Apple, please set the podcast free

The logo used by Apple to represent Podcasting

Image via Wikipedia

Today my new iPod Touch arrived. And with it came the feeling that this post, already long overdue, needs writing.

I’m a big radio nerd. I was a journalist and producer for BBC Radio for five years. Before that I dabbled in hospital radio, student radio, did work experience with Chris Evans at Radio 1, and may have at some point turned the living room at home into my own Top 40 station. But with only two records to link between. Damn, I got good at that link.

Radio in the States isn’t the same, and I really miss the BBC. (And it’s not just because of the adverts — although yes, they are more frequent and ten times as obnoxious as those on UK commercial stations.) But actually what I miss is more subtle: British radio is smarter, and more stimulating; it promotes curiosity and doesn’t speak to the lowest common denominator. Mostly, it’s just better funded.

But there’s no reason why it should be this way. In TV and online, diverse and niche content have thrived. Bazillion-channel satellite and cable distribution means that if someone wants to watch cricket in the States, they can. HBO, AMC and Showtime together with hundreds of other specialist channels provide high quality, often ad-free programming. And then, of course there are shows on demand.

For reading online, there’s a blog tailored to your tastes and interests. And if you can’t find it (oh, it’s there), you can curate your own Twitter/Tumblr/WordPress feed to make your own. The low barriers to entry and the infinite opportunity for distribution means that every niche, however small or weird, can be catered to.

So what happened with radio? The medium itself seems to be doing fine. NPR’s listening numbers stay strong and the FM dial is still crowded out with Alt Rock and Pop stations (albeit with ever blander mixes). Sure, my local Classical station’s frequency doesn’t make it to Marin any longer, but, by and large, radio is the same as it ever was: there in the kitchen, in the car, out in the yard. I really believe that for as long as there are sports and automobiles, radio will live on just the same way as it has for over 100 years. They just don’t wear dinner suits any more.

But there’s no niche platform. No equivalent of HBO or WordPress. Talented aspiring broadcasters have nowhere to go and no outlet for their creativity.

“Oh but there is…”, I hear you mutter.

Ah yes, the podcast. Apple’s grand afterthought. The neglected step-child of iTunes. It’ll never make any money so, hell, it probably doesn’t even deserve a primary link in the iOS Music navigation.

I suppose that this could sound disingenuous. Apple unwittingly donated the name that we now know downloadable audio by. And without a presence in iTunes, perhaps there would be no platform for podcasts at all. But that doesn’t seem likely to me. If there’s a demand for the product (and there is) then the establishment of a platform is pretty easy.

A podcast platform independent from Apple would allow you to download and synchronise podcasts across a range of devices. It would provide statistics on usage (not just downloads, but actual plays). This, in turn, would give advertisers real data to work with. Real money enters the ecosystem, and instead of every brand name podcast being supported by Audible’s desperate attempts to sign up another first-month-free subscription, real advertisers could bring real money to talented audio producers.

Maybe there could even be an HBO or a Freshly Pressed of podcasts, showcasing high quality independent content. Or maybe that’s hoping for too much.

But for any of this to happen, Apple must let go. No business can hope to overturn Apple’s dominance of the podcast platform because the fragmentation is so great. Hulu gained traction with the Daily Show and Fox programming. What would do the same for a Podcast platform.

And it’s not as if people haven’t tried. Remember Odeo? Probably not. It was Evan Williams’ company that gave birth to Twitter. It started life as a podcast platform.

My hope is that Apple gets bored of podcasts and lets them go the same way as iWeb. They might think that they’re doing everybody a favor by providing the platform; but they’re not. Announcing that iTunes will no longer support podcasts could be the only thing that really breathes life into pre-recorded audio.

So, please Apple… set the podcast free.