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Aug. 12, 2019, 2:43 p.m.

PodPass wants to build the identity layer for podcasting (before some big tech company does it first)

“Ultimately, we hope that a critical mass of podcasters, hosting providers, and apps/platforms will help shape and adopt PodPass as a generative strategy to expand podcasting — creating more value for listeners and creators alike.”

Editor’s note: The podcast industry’s growth to this point has been fueled almost entirely by advertising dollars. But just like the web before it — where free news sites have put up paywalls and monthly streaming subscriptions have gone mainstream — it’s clear that at least some of its future health will depend on getting payments directly from listeners.

What shape paid podcasting will take is a hot subject of debate these days. Will a listener’s attachment most often happen at the individual show level — something like the ecosystem of Patreon-supported podcasts today? Will there be a new set of HBO- or Netflix-style aggregators who promise quality and scale, like what Luminary aims to be? Can models that work for a weekly podcast that runs ad infinitum also work for short-run blasts of audio genius?

But no matter which approaches gain traction, there’s a critical technical issue to be addressed. Namely: Podcast fans listen across a bunch of different apps on a bunch of different platforms. How can a paid relationship between listener and show be translated into an experience within a specific app? Does the exchange of money doom us to a series of silos and walled gardens, or can subscription somehow be integrated into the open podcasting ecosystem that enabled the medium’s rise?

Our old friend Jake Shapiro — previously cofounder of radio distributor PRX, now CEO of the podcasting public benefit corporation RadioPublic — has an proposal called PodPass that aims to answer some of those questions. (Chris Quamme Rhoden, RadioPublic’s cofounder and CTO, came up with the core idea.) Check out the idea below, a draft technical spec here, and an example of what it might look like in action here.

PodPass is a simple, open protocol that uses RSS and HTML to enable both existing and new authenticated interactions for podcasts across platforms.

As podcasting develops new services that require direct relationships with listeners — such as exclusive content, membership, and private feeds — we believe there’s a need for a new protocol that provides a better listener experience, more control for podcasters, and a standardized method for apps to offer access to their users.

Imagine a listener wants to hear bonus content from her favorite show as a benefit of being a supporter. The podcaster’s hosting provider offers access to extended versions of episodes, appearing in the same podcast feed for logged-in members.

Today, this scenario requires separate feeds, copying and pasting URLs, logging into separate websites, and losing your listening history when membership lapses. But it’s possible in a PodPass future. Podpass is an open protocol that enables listener identity management to support publishers’ diverse business needs.

There is an industry trend toward more direct listener monetization and engagement. This includes crowdfunding, membership, tipping, and donations, as well as exclusive and premium content.

This is a healthy development — expanding the range of touch points with listeners beyond the ad impression and helping publishers diversify their revenue and business models. The trend speaks to the depth of experience that spoken-word audio elicits, and it encompasses other podcast engagement strategies such as live shows, email newsletters, fan clubs, surveys, and experiments with personalization and interactivity.

A common need across all of these developments is to authenticate or change permissions based on the listener’s level of access. The listener usually needs to sign in to participate, and often the podcaster seeks more of the listener’s information to develop a more valuable relationship.

To clarify: When we talk about “identity,” we are not necessarily talking about personally identifiable information. In the world of access control, the responsibilities are broken into authentication, identification, and authorization.

Authentication is the job of ensuring someone is who they say they are. Authorization is the job of determining what a given person (or pseudo-anonymous user id) should and should not have access to. Identification is like the glue between these steps, allowing an authenticated person to make a request which requires authorization.

PodPass offers a way for apps to trigger both the authentication and authorization steps — controlled by the podcast host — with the apps offering the identity “glue” over time.

This crucial authentication step introduces obstacles and opportunities for the industry. There’s a risk that podcast listening apps become the default brokers of identity verification and authenticated access in podcasting. In other words, as a listener you may find yourself having to install five different apps to get all your favorite shows exclusive to a platform, and copying/pasting private feed URLs to access others.

More problematic, podcasters may find themselves locked out of a direct relationship with their truest fans, relegated to the role of a content supplier to platforms that control their experience. Ultimately, listeners are being asked to trade control and privacy for access and participation.

This can be an intentional strategy for apps to gain adoption — most visibly playing out at Luminary. Some podcasters are clearly comfortable making this tradeoff. Others, not so much.

Meanwhile, more podcasters are turning to third-party hosting and payment solutions that help support bonus, exclusive, or private content, such as Patreon, Supporting Cast, Acast Access, Glow.fm, RedCircle, Substack, and Memberful. But these services are constrained by available user experiences (primarily, providing a link to a fan who then has to copy and paste it into their listening app) and can face significant friction pursuing app-by-app integrations.

Apple, Google, Spotify, and perhaps other new entrants could “solve” this at scale by driving a dominant platform-based identity layer and monetization approach of their own, as they have done in other markets (alongside Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix). Even in that scenario, there may still be room to sustain a handful of smaller vertical or community-focused paywalled apps.

But at the logical extreme, app-based identity results in either winner-take-all platform hegemony or further fragmentation of podcast distribution, discovery, and monetization. At a moment when podcasting is still reaching new audiences and diversifying its business models, that kind of bundling comes at a cost to growth in podcasting.

Right now, it’s important to recognize that these choices and tradeoffs are still in play, and podcast publishers retain significant leverage in shaping the outcomes.

To recap: Authenticated podcasting is coming, and current approaches face a set of problems.

  • Listeners need to manage multiple feeds for the same show, such as “free” and “paid.”
  • Listeners don’t have a way to keep track of heard episodes as they transition from unauthenticated (public) feeds to authenticated (private) ones.
  • Publishers need to initiate authentication and have no standard methodology, while interested listeners want to provide authentication wherever they already listen to podcasts.
  • Publishers have to maintain multiple feeds.
  • Publishers can’t monetize exclusive content cross-platform.
  • Podcasts can’t be easily personalized in their production or distribution (for example, a personal fitness podcast tailored to your specific goals).
  • Apps and platforms can’t offer simple access to exclusive/member content from multiple publishers without negotiating separate deals/integrations or building and offering their own vertical solution.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that, short of PodPass adoption, podcasting is in imminent danger. The vast majority of current listening and monetization via advertising remains untouched by these new needs and opportunities. But the trend towards authenticated podcasting is unstoppable and PodPass can help ensure it leads to more shared value and growth and avoids a tragedy of the commons.

PodPass is a simple protocol that uses RSS and HTML to enable both existing and new identity-based interactions for podcasting across platforms. It provides two main elements:

  1. A simple set of rules to manage user identity implemented by podcast hosts and listening apps. This entails a method of indicating support, a one-way message-passing API allowing web pages to send (and client apps to receive) updates to a podcast subscription, and a standard way for client apps to request feeds and enclosures with a bearer token. (Here’s the tech spec for more detail.)
  2. A consistent user experience framework for listeners to interact with in any client app. (Here’s an example of a possible listener experience.)

The introduction of a lightweight, web-like identity layer to podcast subscriptions on an opt-in basis can support new and better options where identity can enhance the experience for listeners and align with publishers’ business needs.

Imagine:

  • A loyal listener opens her podcast app and sees a new member-only show from her favorite network. She listens to the free pilot episode, and is prompted to activate her account to hear the rest of the season. She logs in and keeps listening.
  • A podcaster decides to offer an ad-free version of her show to paying fans. Her hosting company offers special access without ads injected for logged-in backers.
  • A new podcast app wants to provide a universal catalog of podcasts, including private, member-only, and premium feeds from podcasters.
  • An organization decides to offer a staff-only podcast. After a quick verification, the employee gains access to the private feed.

PodPass makes these and many other scenarios possible. You have probably encountered something similar already: PodPass is akin to activating your cable or HBO account on Hulu or Amazon Video — or storing your credentials in your web browser for sites you sign into frequently.

Here’s how it works:

There is understandable confusion about the evolution of standards in podcasting and the competing efforts to advance the medium. It is important to clarify what PodPass is not.

  • PodPass is not a new product from any one company.
  • PodPass is not a replacement for existing third-party membership/payment services like Patreon.
  • PodPass is not a CRM or payment system.
  • PodPass is not limited to paid-access use cases.

What’s next?

PodPass emerged from a series of conversations that the RadioPublic team has been having with stakeholders in podcasting across publishers, hosting providers, and platforms, and apps. (Chris Quamme Rhoden, RadioPublic’s cofounder and CTO, is responsible for the core PodPass idea and the technical insights behind it.) There is widespread agreement that the concept is compelling, along with the caveats and hesitation that comes with any bold idea at a moment of change.

We believe that the PodPass concept can spur industry dialogue, lead to immediate prototyping and testing, and that the protocol has the potential to gain adoption as the gains of managing listener relationships in a more effective and decentralized way becomes clear.

We have posted an open draft technical specification, and we welcome comments and feedback. We also welcome direct communication about PodPass through email: Jake Shapiro (jake.shapiro@radiopublic.com), Matt MacDonald (matt.macdonald@radiopublic.com), and Chris Quamme Rhoden (chris.rhoden@radiopublic.com).

Ultimately, we hope that a critical mass of podcasters, hosting providers, and apps/platforms will help shape and adopt PodPass as a generative strategy to expand podcasting — creating more value for listeners and creators alike.

POSTED     Aug. 12, 2019, 2:43 p.m.
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