Podcasting 2.0

29 December, 2020 03:25PM ยท 12 minute read

I’ve been podcasting from close to a decade and whilst I’m not what some might refer to as the “Old Guard” I’ve come across someone that definitely qualifies as such: Adam Curry.

Interestingly when I visited Houston in late 2019 pre-COVID19 my long-time podfriend Vic Hudson suggested I catch up with Adam as he lived nearby and referred to him as the “Podfather.” I had no idea who Adam was at that point and thought nothing of it at the time and although I caught up with Manton Reece at the IndieWeb Meetup in Austin I ran out of time for much else. Since then a lot has happened and I’ve come across Podcasting 2.0 and thus began my somewhat belated self-education of my pre-podcast-involvement podcasting history of which I had clearly been ignorant until recently.

In the first episode of Podcasting 2.0, “Episode 1: We are upgrading podcasting” on the 29th of August, 2020 at about 17 minutes in, Adam regales the story of when Apple and Steve Jobs wooed him with regards to podcasting as he handed over his own Podcast Index as it stood at the time to Apple as the new custodians. He refers to Steve Jobs' appearance at D3 and at 17:45, Steve defined podcasting as being iPod + Broadcasting = Podcasting, further describing it as “Wayne’s World for Podcasting” and even plays a clip of Adam Curry complaining about the unreliability of his Mac.

The approximate turn of events thereafter: Adam hands over podcast index to Apple, Apple builds podcasting into iTunes and their iPod line up and become the largest podcast index, many other services launch but indies and small networks dominate podcasting for the most part but for the longest time Apple didn’t do much at all to extend podcasting. Apple added a few RSS Feed namespace tags here and there but did not attempt to monetise Podcasting even as many others came into the Podcasting space, bringing big names from conventional media and with them many companies starting or attempting to convert podcast content into something that wasn’t as open as it had been with “exclusive” pay-for content.

What Do I Mean About Open?

To be a podcast by its original definition it must contain an RSS Feed, that can be hosted on any machine serving pages to the internet, readable by any other machine on the internet with an audio tag referring to an audio file that can be streamed or downloaded by anyone. A subscription podcast requires login credentials of some kind, usually associated with a payment scheme, in order to listen to the audio of those episodes. Some people draw the line at free = open (and nothing else), others are happy with the occasional authenticated feed that’s still available on any platform/player as that still presents an ‘open’ choice, but much further beyond that (won’t play in any player, not everyone can find/get the audio) and things start becoming a bit more closed.

Due to their open nature, tracking of podcast listeners, demographics and such is difficult. Whilst advertisers see this as a minus, most privacy conscious listeners see this as a plus.

Back To The History Lesson

With big money and big names a new kind of podcast emerged, one behind a paywall with features and functionality that other podcast platforms didn’t or couldn’t have with a traditional open podcast using current namespace tags. With platforms scaling and big money flowing into podcasting, it effectively brought down the average ad-revenue across the board in podcasting and introduced more self-censorship and forced-censorship of content that previously was freely open.

With Spotify and Amazon gaining traction, more multi-million dollar deals and a lack of action from Apple, it’s become quite clear to me that podcasting as I’ve known it in the past decade is in a battle with more traditional, radio-type production companies with money from their traditional radio, movie and music businesses behind them. The larger the more closed podcast eco-systems become, the harder it then becomes for those that aren’t anointed by those companies as being worthy, to be heard amongst them.

Advertisers instead of spending time and energy with highly targeted advertising by carefully selecting shows (and podcasters) individually to attract their target demographic, instead they start dealing only with the bigger companies in the space since they want demographics from user tracking with bigger companies claiming a large slice of the audience they then over-sell their ad-inventory leading to lower-value DAI and less-personal advertising further driving down ad-revenues.

(Is this starting to sound like radio yet? I thought podcasting was supposed to get us away from that…)

Finally another issue emerged: that of controversial content. What one person finds controversial another person finds acceptable. With many countries around the world, each with different laws regarding freedom of speech and with people of many different belief systems, having a way to censor content with a fundamentally open ecosystem (albeit with partly centralised search) was a lever that would inevitably be pulled at some point.

As such many podcasts have been removed from different indexes/directories for different reasons, some more valid than others perhaps, however that is a subjective measure and one I don’t wish to debate here. If podcasts are no longer open then their corporate controller can even more easily remove them in part or in whole as they control both the search and the feed.

To solve the problems above there are a few key angles being tackled: Search, Discoverability and Monetisation.

Search

Quick and easy, the Podcast Index is a complete list of any podcast currently available that’s been submitted. It isn’t censored and is operated and maintained by the support of it’s users. As it’s independent there is no hierarchy to pressure the removal of content from it.

Monetisation

The concept here is ingenuous but requires a leap of faith (of a sort). Bitcoin or rather Lightning, which is a micro-transaction layer that sits aside Bitcoin. If you are already au fait with having a Bitcoin Node, Lightning Node and Wallet then there’s nothing for me to add but the interesting concept is this: by submitting your Node address in your Podcast RSS feed (using the podcast:value tag) a compliant Podcast player can then optionally use the KeySend Lightning command to send a periodic payment “as you listen.” It’s voluntary but it’s seamless.

The podcaster sets a suggested rate in Sats (Satoshis) per minute of podcast played (recorded minute - not played minute if you’re listening at 2x, and the rate is adjustable by the listener) to directly compensate the podcast creator for their work. You can also “Boost” and provide one-off payments via a similar mechanism to support your podcast creator.

The transactions are so small and carry such minimal transaction fees that effectively the entire amount is transferred from listener to podcaster without any significant middle-person skimming off the top in a manner that both reflects the value in time listened vs created and without relying on a single piece of centralised infrastructure.

Beyond this the podcaster can choose additional splits for the listener streaming Sats to go to their co-hosts, to the podcast player app-developer and more. Imagine being able to directly compensate audio editors, artwork contributors, hosting providers all directly and fairly based on listeners actually consuming the content in real time.

This allows a more balanced value distribution and protects against the current non-advertising podcast-funding model via a support platform like Patreon and Patreon (oh I mean Memberful but that’s actually Patreon ). When Patreon goes out of business all of those supportive audiences will be partly crippled as their creators scramble to migrate their users to an alternative. The question is will it be another centralised platform or service, or a decentralised system like this?

That’s what’s so appealing about the Podcasting 2.0 proposition: it’s future proof, balanced and sensible and it avoids the centralisation problems that have stifled creativity in the music and radio industries in the past. There’s only one problem and it’s a rather big one: the lack of adoption of Lightning and Bitcoin. Currently only Sphinx supports podcast KeySend at the time of publishing and adding more client applications to that list of one is an easier problem to solve than listener mass adoption of BitCoin/Lightning.

Adam is betting that Podcasting might be the gateway to mass adoption of BitCoin and Lightning and if he’s going to have a chance of self-realising that bet, he will need the word spread far and wide to drive that outcome.

As of time of writing I have created a Causality Sphinx Tribe for those that wish to contribute by listening or via Boosting. It’s already had a good response and I’m grateful to those that are supporting Causality via that means or any other for that matter.

Discoverability

This is by far the biggest problem to solve and if we don’t improve it dramatically, the only people and content that will be ‘findable’ will be that of the big names with big budgets/networks behind them, leaving the better creators without such backing, left lacking. It should be just as easy to find an independent podcast with amazing content made by one person as it is to find a multi-million dollar podcast made by an entire production company. (And if the independent show has better content, then the Sats should flow to them…)

Current efforts are focussed on the addition of better tags in the Podcasting NameSpace to allow automated and manual searches for relevant content, and to add levers to improve promotability of podcasts.

They are sensibly splitting the namespace into Phases, each Phase containaing a small group of tags and progressively agreeing several tags at a time with the primary focus of closing out one Phase of tags before embarking on too much detail for the next. The first phase (now released) included the following:

I’ve implemented those that I see as having a benefit for me, which is all of them (soundbite is a WIP for Causality), with the exception of Chapters. The interesting opportunity that Adam puts forward with chapters is he wants the audience to be able to participate with crowd-sourced chapters as a new vector of audience participation and interaction with podcast creators. They’re working with HyperCatcher’s developer to get this working smoothly but for now at least I’ll watch from a safe distance. I think I’m just too much of a control freak to hand that out on Causality to others to make chapter suggestions. That said it could be a small time saver for me for Pragmatic…maybe.

The second phase (currently a work in progress) is tackling six more:

Whilst there are many more in Phase 3 which is still open, the most interesting is the aforementioned < podcast:value > where the podcaster can provide a Lightning Node ID for payment using the KeySend protocol.

TEN Makes It Easy

This is my “that’s fine for John” moment, where I point out that me incorporating these into the fabric of The Engineered Network website hasn’t taken too much effort. TEN runs on GoHugo as a static site generator and whilst it was based on a very old fork of Castanet, I’ve re-written and extended so much of that now that’s not recognisable.

I already had people name tagging, people name files, funding, subscribe-to links on other platforms and social media tags and transcripts (for some episodes) already in the MarkDown YAML front-matter and templates so adding them into the RSS XML template was extremely quick and easy and required very little additional work.

The most intensive tags are those that require additional Meta-Data to make them work. Namely, Location only makes sense to implement on Causality, but it took me about four hours of Open Street Map searching to compile about 40 episode-locations worth of information. The other one is soundbite (WIP) where searching for one or more choice quotes retrospectively is time-consuming.

Not everyone out there is a developer (part or full-time) and hence rely on services to support these tags. There’s a relatively well maintained list at Podcast Index and at time of writing: Castopod, BuzzSprout, Fireside, Podserve and Transistor support one or more tags, with Fireside (thank you Dan!) supporting an impressive six of them: Transcript, Locked, Funding, Chapters, Soundbite and Person.

Moving Forward

I’ve occasionally chatted with the lovely Dave Jones on the Fediverse (Adam’s co-host and the developer working on many aspects of 2.0) and listen to 2.0 via Sphinx when I can (unfortunately I can’t on my mobile/iPad as the app has been banned by my company’s remote device management policy) and I’ve implemented the majority of their proposed tags thus far on my shows. I’m also in the process of setting up my own private BitCoin/Lightning Node.

For the entire time I’ve been involved in the podcasting space, I’ve never seen a concerted effort like this take place. It’s both heartening and exciting and feels a bit like the early days of Twitter (before Jack Dorsey went public, bought some of the apps and effectively killed the rest and pushed the algorithmic timeline thus ruining Twitter to an extent). It’s a coalition of concerned creators, collaborating to create a better outcome for future podcast creators.

They’ve seen where podcasting has come from, where it’s going and if we get involved we can help deliver our own destiny and not leave it in the hands of corporations with questionable agendas to dictate.