"The biggest change to Apple Podcasts since its debut".
That was what Apple CEO Tim Cook announced during Apple's Spring Loaded event for 2021 that happened only a mere matter of hours ago. During that event, Apple announced some big changes to The Podcast Platform Formerly Known as iTunes, which has gotten the whole podcast world in a bit of a tizzy. But what's all the fuss actually about?
Well, despite the Googles, Spotifys and Amazons of this world making lots of noise about their influence in podcasting , it's still fair to say that Apple still rules the roost. I mean, it's called PODcasting, for goodness sake, named after the (sadly, and unbelievably, now defunct) Apple iPod on which this crazy internet-radio-on-demand format hit the mainstream. Because of Apple's position as the instigator of the podcast format, pretty much every other podcast directory online follows Apple's lead; historically what's good enough for Apple has been good enough for everyone. But now, competition in the streaming audio market has never been more intense, and Apple has to try something new to keep up with the new kids on the block.
So how will these changes affect you? Let's go through them and play crystal ball to try and predict what impact they will have on podcasting as we know it.
Follow or Subscribe?
News came out last month that Apple had changed its terminology, with updates to Apple Podcasts meaning text on buttons now prompted users to "follow" a podcast instead of "subscribe" to it. This article from PodNews earlier this year welcomed the change, noting that podcasting was still a bit of an outlier in its use of the word 'subscribe', which to many users, denotes 'paid'. PodNews inferred that this was preventing new listeners from coming across to podcasting, as subscribing to a podcast won't actually cost you anything, will it?
Well, I guess they were half-right!
Now, Apple Podcasts is giving podcast creators the ability to create subscription content on their podcasts, as opposed to free content which is now followed. Confusing, I know, but basically following a podcast is the same as before, while subscribing to a podcast gives creators the ability to add perks including early access, ad free listening and subscriber-only content. Two levels exist above the regular free podcast, with 'freemium' allowing some degree of free access, while fully paid podcasts are only accessible to paid-up subscribers.
So how does it work? Well, podcast creators pay a yearly fee to Apple, and then Apple also gets a percentage of subscription fees (apparently 30% in the first year, 15% thereafter). This feature will launch on Apple Podcasts in about a month's time.
What's the impact?
It's going to be interesting, this one. Plenty of podcast hosts already provide the facility to have a subscriber-only podcast, but it relies on the ability of users to go into their podcast app and add a link to the paid podcast in their app manually. Will the Apple Podcasts app still allow podcast listeners to add links manually, or will they turn off that ability, forcing podcasters to use Apple's new subscription program? Only time will tell.
The bigger argument here though is potentially a philosophical one- will we see podcasting move towards the subscription model, rather than the current ad-supported model as the new norm? That, I think, has a far bigger potential to shape the podcast industry as Apple, Spotify, Google, et al all try to carve out a market share.
Slicker, more individualised podcast listening experience.
The actual Apple Podcasts app itself is now going to look a bit different. The app has been fully redesigned to give more emphasis to personalised recommendations (a la Spotify), and give podcasts more of their own identity with colourful and distinctive individual landing pages.
What's the impact?
While this is great, it does appear to have added slightly to Apple's artwork requirements for submitting a podcast, with specs for show artwork, channel artwork and icons (more on that later) having been added to the artwork requirements on Apple Podcasts for Creators. It's going to look good in the app, but hopefully other providers follow suit with similar (or the same) specs requirements for their own apps, so as to not overwhelm podcasters with a zillion different graphics requirements everywhere they submit their podcast.
Find more shows from your favourite creators.
This change, to my brain, seems the most logical and useful out of all the changes offered. Simply, it allows creators to group their shows under one cohesive banner. For example, if I really enjoy the ABC's brilliant financial (and now life) advice show The Pineapple Project, I might want to go and find some other shows produced by the ABC. Channels will allow each creator to have a page within iTunes to house all those shows.
What's the impact?
Now that podcasting's no longer the domain of individuals recording shows in their bedrooms, it makes sense that big podcasters like the aforementioned ABC, the BBC, Gimlet, Wondery, NPR... (and Jet Streamer!) are producing multiple shows and would like to be able to house them together. But smaller creators on sites like YouTube have shown that smaller 'spinoff' type shows can work for them too, and it's great that podcasters will now be able to take advantage of this as well. My prediction? Expect this to roll out on other platforms.
What will be interesting for me is what happens on the podcast hosting side. Hosts such as Buzzsprout charge separately for different shows, which was precisely why we switched to Transistor to host The Jet Streamer Podcast, and some other upcoming client shows- paying twice for Buzzsprout just wasn't cost effective. With these changes now making it easier to host other shows, will we see changes to their pricing structures to better suit multiple shows?
Will this change podcasting as we know it?
It's hard to say what the impact of these changes to Apple Podcasts will be, and I (along with many in the podcast industry) are really just sitting back with a bucket of popcorn at the moment to really grasp what the impact of these changes might be.
But it will be interesting to see the direction podcasting goes in the next few years.
Before the current podcasting boom, it seemed like everyone was happy to keep well enough alone. Nobody really saw any reason to change what Apple had already done, and with a few slight tweaks to the format over the years podcasting really has stayed much the same. I think the biggest takeaway from that announcement is this era is now over; expect more changes from now on!
But having watched what's happening in the online streaming video space, with players like Netflix and Amazon Prime battling for subscribers and nowhere near the same level of accessibility for creators that we enjoy as podcasters, I'd like to hope that wherever online streaming audio goes (as distinct from podcasting), that increased competition doesn't lead to increased hurdles for creators in getting their content on the platform in the first place. Podcasting's always been a very democratic medium (thanks in no small part to Apple themselves), let's hope it stays that way!