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June 28, 2012, 3 p.m.
iTunes 4.9 screen shot

The iTunes effect, seven years later: Podcasting in a world where Apple is kingmaker

Podcasting pioneer Dave Winer asks whether the field needs a reboot.

iTunes 4.9 screen shot

Seven years ago today, Apple embraced a digital-native medium called podcasts. The iTunes 4.9 software update turned a somewhat geeky hobby into a mainstream product. Users could now browse a menu of audio offerings from all over the web, without having to worry about RSS feeds or MP3 enclosures. (You can see video of Steve Jobs promoting it at D3 here; jump to 17:30.)

A prophetic St. Paul Pioneer-Press article in July 2005 described the “iTunes effect” for indie podcasters:

Suddenly, the obscure, geeky podcasting world was thrust into the mainstream as millions of average Windows and Macintosh users discovered the downloadable shows and took to them in droves. Within about two days, iTunes fans subscribed to podcasts more than a million times for use on their Apple iPod players.

When it comes to media, Apple is a kingmaker; something like a subscription service that is peanuts to Cupertino can be business-model-shifting for a publisher. The company reinvented the music business and invented the apps business. So when Apple released a standalone Podcasts app for iPhones and iPads on Wednesday, it seemed like a big endorsement of the medium. Long-overdue features and a user-friendly interface have made podcasts that much more accessible to a mass audience.

And then there’s that iTunes effect. The podcast 99% Invisible was highlighted as a “Top Station” in the Podcasts app, and host Roman Mars told me downloads of his show were double the normal number on Wednesday — and he hasn’t released a new episode for almost two weeks. Mars told me he has not seen a corresponding increase in site traffic, which normally comes from a prominent blog mention.

Podcast producers expressed mixed opinions about the move: While it’s good that Apple is elevating podcasts to a dedicated app, they say, they’re worried about its separation from the main iTunes Store, which provides a lot of exposure.

“I agree some casual listeners would be lost if the app isn’t built-in, but I believe the net will be additional downloads,” said Jeff Ullrich, who co-founded the Earwolf comedy network. “And let’s not forget, Apple is a pretty good marketer and I can’t imagine their goal in doing this is to kill podcasting.”

Andy Bowers, the executive producer for podcasts at Slate, said: “The old iPhone iTunes podcast interface was next to useless. I agree that if this is an attempt to hide podcasts that’s unfortunate, but I actually think this will be a net benefit” because of greater ease-of-use.

Dave Winer, who invented the podcast, asked on his website whether it was time to “reboot” the podcast.

Maybe it’s time to try out some new ideas. I’ve been thinking about a server-based app for subscriptions that hooks into Dropbox. All the shows you’re subscribed to show up in a folder. And they have clients for all the mobile devices. A podcast service that doesn’t have pictures of tape decks from the 20th century. How does this sound?

I took that to mean Winer was disappointed with Apple’s latest offering, so I asked him about it. On the contrary: Winer sees this as an opportunity for a renaissance of sorts. “It’s is a net positive for podcasting, absolutely,” he said in an interview.

Back in 2000, Winer introduced the “enclosure” element in RSS feeds — before the word “podcast” existed — and then became an evangelist for the medium. He acknowledges the paradox of Apple’s place in the ecosystem: He’s an open source crusader while Apple peddles a walled garden. But Apple has introduced new content to millions of listeners.

Winer and I talked about Apple’s role in podcasting and what he sees as the future of the form. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Winer: I’m an old-fashioned, an old-school dude when it comes to podcasting. I think that the big companies — and obviously it’s not really big companies, plural, it’s really Apple — has a, not a pure vision of podcasting. It’s not pure. I mean, there’s an element to podcasting that they do not embrace, which is the level playing field, and the anything-goes attitude.

Is it the web, or is it Disney? Those are the two extremes. If you like the web, then you’re going to get a lot of crazy stuff along with it. You’re going to have to do your own filtering, and you might hear a bad word every once in a while. But, if it’s Apple’s version of the Internet, it’s all G-rated and highly controlled and maybe there’ll be a 30 percent commission. There’s all this stuff that comes with it that’s just Apple’s way of looking at things.

I believe in, you know — I like feeds, and a feed means that I can plug your feed, I can plug your flow into anything I want, and that’s the power of it. That means that new things can happen, because it doesn’t require your permission upfront. But when it’s a big company doing it, then you end up supporting their platform. And people start — and a lot of people want to do that, because if you can do a promotion deal with them, they can get a lot of people listening to what you’re doing.

And for the people that Nieman cares about, there’s plenty of reasons to care about what Apple’s doing, but I’m very much in the — I want the Internet, I want the web. I want podcasting to be of the web. And that’s very, very important to me. And I’m happy to say that podcasting still is of the web. Everybody still produces feeds. I have my own river-of-news aggregator that handles podcasting just perfectly. And so what I described there in that thread is more or less what I do, how I do my podcasting. And it somehow feels that now, people may be open to some new ideas. That’s kind of what I’m dreaming of now. That we could start rebooting some of these things and go back and explore some ideas that seem to have been cut off because the whole thing had been sort of taken over by Apple…

Phelps: I got the sense that you didn’t like the app…You said “I think it’s time to reboot podcasting,” and that to me suggested, oh, well, he must not be happy with the way Apple is going about this.
Winer: …It’s not for me. I’m not going to use it. It’s not my product. But I’m not unhappy with it, no. Like you said, podcasting had been buried [in the iTunes software]. It looked like they had taken it over and then just forgot about it. You know, that’s how it felt.

And what can you do in that situation? I care about it. A lot of people care about it. Podcasting. A lot of people use it. But if they’re not caring for it, then that doesn’t look good. But now they’ve made an investment. It’s visible again. It gives us something to talk about. So yeah, I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s not in any way, shape or form a software I would design. It’s not even remotely close to a software that I would design…

I also like highly functional software. I don’t like whatever they call it — skeuomorphic. I don’t like that. I think it’s hokey. All the software they have that works that way, I am just repelled by it. The bookshelf, I just think it’s silly. Why do you want your computer to look like a bookshelf? I don’t think anybody likes that, but they like it, so they do it. But those are small things. It’s just not my cup of tea.

I also like server-based applications. I really do. Because then you don’t have the synchronization problem. I don’t have to synchronize five different devices if I’m using those devices to access the server…Just sort of pushing bits around into different places. It’s making the devices more expensive, which, of course, is kind of what the device guy would like to do.

Phelps: I wrote a piece for Nieman recently about Slate’s success with podcasts. I think they’ve got 19 now, and they have three more on the way…And Andy Bowers said it’s all about finding niche audiences for different topics and speaking to them. It works for them and they have success with that. Their numbers are growing and all kinds of things. And of course, as I mentioned in the piece, The New York Times and the Globe killed off podcasts after many years because they said they were not worth the time and the money.
Winer: Yes, you know they were putting a lot of money into them. That was the thing. I used to listen to their TimesCasts…They were great interviews that they did and they were wonderful. But very high production values. I kept thinking, how could they afford to do this? But I don’t think The Times can do anything in a seat-of-the-pants way, whereas I don’t think Slate has a problem with that. I don’t think the listeners care. I don’t think they care. I think what they care about is getting into a different space for a little while, while they’re driving or walking or on the subway or something. And the Slate guys really do that. Their podcasts are excellent.
Phelps: When the Times killed off their podcasts, or most of them, anyway, it renewed this question that doesn’t seem to die of, like, Are podcasts dying, or are podcasts on the way out? But of course, Andy Bowers, and I would expect you…say that it’s not.
Winer: No, of course it’s not. That’s objectively observable. I mean, if it were, why can I not keep up with them? I mean, you know, it’s silly. It’s not, of course it’s not on the way out. There’s an incredible supply of them coming from NPR where they’re doing the production anyway. It’s not like the production cost is in any way like what the Times was experiencing. Speaking honestly, the Times were out of whack because the Times is a newspaper. They produce print, they produce words, written words. For them, the podcast was an independent expense; for NPR it’s just another channel of distribution. It doesn’t cost them anything to do it. So why would they ever stop? If they ever stopped they would lose a lot of money at NPR, because probably the people who care the most about NPR are probably the ones who listen to podcasts.
Phelps: When I was talking to Andy, we were referring to that 2012 State of the Media Report from Pew. And there’s a little section on podcasts, and there’s a sentence in there that says something to the effect of “Only 25 percent of Americans [listened to a podcast in 2011].”
Winer: Oh my god, “Only!”
Phelps: And Andy said, Only? Wow. I hear that and think that’s a lot of people. That’s many millions of people.
Winer: My God, if the NBA had that, they would be in seventh heaven. I don’t believe it. People use to say stuff like that about RSS feeds: “Oh, only six percent of the people on the web are using it.” I go, “Wow, we really accomplished something there, didn’t we?” And then they came to the other conclusion that it’s dead, it’s over. People don’t know how to think about things. They don’t understand media. It doesn’t have to be 100 percent for something to have substantial value. There was this great line in the new Sorkin thing [The Newsroom], and it went by so fast I don’t think a lot of people heard it…She said, “Maybe we’ll only reach five percent of people” — and she’s screaming at him while she’s saying this — “but as you know, that’s how we make decisions in this country.” She’s right! Or he’s right — Sorkin is right. If Obama could get another five percent vote, he’s got a landslide. Everybody would call that a landslide. So you have to remember the context here. If the podcasts can influence even one percent of the people, it’s totally worth doing. We just don’t have that many sources of intelligent news to be thinking about throwing one away. And it’s not happening, anyway, so it’s not even an issue. People can go on dreaming about it, the Times can make all the excuses they want, it’s simply not happening.
Phelps: So is there a way that the programmers of the world, the Dave Winers of the world, can make this a more appealing medium to more of a mainstream audience? To push it beyond the niche?
Winer: The answer to that is if we can get a small community going to interact with them, to develop features for them, the answer is absolutely. It’s always been the problem. And when I say small, I just mean hundreds of people. Podcasting grew out of a community of 100 people, if that. I mean, it doesn’t take many people, it just requires focus and attention…

Phelps: It’s interesting that your ideas are people-based and not technology-based or code-based.
Winer: Well, who do you think this stuff is for? The technology problems usually aren’t very hard…The enclosure element in RSS took five minutes. After that, it took four years before podcasting took off. So you tell me which is the hard part. The hard part is getting people to — well, I mean it wasn’t even getting people to do it, because before I could get other people to do it I needed to know what it was they were supposed to be doing.

You know, just throwing it out there and saying, here’s the enclosure element, use this tool — got no response whatsoever. People scratched their heads and they said, I don’t understand it, and I said, well, I don’t think I understand it either, you know. But three years later, I did when I was dragging a microphone around downtown Boston interviewing everybody, and there were so many celebrities all over the place, you know, interviewing everybody I came across, and then riding on the T down to the auditorium and whatnot — it was like, you could hear the excitement. We were figuring it out. And that, once people heard that, they understood it.

It’s always only about people, and media, and that’s what I do. I’m a media programmer, I mean — I don’t know about other areas. I mean, if you’re doing large-scale databases, I imagine users never even know what you’re doing. But that’s never true with what I do. It’s always about users.

POSTED     June 28, 2012, 3 p.m.
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