This week the news of Spotify buying two well-regarded podcast production companies came across my desk. It is reasonably well known that I am of the opinion that bundling podcasts in with music apps is a terrible idea from a user experience perspective, but those feelings alone weren’t what caused this news story to stick in my craw. No, what really twists my knickers is that this is the antithesis of the spirit of podcasting.
Exclusivity is anathema to podcasting. The technical and social infrastructure it’s built upon is not an accident, and through nothing short of a miracle it has remained untainted for nearly fifteen years. Even Apple, which inarguably helped podcasting grow to what it is and left its mark on the technology eponymously for all time (even long after the devices it was named for stopped being sold), took pains to keep podcasting independent and decentralized. They could have required people to upload content directly to Apple’s own servers, and could have made a proprietary subscription format instead of the standardized RSS technology that podcasting is actually built upon, but they didn’t. They embraced this openness, or at least they didn’t fight it. They even made many of their APIs open for any developer to build upon (which Vocal takes great advantage of, as iTunes supplies the podcast directory in it).
The same thing that makes me so excited about, and so proud to work on, open source software is the exactly same thing that I’ve always loved about podcasts. Anyone with a microphone and an internet connection can create an absolutely riveting, handcrafted radio or television program. Creators can make content about topics that are important to them. Sometimes that leads to massive, public successes (looking at you, Serial), and sometimes it leads to a niche podcast beloved by a tiny, yet devoted audience. But either way, as a result we end up with hundreds of thousands of shows producing new, reguarly updated episodic entertainment for us to enjoy, which is completely free and entirely accessible to everyone.
That’s why I wince when I read sentences in articles saying that these new aquisitions will “lock more original content to the service, and could draw people over from rivals like Apple Podcasts or Stitcher” (from the linked Verge article above). That’s not what podcasting is about. I’m concerned that in the future we will have little silos of podcast-like content, where one must subscribe to a particular company’s service to gain access to a locked-away show that will only play in DRM-encumbered, closed-source apps provided directly by the hosting company. I’m not interested in that future, and will not support any show or platform that intends to make it a reality.