supported me this far — I really appreciate you reading and responding to what I’ve written over the past few months, and I hope you’ll continue to do that with my work over at Hot Pod. If you’re a paying Podmail subscriber, I’ll be contacting you directly very soon to discuss the new arrangements. My personal links roundup email, No Complaints, continues unchanged.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to support this new venture that Nick and I are beginning, here’s what you can do:

Thanks very much for reading! See you over at Hot Pod very soon.

The two biggest challenges in podcasting

Back in June, I wrote to you a couple of times about Google’s latest venture into podcasting distribution. There’s widespread agreement among podcasting people that Android smartphone users represent a big potential growth area for podcasts, if only there was a solid pre-installed default app they could use (like Apple Podcasts on iOS) instead of having to fiddle around downloading third party options before they can even start listening.

I’m still keeping an eye on the Google Podcasts app that launched a couple of months ago, and I like the changes they’ve made so far — it has good homescreen recommendations based on prior listening and easy to use controls. I was very surprised, therefore, to read yesterday that there is another podcast app in development at Google, apparently called Shortwave.

The app was revealed via a trademark filing, which states its purpose as “allow[ing] users to search, access, and play digital audio files, and to share links to audio files”. It’s being worked on by an experimental unit within Google called Area 120, apparently, and has no connection to their other podcast operations.

A spokesperson has said that Shortwave “helps users discover and consume spoken word audio in new ways”, prompting a lot of speculation on the Android blogosphere that this is Google’s attempt to make audio more easily shareable and podcasts more discoverable.

Those are two of the biggest and most talked-about challenges in podcasting: how do we make it easier for people to share podcasts they like in a way that makes them accessible for new listeners (ie not an iTunes store link, shudder), and how do we make it easier for people who listen to one podcast to find five more shows that they will like? Commonly-asked questions, which currently lack any definitive answers.

Who knows if Shortwave will ever make it onto our phones, and whether it will be popular and useful if it does (remember that app called “Google Listen”, which died a death in 2012? Nobody else does). But I feel slightly buoyed by the news that Google is experimenting in this space — it’s only by trying new ways of passing audio around that we’ll ever get to good solutions.

Another live in person update: I’ll be at the London Podcast Festival on 16 September for two events: an onstage conversation with Starlee Kine called “Cracking the Mystery of Mystery Show” (tickets here) and a workshop called “Marketing Your Podcast” (very affordable tickets here). I’ll also be generally around the festival that day, so hopefully see some of you there.

Disruptions in a podcast community

Most podcasts, if not all, start out in a niche. Some might grow beyond that, converting new people to their subject, and others will remain in their little nook, serving listeners who already inhabited that space. Either way, podcasts gather communities about them — big and small — as listeners come together around the show to discuss the contents and other relevant media/information.

The actual platform this community occupies varies from show to show: The Receipts does great things with a Twitter hashtag, You Must Remember This has its own forum (old school, I love it), and In the Dark has a Facebook group you must pay to join. The technology seems to matter less than the fact that people really want to turn up and talk about what they’re listening to.

Listeners’ fervour for this kind of discussion can come as a bit of a surprise to podcasters, who might previously have thought that their main task was to cut tape and produce a show, not become a full time community moderator. As anyone who works in audience development or management for a big website, say, or a social network will tell you — this stuff is much harder than it looks.

Once your community grows to include thousands of people who post a lot, it can become more than a full time job to make sure that guidelines are adhered to and offensive posts are removed in a timely way. What was once a brilliant addition to your podcast can become a burden, and even a PR disaster.

I watched with interest this week as the latter unfolded around the My Favorite Murder podcast’s Facebook page (which has been liked by over 230,000 people). There’s a good explanation of what went wrong here; essentially it seems that a controversy blew up around an insensitive and appropriative piece of merchandise, which the hosts didn’t then pull from sale immediately, and then the anger spilled out onto moderating policies and alleged racists posts being allowed to appear on the page. The creators suspended the page for a while, but at the time of writing it’s back up.

I haven’t spoken to anyone directly involved in this particular incident, so I can’t comment on the precise facts and implications thereof. However, this case is interesting to me as an archetypal example of an online community outgrowing its source material, and indeed its creators’ capacity to steer it.

My Favorite Murder is a tremendously successful podcast, and having scrolled through some of the comments on the Facebook page there are plenty complaining about things other than the two issues I’ve mentioned above. There are too many ads; the show isn’t just about murders any more; the episodes aren’t as long as they used to be. There’s an atmosphere of dissatisfaction in some parts of the group, which I’m sure wasn’t what its creators wanted when they began. But sometimes things outgrow our original intentions, and there comes a point where a community has to evolve and add the resources for its safe management, or it has to close down.

Navigating these growing pains is really difficult, especially when you might not have the resources to police or moderate the community full time. Nobody gets into podcasting because they want to try and run an online community — but since this particular show’s creators have just announced the launch of a whole podcast network, it seems that they have bigger plans for expansion that are going to require them to get their affairs in order, sharpish.

(If you’re interested in this topic, this episode of Gimlet’s Reply All tells the story of a Facebook group that got out of control, albeit in a far more lighthearted way. )

Asking listeners for money

A disproportionate amount of podcast coverage, I feel, focuses on shows that are big enough to be fully supported by advertising revenue. We read a lot about the Dirty Johns and Atlanta Monsters of this world, which rack up millions of downloads and ad impressions. At the other end of the spectrum are people just making podcasts for their own pleasure, or to share with a small group of friends or fellow enthusiasts, with no intention of ever monetising their audio.

But what about all the shows in between, which could be attracting anything from 1,500 to 40,000 plus downloads per episode? It depends a bit on the subject of your podcast and where you are in the world, but if it falls somewhere in that range, chances are advertising alone will not bring in enough money to support you or your show. Where do you turn instead?

For a long time now, the answer has been “your listeners”. The means might be as informal as pointing people towards a Paypal donation link, or as complicated as an involved Patreon setup with a number of reward tiers, but it all comes down to the same transaction: the podcaster asks their listeners for money, and the listeners pay up to help the show they enjoy continue production. On the surface, it seems like a simple system, which doesn’t require the extra work or resources that an advertising model often requires.

However, there are lots of hidden complications. For starters, your listeners might not want to pay you what you need to keep podcasting. Or they might be prepared to part with their cash, but only in return for rewards that will take you a long time to create and send (thereby increasing the amount of work you have to do to secure the funding). Or your crowdfunding platform might suddenly announce that it is arbitrarily increasing the fees it takes from creators, cutting into your revenue (hey, Patreon in 2017).

If you do manage to run a successful crowdfunding income model for your podcast, up until recently you didn’t have many technology options for how you would run it. Kickstarter was good if you wanted to fundraise for a single lump sum at a time. (Wooden Overcoats is a podcast that has used this very successfully, I think, raising money each year to make a new series. The US network Radiotopia also used it to great effect when starting out).

Patreon, which allows you to charge supporters on a recurring basis, either per month or per episode, is also popular with a lot of independent podcasters. But for a long time, it’s been pretty much the only way of running an income stream like this, unless you felt able to build your own membership platform from scratch into your podcast’s website. I think this is why Patreon caused such a fuss late last year when they briefly put up their fees — they didn’t have enough competitors to seriously consider the effect it might have on their users.

Also, Patreon isn’t specifically designed to accommodate podcasters, although they have added a few useful features for audio more recently such as the ability to generate a private early-access RSS feed for paying supporters. Just in the last couple of weeks, though, we’ve seen that change, with podcast hosts Anchor and Breaker both introducing podcaster-specific membership programmes within their existing audio technology platforms.

When it comes to third party platforms in podcasting, I think the more competition there is, the more likely podcasters are to get a better service. I hope these launches are an indication that companies are beginning to see shows that aren’t quite able to monetise fully with ads as an opportunity for growth, and that more services targeting this group are on the way. It helps us all if we can say no to the adverts every now and again.

Alex Jones and podcast free speech

I’ve been expecting the “hate speech vs free speech” issue to rear its head in podcasting for a while, and in the last week or so it has finally kicked off in a high profile way. If you haven’t been following this story from other outlets, here’s a very brief summary.

Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host behind the Infowars website and network, has had most of his podcast content removed from most major podcast distribution platforms, including Spotify, Apple, Spreaker and Stitcher. Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest have also taken down some of his posts.

If you aren’t familiar with Jones’s work or why these tech giants don’t want to distribute it any more, here’s a brief selection of what Infowars has done:

“They are 9/11 truthers; fueled the Pizzagate conspiracy, which led to an automatic weapon being discharged in a Washington restaurant; have suggested Sandy Hookwas a ‘false flag’ operation; incited harassment against parents of crime victims; and have done far more.”

The podcast removals snowballed over several days, with Spotify initially saying they would remove “some episodes” from their listings, while Stitcher and Apple delisted whole podcasts (although the latter still has one of Jones’s six podcasts in their database at the time of writing). For a more detailed timeline of the removals, I recommend this Buzzfeed story.

Stitcher cited multiple cases of harassment on Jones’s podcasts as their reason for removing them:


Thanks for your note. We have reviewed Alex Jones’ podcasts and found he has, on multiple occasions, harassed or allowed harassment of private individuals and organizations, (1/2)

August 3, 2018

and that harassment has led listeners of the show to engage in similar harassment and other damaging activity. Therefore, we have decided to remove his podcasts from the Stitcher platform. (2/2)

August 3, 2018
Apple said in a statement that the company “does not tolerate hate speech”, although as I said, right now you can still find one Infowars podcast on Apple Podcasts, and the Infowars app is still available in the App Store.

When is a platform also a publisher? For me, this is the deeper question in this particular story, which also underlies the larger problems with fake, inaccurate and conspiracy content online.

Where once it used to be enough for a social network like Facebook or Twitter to claim that as merely the means by which information was distributed, they had no responsibility to police the content that appeared on their platform, in 2018 we’ve moved to a place where it’s widely accepted that the algorithmic feeds and recommendations used by these sites put the onus on the platform to ensure that what they’re distributing is not illegal, hateful, or dishonest.

In other words, because of their sheer size and influence, these distribution platforms have taken on the curatorial powers of a more traditional publisher, and they have to make ethical decisions about what content they choose to host for their users.

When it comes to podcasting, there’s a specific context, because of the tech that podcasts run on. Although it is accurate to say that none of Spotify, Apple, Spreaker and the rest were actually hosting Alex Jones’s podcasts (ie his mp3 files don’t live permanently on their servers), by making his RSS feed available in their apps, they are the primary means by which people access the shows. It’s different to a news story or video that you can consume in its entirety on Facebook without leaving the social network at all — in that case, there’s no ambiguity for me about who is hosting the content. Does running an RSS feed through an app count as publishing the content it contains? That’s the question.

For now, I believe you can still find the RSS feeds in their raw form, as self-hosted by Jones’s website, so it’s not the case that the podcasts have been “erased from the internet”, as I’ve seen a few reports and commenters suggest. This is where the “free speech” issue supposedly comes in, although that argument doesn’t wash at all. Jones is free to say and host what he likes (within legal limits) on platforms that he owns and fully controls. There is no moral or legal obligation for any other company to distribute what he says or publishes, though.

Of course, there will be substantial financial consequences for Jones now that no major podcast distributors are hosting his podcasts, because only the most dedicated fans will seek out his RSS feed to keep listening and his audience is going to shrink drastically. And, for better or worse, the podcast ecosystem relies on giants like Apple and Spotify to set the tone — many, many smaller apps and databases will, either automatically or manually, now be removing Jones as well.

So is a podcast distributor a platform or publisher? It doesn’t really matter, ultimately — each company is free to make their own decision about what podcasts they want to distribute, and it seems that in the last few days, Jones has suddenly become an unacceptable podcaster to many of the biggest players in the business. The only question that remains, I think, is why it took so long for them to take action on this at all.

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