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Whether you listen to podcasts or not, it’s worth appreciating something odd about them. Podcasting is one of the few areas of digital information and entertainment that is not controlled by giant corporations.
That phase is coming to an end and there is now a battle to become a Big Tech Boss of podcasts.
The controversy over the past few weeks with podcast host Joe Rogan highlighted the ways Spotify and other companies want to become a Netflix of podcasting. They imagine themselves controlling popular programs, such as Rogan’s Show, as well as the digital place where we listen.
This comes at a time when tech geeks are looking to remodel the internet to be less dictated by powerful corporations – captured by the umbrella term ‘Web3’. That reality already existed in podcasts, and is fading. What happens to podcasts is a potentially discouraging lesson that utopian ideals can swerve from digital freedom when the potential gains become too appealing.
Let me step back and explain why podcasts have been a relatively free corner of digital life, and what we’re gaining and losing as it changes.
Anyone could theoretically create a podcast in their basement and then distribute it everywhere people listen to podcasts. There is no set of rules that everyone must follow.
That may not seem remarkable, but it is. On much of the internet, Big Tech bouncers man the doors.
Apple and (to a lesser extent) Google dictate where we download apps, how we pay for them, and what features they include. Amazon effectively directs what millions of sellers and online shoppers do. The places where we form online communities are often controlled by superpowers like Facebook.
The majority of people who listen to podcasts use the audio app that comes standard with iPhones, but Apple hasn’t gotten nearly as involved with podcasts as it has with apps. Podcasts were an unruly but gloriously free one for all for a while.
There was never a moment when podcasting felt more like an exclusive nightclub. But Spotify’s decisions that started a few years ago to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for exclusive rights to what the likes of Rogan and the podcast company Gimlet Media were producing was when podcasts began to follow the same path as Netflix.
If you like Rogan, you can only listen to his show on Spotify. (Spotify bought two more podcast tech companies this week.) Fans of the true crime podcast series “My Favorite Murder” or the entrepreneurial interviews on “How I Built This” should use Amazon’s music app to listen to the latest episodes.
Writing about the podcasting business for The Verge, Ashley Carman called 2021 the year that “platforms came to our ears,” with Facebook, YouTube, DailyExpertNews and Sirius XM showing they also have bigger ambitions in podcasting.
And that happened because companies want our ears and attention. “It changed when podcasting became a business strategy for these companies,” said Tatiana Cirisano, music industry analyst and consultant at MIDiA Research.
Spotify has pretty much the same songs available in a lot of other places online, and it’s hard to make a profit from music. Podcasts, especially popular ones that people can only find on Spotify, may just be the company’s ticket to continued financial success. Nearly 30 percent of Americans listen to podcasts every week, and audience and ad sales are growing rapidly. Podcasts have become a cultural force. That’s a great target for companies.
Powerful companies gaining more control over podcasts has its advantages. It’s easier to find things you might like because Amazon, Spotify, or YouTube can suggest options for you to explore. Spotify has clever podcast ideas that take advantage of the mix of music and podcasts, including shows that mix songs with banter, similar to morning shows with radio DJs.
But it’s also a shame that podcasts are being tamed. Once something becomes popular and potentially lucrative enough, digital services that are relatively unsupervised become a land grab for tech gatekeepers. And with that land grab, we’re probably going to see a little less creative freedom.
Before we go…
He wants to breathe new life into a faded American icon: My colleague Don Clark takes an in-depth look at Pat Gelsinger, the chief executive of Intel, the computer chip company that was instrumental in creating the technology as we know it. Gelsinger wants to help Intel regain lost ground in the most advanced chips and rally government funding to make the US a powerhouse in chip manufacturing again. No pressure.
Your bionic eyes are now another outdated gadget: IEEE Spectrum reports on retinal technology that was implanted in people’s bodies and then abandoned by the manufacturer.
Three former investment bankers named Cole, Steve and Sal came up with a system to book online reservations for hot restaurants in New York months in advance and then hand them out (for free) to people on Telegram. They have been caught, Eater reported.
Hug for this
A woman in the Boston area lost sentimental wool mittens and put up posters to get them back. There is a “because miracle” happy ending†
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