Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

“With high-dollar acquisitions and big-splash content deals now regular news in the industry, the threat to podcasting’s open standard now looks far less theoretical.”

My last in-person meeting pre-COVID was a PRX-organized symposium on protecting the open ecosystem of podcasting, a medium built on the open-source RSS standard. The format’s openness since 2003 has been instrumental to the industry’s growth. The ideas we discussed at that event will be pivotal to the year ahead.

To date, podcasting has remained largely immune from the intrusive and disconcerting data-targeting practices common across most social networks, online video platforms, and websites. It has also largely resisted the related pulls toward walled gardens and exclusive deals with closed subscription services, which favor the very few, constrain access for newcomers, and restrict sustainable funding options too. But with high-dollar acquisitions and big-splash content deals now regular news in the industry, the threat to podcasting’s open standard now looks far less theoretical.

In an open ecosystem, podcasting is democratized media. They can be a welcome addition, enhancement, or alternative to the dominant commercial media. But as an ecosystem, it needs many points of entry. As the big players in podcasting consolidate, what happens to those points of entry — and to the business models we need in order to start and sustain productions?

When we gathered more than 100 experts from podcasting, tech, public media, journalism, philanthropy, academia, and law in February, we were carving out an intentional conversation to explore a robust future for audio. In April, amid COVID’s first wave, we surveyed independent audio creators. We found 80 percent of producers were impacted financially by the pandemic, with 15 percent (at the time) saying they’d need to cease or postpone production. Imagine all the opportunities lost or altered.

My hope is that next year we protect the open ecosystem, embrace new entrants, foster sustainability, and honor listener privacy, with each ideal connecting to the others. My prediction is that in 2021, podcasting — an important source of valuable news, storytelling, thought, and entertainment — will depend on it.

Kerri Hoffman is CEO of PRX.

My last in-person meeting pre-COVID was a PRX-organized symposium on protecting the open ecosystem of podcasting, a medium built on the open-source RSS standard. The format’s openness since 2003 has been instrumental to the industry’s growth. The ideas we discussed at that event will be pivotal to the year ahead.

To date, podcasting has remained largely immune from the intrusive and disconcerting data-targeting practices common across most social networks, online video platforms, and websites. It has also largely resisted the related pulls toward walled gardens and exclusive deals with closed subscription services, which favor the very few, constrain access for newcomers, and restrict sustainable funding options too. But with high-dollar acquisitions and big-splash content deals now regular news in the industry, the threat to podcasting’s open standard now looks far less theoretical.

In an open ecosystem, podcasting is democratized media. They can be a welcome addition, enhancement, or alternative to the dominant commercial media. But as an ecosystem, it needs many points of entry. As the big players in podcasting consolidate, what happens to those points of entry — and to the business models we need in order to start and sustain productions?

When we gathered more than 100 experts from podcasting, tech, public media, journalism, philanthropy, academia, and law in February, we were carving out an intentional conversation to explore a robust future for audio. In April, amid COVID’s first wave, we surveyed independent audio creators. We found 80 percent of producers were impacted financially by the pandemic, with 15 percent (at the time) saying they’d need to cease or postpone production. Imagine all the opportunities lost or altered.

My hope is that next year we protect the open ecosystem, embrace new entrants, foster sustainability, and honor listener privacy, with each ideal connecting to the others. My prediction is that in 2021, podcasting — an important source of valuable news, storytelling, thought, and entertainment — will depend on it.

Kerri Hoffman is CEO of PRX.

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