Sunday, April 23, 2017
Podcasts Surge, but Producers Fear Apple Isn’t Listening

Podcasts Surge, but Producers Fear Apple Isn’t Listening

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Steven P. Jobs put his talent as a master salesman to the test when, in 2005, he introduced new Apple software for downloading digital audio shows. The format was so incipient that he struggled to describe it.

“It’s sort of like TiVo, for radio, for your iPod,” he said. “It’s not just the ‘Wayne’s World’ of radio, but real radio is jumping onto this.”

But he was clear about the potential. “It’s getting very, very exciting,” he said.

He was talking about podcasting — radio-style shows made for the Internet that have, in recent years, exploded in popularity. These days, many amateur podcasters are going professional. Major media organizations, searching for answers and bright spots in a fast-changing and confusing digital world, are releasing new shows every week. Advertisers are starting to follow them, and so are millions of dollars of venture capital.

It is, in other words, an industry now, one that Apple essentially gave life to and still dominates. Yet at this moment of triumph for podcasting, concerns are growing in the community about how much Apple actually cares.

Interviews with over two dozen podcasters and people inside Apple reveal a variety of complaints. The podcasters say that they are relegated to wooing a single Apple employee for the best promotion. That sharing on social media is cumbersome. And that for podcasters to make money, they need more information about their listeners, and Apple is in a unique position to provide it. The problems, they say, could even open up an opportunity for a competitor.

“The lack of podcast data is kind of shocking,” said Gina Delvac, the producer of “Call Your Girlfriend,” a popular show about pop culture and politics.

Late last month, Apple brought seven leading podcast professionals to the company’s campus in Cupertino, Calif., to air their case to a room full of employees, according to two people who were there. The people would speak only on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. The company made no promises, the people said, but several pressing issues for podcasters were discussed in frank terms.

After the presentations concluded, Eddy Cue, the executive at Apple who oversees software and services, arrived for a closed session with the company’s employees, according to the attendees.

“I think everyone who’s seriously involved in this space, they’d at least like to know what the endgame is,” said Chris Morrow, the chief executive of the Loud Speakers Podcast Network. “People think there’s another shoe that’s going to drop.”

Podcasting had been growing swiftly for years, but in 2014, “Serial,” a show that in its first season re-examined a murder case, was the first breakout hit. The season barreled into pop culture, attracting 110 million downloads.

By last year, at least 46 million Americans listened to podcasts each month. This year, that number will reach 57 million, according to a survey by Edison Research.

But podcasting is a product of a different era for digital media — and for Apple. When Mr. Jobs introduced the updated podcast software in 2005, the company was still in comeback mode, driven by iPods. The iPhone wouldn’t come out for two more years.

Now Apple is the biggest public company in the world, but podcasts bring Apple virtually nothing in direct revenue. Perhaps as a result, the iTunes podcasting hub that Mr. Jobs introduced remains strikingly unchanged. Sharing on social media, which basically didn’t exist in 2005, takes multiple clicks.

Promotion within iTunes, which is still one of the only reliable ways to build an audience, particularly for a new show, is decided by a small team that fields pitches and does its own outreach. Interviews with people inside and outside the company make it clear that Apple’s small podcast team has been hearing — and assuaging — such concerns for years.

The question for podcasters — and for Apple — is about what comes next. Apple has at least two obvious choices: to rush to accommodate an industry that is quickly outgrowing its origins, or to let podcasting be, at the risk of losing its claim over a medium that owes its very name to the company.

Even podcasters are conflicted; a hands-off Apple retains some appeal. “Some would argue that it could have advanced in certain ways,” said Andy Bowers, chief content officer of Slate’s Panoply podcast network. But since 2005, he said, “they’ve provided a remarkably level playing field.”

In a statement, Mr. Cue of Apple said, “We have more people than ever focused on podcasting, including engineers, editors and programmers.” He added, “Podcasts hold a special place with us at Apple.”

In terms of revenue, podcasting is still minuscule compared with the technology and entertainment industries. In the early days, hobbyists grew passion projects into businesses and full-time jobs. Now a few established podcast networks and popular podcasters have millions in revenue.

Podcasters can sell advertisements at rates ranging from $20 to $100 for every thousand listeners. For podcasts with hundreds of thousands of listeners — and, in rare cases, millions — those numbers add up. The spending on advertisements will generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the industry this year, said Matt Lieber, a co-founder of Gimlet Media, a podcasting start-up that has raised $7.5 million from venture capitalists.

Expanding the industry much more, though, gets tricky. Apple does not allow shows to charge people to download episodes, for example, and does not support paid subscriptions, as many podcasters would like. Apple has stuck with an advertising model for podcasting that looks almost exactly like what Mr. Jobs predicted onstage in 2005.

Measuring how many people listen is also inconsistent and a regular source of frustration. Podcasters know how many times their podcasts are downloaded, for example, but they don’t know how many people actually listened, or how far those listeners might have gotten.

With data like listener counts and listening duration — similar to what Apple provides app developers — the industry could accelerate quickly, said Ms. Delvac of “Call Your Girlfriend.”

But unlike with downloads of music, movies and apps — sources of billions of dollars of revenue for Apple, which takes a cut from sales and subscriptions — the company’s financial incentive in podcasting is limited. The company takes no cut from podcast advertising, and all podcast downloads are free, so there is no cut to take from that, either. As it stands, podcasting is effectively just one more free feature to help the company sell hardware.

And it’s a popular one. Apple’s service now contains over 325,000 podcasts. The company expects users to listen to 10 billion episodes in its apps — on computers, mobile devices and on Apple TV — by the end of the year.

“Apple built this village 10 years ago,” Mr. Lieber said. “There’s really interesting things in the village, and interesting characters. But the village now has the population of a city — and when a village becomes a city, you need new infrastructure.”

Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murder in Baltimore, became the subject of the hit podcast “Serial,” which had 110 million downloads.

Apple’s conservative approach may be creating an opportunity for competitors, as has happened before. Apple’s iTunes software helped popularize online music, only to watch streaming services like Spotify and Pandora create compelling alternatives. Apple pressured the television and film industries to sell, and rent, their content online; then Netflix built subscription streaming into a business worth nearly $40 billion.

Google abandoned a podcast app in 2012, but this year it added a podcast features to its music app, which is included with smartphones that run the company’s Android operating system. Todd Cochrane, chief executive of RawVoice, a company that tracks podcasts, said Apple’s share of podcast listeners is now about 65 percent, down from 70 percent a year ago. He attributed that change almost entirely to an “upsurge” in listening on Android.

In January, Spotify, the streaming music service, began rolling out an ambitious slate of podcasts. Among the company’s promises to podcasters: hosting, streaming and extensive listening data. Audible, the audiobook service owned by the notoriously aggressive Amazon, is investing heavily in original audio content under the guidance of Eric Nuzum, a former vice president at National Public Radio. (The New York Times is among the partners working with Audible.)

“We’re actively distributing our content in many different places right now,” said Laura Walker, president and chief executive of New York Public Radio, whose podcasts include “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics” and “2 Dope Queens.” “Everything is growing.”

Apple’s stance as the giant of the industry remains undisputed, though, and podcasters are left to navigate a complicated relationship with the company. Most send messages to the company at a general email address. To those who have direct contact, their relationship centers on one person: Steve Wilson.

Mr. Wilson, podcasters say, acts as Apple’s de facto podcast gatekeeper. Attention from him can be the difference between a hit and a dud — and between a podcast that pays and one that doesn’t.

The most consistent major source of new listeners — in some cases, tens of thousands — is a top spot on iTunes and Apple’s podcast app. That is the real estate that Mr. Wilson helps oversee, and that podcasters covet. (Mr. Wilson directed a request for an interview to a company publicist, who declined to make him available for an interview.)

“As far as I can tell they’re huge podcasts enthusiasts,” said Jody Avirgan, who hosts and produces podcasts for the ESPN data journalism site FiveThirtyEight. “But you’re trying to cram thousands of new shows into, what, six things that get featured on the home page?”

Mr. Wilson’s identity and contact information are shared among podcasters like a juicy secret, and his podcast preferences are furtively debated in the industry, as are those of his boss, James Boggs. Mostly, it makes podcasters wonder: At a company the size of Apple, what does it mean that American podcasters are left to lobby a single person?

From Apple’s perspective, it’s not that simple. Of the more than 150 iTunes podcast portals around the world, 29 have hand-edited selections and Steve Wilsons of their own. Any change to the way Apple handles podcasting could have wide ramifications.

Additionally, the “Top Podcast” list within iTunes is also the subject of constant speculation among podcasters. An apparent change in the system this year resulted in small podcasts from Disney fans — and a show that hadn’t yet published its first full episode — being ranked alongside shows with hundreds of thousands of listeners, according to Nicholas Quah, who publishes Hot Pod, a newsletter about the industry.

For listeners, quirks like this may only be a little weird. For podcasters, who already struggle to communicate their success to advertisers, it leaves them frustrated.

“I think it’s like the question everyone asks of any company,” said Ms. Delvac, the “Call Your Girlfriend” producer. “How can I keep the good parts of my relationship the same, and get more of what I want?”

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