What is open podcasting, and why does it matter?

by Justin Jackson, co-founder of Transistor

Podcasting is better when it’s open.  The open RSS protocol has been used to distribute audio since 2001, allowing podcasters the freedom to create, share, and monetize their work without limitations.

A diagram showing how podcast distribution through RSS works (Source: transistor.fm/start)

Because RSS is an open protocol, it’s not owned or controlled by a single entity. This openness allows podcasters to create, distribute, and monetize their content however they’d like. It also gives podcast listeners the freedom to choose how they listen.

However, as big players have entered the podcast ecosystem, some listening apps and hosting providers have introduced proprietary features. We’ve seen this happen before: in the 90s, Microsoft and Netscape added proprietary features to their web browsers, creating user compatibility issues.

The Podcast Standards Project has a mission similar to the Web Standards Project of 1998: to promote a minimum set of open podcast standards that all hosting providers and listening apps should implement. This will ensure that the creation and consumption of podcasts are consistent across all platforms.

Some argue that innovation in podcasting is only achievable through centralization. However, we believe it’s possible to innovate on top of the open RSS standard. We will make this happen through advocacy and collaboration with all industry players (big and small).

The Podcast Standards Project aims for hosting platforms and listening apps to adopt a standard set of new podcasting tags and features. Only when these features are widely supported can podcast creators and listeners benefit from them.

Why is open podcasting better for podcasters?

Big centralized platforms promise podcasters more distribution, but the tradeoffs can be significant. Social media platforms have reliably used this playbook for years:

  1. Entice content creators to their platform with the promise of “more distribution.”
  2. Initially, provide substantial organic reach for content.
  3. Later, reduce the amount of organic reach a piece of content gets.
  4. Monetize this (mostly free) content through ads and “boosts” (where creators have to pay to reach their own audience).

When content creators are forced to pay for access, they invariably retreat to open protocols. For example, they might ask their followers to subscribe to their email list or RSS feed. This is the benefit of open podcasting: it’s a refuge from centralized control.

It also gives podcasters significant advantages:

  • They can monetize however they’d like. For example, they’re not beholden to a platform’s ad networks. They can choose Value4Value, Patreon, or sell their own ads.
  • Podcasters can also decide where their show is distributed. Most folks submit to Spotify, Apple, Google, and Amazon, but some choose to avoid platforms that don’t align with their values.
  • Podcasters can remove themselves from a directory if they no longer agree with that platform.
  • If a platform removes a show from its directory, listeners can still access it via the RSS feed.
  • Podcasters can host their audio files and RSS feeds wherever they want (they’re not dependent on a single provider). If they want to move from one hosting company to another, importing their feed and forwarding the old feed to the new one is as simple as importing their feed.

Why is open podcasting better for listeners?

When a podcast is purchased (or licensed) by a large listening app, it’s no longer available everywhere via RSS.

From the beginning, podcast listeners have been able to choose their preferred listening app. Some choose the default app installed on their phone, while others choose to use apps by independent developers.

The distributed nature of podcasting has another significant advantage: hyper-targeting is more challenging than in other media. Podcast hosts and podcast apps receive limited data about listeners, which helps bring more balance between listener privacy and advertisers’ interests than in other channels. This also means no single entity can dominate the advertising market, leading to more competition.  This helps ensure that no single platform dominates the market, ensuring value and market power accrue across the ecosystem.

Also, since we can innovate on top of the existing open standard, listeners will get access to new features. Already, podcast RSS feeds can support transcripts. Soon, we may be able to support cross-app comments, more monetization options, and video podcasts in all apps.

Want to help us build the future of open podcasting?

The Podcast Standards Project is a grassroots coalition working to establish modern, open standards, to enable innovation in the podcast industry. We exist to advocate for and protect open podcasting.

  • Join us on GitHub
  • Connect on Twitter: @PodStandards
  • Podcasters: ask your podcast hosting platform to implement these podcast features.
  • Podcast listeners: ask your listening app to support these podcast features.

This post was written by Justin Jackson (Co-founder at Transistor), with help from Todd Cochrane (Founder at Blubrry), John Spurlock (Founder at OP3), Cameron Moll (VP of Design at Buzzsprout), Mike Kadin (Founder at RedCircle), Charles Wiltgen (Creator of Podbase validator).