Off the chart

Why do people care so much about the iTunes podcast charts? Once again, there’s been a little rush of articles about it (this happens a few times a year, as Nick Quah broke down in this excellent take from 2016). Is it possible to game them, this one asks? Is it actually really easy to get your show on there, another one wonders? Have you seen how high our show is ranking, says the beginning of every press release I ever receive?

The obvious answer to this is that in a sphere where data is very important (because it determines success/sponsorships/revenue) yet very scarce (even with Apple cracking open the black box ever so slightly with the new analytics tool), people become obsessed with whatever metrics are out there. Trouble is, the charts are basically meaningless because of a) how often they update and b) how self-reinforcing they are. For people using the Apple Podcasts app, they’re the probably the primary way of discovering new shows, so once your show appears on there, new people will keep finding it, boosting its ranking further.

I have a screengrab of my pop culture podcast ranking higher than the Empire Film Podcast, a show that definitely has way more listeners than us, because I happen to have taken it at a moment when we had just released an episode and they hadn’t for a few days. And on point b), check out the graphs in that Pacific Content piece I just linked to — once you break the overall top ten, you’ll likely stay there, because. . . that’s what Apple wants.

Yet I still get a lot of emails urging me to listen to/review podcasts purely based on their iTunes ranking. Often, they don’t even include much other information about the show, as if the chart position alone should be enough to make me want to take an interest. I generally find this quite sad, and usually archive the email without responding. I want people to be proud of their work and tell me why, not give me some arbitary number that Apple has generated for you!