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April 25, 2019, 11:10 a.m.

L’affaire Luminary continues with more podcasts dropping out and allegations of technical bad behavior

The paid podcast app may well be doing nothing wrong in its hosting of podcasts from the open web — but nonetheless, what they’ve been best at thus far is generating pushback.

The bigger their funding, the harder they fall — and it’s been a really, really, really hard fall for podcast startup Luminary this week. The $100 million paid-audio company launched Monday, but without a few popular shows like The Daily and Reply All, which said they did not want to be included in the free tier of Luminary’s app. (Luminary offers a set of its own shows that you can listen to for $8 a month. It also has a free tier, which works essentially like any other podcast app — Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts — in that it includes a lot of shows that are available on the open web.)

Yesterday, another big show — The Joe Rogan Experience — also asked to be withdrawn, making it appear that opting out of Luminary might be a trend for the most popular shows.

Then, after that story ran, Barstool CEO Erika Nardini tweeted that her company’s podcasts would be pulled too.

[Update, 3:45 p.m.: PodcastOne has now done the same.]

I’m no Luminary stan, but I confess that I found these actions by podcast publishers a little unnerving. A podcast like The Daily or The Joe Rogan Experience is just an RSS feed with audio files attached; it lives on the open web, available for any computer to download and access. For instance, here’s The Daily’s RSS feed; here’s the MP3 file of today’s episode. Luminary’s controversial, but it’s also just another podcast app, and they all work by downloading that RSS file and then that MP3 file. This interoperability is baked into the open web; it’s just like how every webpage can be accessed by every web browser. Imagine a world where, if you wanted to build a new web browser, you then had to negotiate a license with every site on the Internet? If podcast apps had always been held to this standard, podcasting would’ve never taken off.

If you want to make a podcast exclusive to your platform — as Spotify does, as Stitcher does, as Luminary does — that’s fine; keep it off the open web and just serve it to your app. But to take a show that already exists out in the open, for every other person and device in the world to access, and arbitrarily block it violates the norms of the open web, for me.

But…we learned a bit more this morning that seemed to indicate Luminary isn’t actually acting like every other podcast app. Instead of just accessing those open RSS feeds and MP3 files, Luminary appears to be pulling in copies of both, saving them on their own servers, and then serving their own copies to listeners instead of the originals. (You can see an example of the code here.)

If keeping cached copies of MP3 files doesn’t sound bad to you, it should. Podcasts use data generated by downloads of their own MP3 files to figure out how many listeners they have, which then allows them to sell advertising and sponsorships. If, say, 10 percent of a show’s listens came through Luminary, that 10 percent would be invisible to the podcast’s makers and thus unsellable to advertisers. It’s really bad!

But…maybe it’s not so bad after all? Luminary responded by saying that it actually wasn’t caching MP3s and was instead using the internal URLs to point to the original ones for technical reasons.

In other words, Luminary says that every time the internal URL is called, the original MP3 at the original source gets downloaded. Move along, nothing to see here.

That still screws up podcasters’ statistics, since all of those calls will appear to be coming from the same device and most podcast analytics platforms would consider that to be the same person downloading an episode more than once and not add it to the episode’s total audience. But it’s also something that can be addressed.

But not everyone was satisfied with the response.

At this point, I’m broadly satisfied with the proxying response from Luminary and think, assuming they fix the stats hiccup, what they’re doing isn’t problematic. But the larger lesson of l’affaire Luminary is that when you come into an established space — one that, culturally speaking, still likes to think of itself as having that ragtag DIY DNA from the early days and that is suspicious of big-money outsiders — try not to gratuitously piss people off. There are rules and there are norms, and if you’re seen as violating the norms, the community you’ll need in order to succeed is unlikely to rally around you.

POSTED     April 25, 2019, 11:10 a.m.
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