The BBC doesn’t want you listening to their podcasts

Not unless you’re doing it on their app, anyway.

In recent months, the BBC have been removing some of its podcasts from third-party platforms, and placing them exclusively within their BBC Sounds app. BBC podcasts are supported by advertising outside the UK, though BBC Sounds remains unavailable to non-UK listeners.

This isn’t too hard to figure out. When you listen to a podcast through a podcast app (such as Google Podcasts, or any one of the many others out there), the podcast creator gets data on downloads (how many, where they are). What they’re not getting, and what the BBC clearly wants, is detailed behavioral data tied to a user login. That’s really useful to, say, sell advertising or subscription products.

We are going to see more of this with podcasts. Podcast consumption is way up, and there’s money to be had. I’m hoping this doesn’t break the whole model that makes podcasts great, though.

I discovered podcasts way before they caught on (10-12 years ago), and things were very different. Podcasts were like blogs in the early days, produced mostly by independent creators on all kinds of topics (or with no topic at all). Production values were all over the map, quality was all over the map, but what was cool was that a whole bunch of people had discovered this method of sending their stuff out into the world and were excited about it. It was a hothouse of creativity and it didn’t matter that 90% of was kind of terrible in many ways.

Today, most of the podcasts people are listening to are major productions. Serial. This American Life. Homecoming. Planet Money. Invisibilia. And there’s what I think of as the “art house” tier, things a bit more experimental and creative, and often quite successful; Welcome to Night Vale and subsequent shows from Night Vale Presents being a prime example. And yes, there are still a lot of little independent creators out there.

This is all great, but the thing tying it together may become unraveled. All of these things are distributed via a simple RSS-based method. Lots of app developers have created apps to let you find and listen and subscribe; Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts are probably the ones people will find first, but there are lots with different approaches and levels of complexity and features. (I am a big fan of Pocket Casts, which is owned by NPR) And there you can get all of it, organize it for your commute or road trip or couch time, and you’re off.

I started hearing a while ago how the RSS protocol was not “good enough” for supporting podcasts. This is nonsense; from a user point of view it’s simple and functional.

What it’s not good at is what the BBC wants: user data. It’s what NPR wants from their NPR One app. It’s what Spotify probably wants after buying Gimlet, though they haven’t indicated that they’ll make the programming exclusive to Spotify.

My concern is that while it’s likely that people will download an app from NPR or the BBC to get podcasts, this is going to keep them from discovering interesting new creators. How would Welcome to Night Vale have gotten going in a world without podcast apps?

There’s a new company called Luminary starting which will offer its own bundle of paid podcast content, plus the ability to subscribe to other podcasts. Maybe that’s a reasonable compromise: pay for our stuff but go discover other great things while you’re at it.

It will be an interesting time for podcasts. I hope that the little guys don’t get squeezed out of existence.

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