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Apple rigs podcasting for corporate media

Apple just unveiled a new subscription service for podcasts. The announcement was decorated with media companies (Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR) and show types (“the fearless conversations about race that you’ve been waiting for!”) familiar to listeners who have ever regretted hitting the browse tab on their podcast app.

Apple and Spotify, neck and neck in podcast listenership, are no longer platforms to connect independent hosts with audiences. They are brand builders for corporate media.  

If the press release and in-app advertising aren’t convincing, the fine print of Apple Podcasts Subscriptions will be. It appears that Apple, not the show creator, controls the customer relationship through ownership of listener data such as email address.  

This is fine for corporate brands that have the fame and scale to bypass direct relationships with customers. But depriving independent hosts of that link to their audience for no licensing money in return is practically a message to get lost.  

Maybe Apple and Spotify don’t want to know what the podcast space would really look like if they didn’t put their thumbs on the scale? Facebook in 2016? Talk radio since the 1990s? These companies have only managed to quell a rightwing surge in podcasting by counterprogramming with leftwing content and celebrities.  

Spotify is paying $25 million to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and a multiple of that to the Obamas. Apple is making sure that no other stars without anything interesting to say are left behind on its charts.  

Fox News foresaw this shifting landscape when it rolled out Tucker Carlson’s podcast this month. The show is exclusive to the Fox Nation app, and besides the direct purpose of selling subscriptions to the new app, this tactic keeps its biggest star within its platform rather than at the mercy of Silicon Valley’s crooked hitmakers. 

Compared to the audited audience measurements established long ago for traditional media, podcast rankings are pulled out of thin air. New shows often rank at or near the top of their categories when they release a preview only to fall sharply in the rankings after their debuts. 

Guest-driven programming – a proven loser on talk radio – somehow consistently tops the charts even though Apple and Spotify are notoriously bad at providing search functions. In this format the host is usually a celebrity, and their guest is a peer. Together they go to great lengths to pretend that they aren’t more similar than different from each other. No one – not even Barack Obama – ever interviews down a level.  

A safe bet is that no listener ever remembers these conversations either. They create no buzz, and there are no authoritative interviewers in podcasting the way there are in other formats, even though media heavyweights like Oprah have podcasts too. 

The host who once wore this crown, Joe Rogan, made the mistake of selling his podcast to Spotify last year. Since then, interest in his show has waned and Spotify has gradually been erasing his past. More so, Rogan lost his customer data to his new employer in the process.  

Media companies like Fox that use their own apps must still pay Apple’s 30% app store fee on all revenue, but they get to keep customer data and control the audience experience. But listeners will likely continue to prefer one central podcasting app – toggling between Apple and Spotify is inconvenient enough – and creating and marketing an app is prohibitively expensive for upstart content producers.  

Patreon and Substack provide an off-platform connection for creators to get paid by audiences and only take one-third the fees of Apple. However, Apple’s past behavior signals that the days may be numbered for this end-around.  

Facebook countered Apple’s recent unveiling by announcing its own plans for audio, centered on the live format that Clubhouse quickly popularized. Facebook’s strategy against Apple’s ad crackdown is to position itself as the platform for small businesses.  

Another platform for user-generated recorded audio would have been welcomed, but, instead, Facebook took the easy way out and cut a podcast and music distribution deal with Spotify.  

The defining features of podcasts versus other digital media like video is that they can be consumed while doing other things but cannot easily be shared. The format offers a strong bond between host and listener but not a turnkey way to go viral. 

 This leaves the podcasting platforms of Apple and Spotify with far more direct promotional power over podcasts than Twitter and Facebook have over text and video content. The latter must constantly produce new policies and algorithms to suppress “misinformation” and protect celebrity power. Apple and Spotify podcast apps can do that through their storefronts.  

How can this system be beaten? In the late nineties, the government successfully sued Microsoft for anticompetitive practices that gave its Internet Explorer desktop app a monopoly on web browsing. Today, Internet Explorer is still around but is irrelevant. Antitrust cases are rare but can succeed when a company has more market power than the public is willing to tolerate.  

Apple already has an informant against it in Spotify itself, which testified at Wednesday’s U.S. Senate hearing on Apple’s anticompetitive practices and is alleging in a European lawsuit that Apple is doing to audio what Microsoft did to web browsing.  

The congressional inquiry could be a prelude to breaking up the app store and with it the podcasting juggernaut. Some lawmakers seem to be collecting the evidence of threats and intimidation needed to bring a case. Ultimately though, President Bill Clinton had to let his Department of Justice go after Microsoft. That was in an era when Republicans were the party of big business.  

Things have flipped. Apple is the hub of Democrats’ information war against traditional values and independent thought. It is the rehabilitation of old-line publishers into leftwing brands through the podcast format. The hookup of Silicon Valley with corporate media may become the most harmful thing in American life. Perhaps that’s why they’d have you believe its coronavirus instead. 

Rich Danker

Writer

Rich Danker worked in politics from 2010-2019 before entering the business world. He served in the Trump administration as a senior advisor at the U.S. Treasury and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission after running several federal election and advocacy campaigns. His writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and he was a columnist for Forbes.com.

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