Don’t Call Audible’s New Audio Shows Podcasts

It's the end of the (podcast) world as we know it

Key Takeaways

  • Exclusive audio shows are not podcasts.
  • Audible Plus is a $7.95 a month subscription for exclusive audio content, i.e., everything but audiobooks. 
  • Closed platforms might destroy actual podcasting.
Condencer microphone in recording studio on air podcast music
Eugene Sokolenko / Getty Images

Will Audible’s new “original audio program” tier of content kill the podcast? These exclusives, locked in to their respective apps, could blow the podcasting world apart.

Amazon’s audiobook company now offers a subscription that doesn’t include any audiobooks. For $7.95 a month, you can subscribe to Audible Plus, which gives you just podcasts and other original audio programs. This marks Amazon’s play for a slice of the podcast market, which is red-hot and growing.

The thing is, these aren’t podcasts. Podcasts are like web pages—anyone can listen to any podcast in any podcast app, just like you can view any web page in any browser. While Audible (and also Spotify) might call its audio shows “podcasts,” they are not.

“The danger could be that shows born as podcasts morph into a conceptually different format that can be processed and packed as an exclusive show,” Andrea Nepori, podcaster and writer for Italian newspaper La Stampa, told Lifewire via message. 

Defining Your Terms

A podcast is any audio show that can be automatically downloaded by a podcast app. That’s it. Behind the scenes, it uses something called RSS, which is a standard for letting apps check websites for new articles. RSS powers news and podcast apps, and it’s an open standard usable by anyone. The key is that, even if you subscribe to a paid podcast, you can still listen to it in any podcast app.

We need a new name for podcast-like things that have no feeds, are locked behind a paywall, [and] can't be archived, cited or shared.

Most podcast apps use Apple’s podcast directory, but this directory is itself open. Anyone can submit their show, and as long as it doesn’t contain anything abusive or dodgy, it goes in. More importantly, anyone who makes a podcast app can access this directory to provide search features.

Podcasts as they appear in Apple Podcasts

“The key is that if you make a podcast player, the only thing your app needs to know about any particular podcast is the URL to the RSS feed for the podcast,” writes podcaster and Apple pundit John Gruber on his Daring Fireball website.

Networks like Audible, Luminary, and Spotify only allow users to listen using their own apps.

“Would a website be a ‘website’ if it only worked in one company’s browser?” writes Gruber.

Why Are Audible and Spotify Doing This?

Every time you play a song on Spotify, Spotify has to pay the copyright owner. It’s not much money, but it all adds up. If you instead spend your time listening to a “podcast,” then it costs Spotify nothing. That’s reason one.

Second, by offering its own content, Spotify locks you into its service. “I don’t worry too much about deals like the one between Joe Rogan and Spotify,” says Nepori, “as they don’t appear to be scalable enough to become the general rule.” But put enough of these together and they have you locked in.

Audible itself promises “over 68,000 hours of content and 11,000+ titles from across the content spectrum.”

Third, controlling the app you use for listening lets a company track what its listeners are doing, as we’ll see in a moment.

What Does This Mean for Listeners?

The first problem for listeners is fragmentation. Similar to how you need Amazon’s Prime Now app to watch one show, and Netflix to watch another, you will no longer be able to listen to podcasts in one app.

Audible Originals coming to Audible Plus

More important is the issue of tracking and privacy. So far, podcasts have resisted the worst practices of the internet ad industry. Podcasts are counted by downloads and that’s about it. Ads are sold based on the number of shows downloaded. There’s no way to know if somebody even listened to a downloaded show, which has worked just fine since podcasts began, back in 2004.

Advertisers, of course, want more detailed tracking. If a service controls the platform, the content, and the player software, then it can track whatever it likes. And this will result in significant privacy violations for you, the listener.

Walled Gardens and the End of Open Podcasting

In the end, this bundling of exclusive audio shows into closed systems could spoil the open, egalitarian nature of podcasts. Just like the early web, podcasting is great because anyone can reach a large audience, and a variety of voices can be heard. If podcasting moves behind curated walls, then companies like Spotify and Amazon get to decide what we can listen to.

Dave Winer, inventor of RSS and arguably one of the co-creators of podcasts, is less kind: “We need a new name for podcast-like things that have no feeds, are locked behind a paywall, can't be archived, cited or shared, and don't create any kind of record,” he wrote on Twitter. “Something like ‘Dead-end-cast.’ Or ‘Business-model-cast.’ Or ‘VC-friendly-cast.’”

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