Podcast Tech Is The Kind Of Open Democratic Tech We Need


You’ve heard the call to action at the end of nearly every podcast you’ve ever listened to: “Listen to us on your favorite podcast app”, or in the phrasing of podcaster extraordinare Roman Mars, “…wherever you find podcasts”. (By the way, you should be radicalized by the recent 99 Percent Invisible episode on how “cooking with gas” is mostly a conspiracy, and inspired by the absolutely incredible Power Broker book club.)


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But here’s the thing: being able to say, “wherever you get your podcasts” is a radical statement. Because what it represents is the triumph of exactly the kind of technology that’s supposed to be impossible: open, empowering tech that’s not owned by any one company, that can’t be controlled by any one company, and that allows people to have ownership over their work and their relationship with their audience.

A little background

See, podcasting as a technology grew out of the early era of the social web, when the norms of technology creators were that they were expected to create open systems, which interoperated with tools by other creators and even other companies. This was based on the successes of earlier generations of the internet, like email and even the web itself. Podcasting was basically the last such invention to become mainstream, with millions of people listening every day, and countless people able to create in the medium. And of course, it creates tons of oppportunities for businesses too, whether it’s people making amazing podcasts like Roman Mars does, or giants like Apple or Spotify building businesses around the medium.

Contrast this to other media formats online, like YouTube or Tiktok or Twitch, which don’t rely on open systems, and are wholly owned by individual tech companies. On those platforms, creators are constantly chasing the latest algorithmic shifts, and are subject to the whims of advertising algorithms that are completely opaque. If a creator gets fed up enough to want to leave a platform, they’re stuck — those viewers or listeners are tied to the company that hosts the content.

But in the podcasting world, creators can (assuming they work out the business deals necessary to do so) actually take their ball and go home, because the underlying “feed” — the special file that podcasting apps look at to know when there’s a new episode — is something they can actually move over to a new system or a new host, without losing all their subscribers or followers. Indeed, this idea of having a “portable” audience is so appealing that it’s even been revived in the new wave of open format-based social networks that have arisen. When I found out that my Mastodon account was hosted by a company that was kind of shady, I was able to move it over to a Mastodon account run by Medium, and it was basically seamless for my followers, even though I had one of the biggest Mastodon follower counts in the world at the time. That capability is something most podcasters can do if they ever want to, too.


Follow the money

Many times, the value of open technology systems can be measured by which ecosystems they extract dollars away from. Yes, some of the economic value of podcasting came by making a dent in things like terrestrial radio broadcasts. But a big part was also the fact that the open formats of podcasting make it extremely difficult to do the kind of surveillance-based advertising that has made companies like Google and Facebook worth trillions of dollars. In fact, despite their immense scale, neither of the biggest ad-based platforms on the internet can enable you to buy ads on podcasts. In that way, podcasts have reintroduced the wonderful kind of advertising inefficiencies that we saw in the heyday of print magazines, where advertisers were hoping that some part of the audience would mail back one of those blow-in cards that used to be sandwiched into the binding of a magazine. (Kids, ask your grandparents.)

Advertising inefficiencies are fantastic! In the ad industry, the old (likely apocryphal) line one would always hear is, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” But for creators, and for the world, that inefficiency was often wonderful. The inefficiency of old media formats resulted in less surveillance of the purchasing and behavioral habits of individuals, and larger surpluses that sustained a healthier, more vibrant media ecosystem that could even afford to invest in important stories or content despite the fact that they might not have a large audience.

What podcasting holds in the promise of its open format is the proof that an open web can still thrive and be relevant, that it can inspire new systems that are similarly open to take root and grow. Even the biggest companies in the world can’t displace these kinds of systems once they find their audiences. And that’s not to say that there aren’t shortcomings or problems with these systems, too. But, for example, when someone makes a podcast that’s about encouraging hate, there’s no one centralized system that can automatically suggest it to an audience and push them down a path of further radicalization.

And of course, the winner-takes-all world of media being consumed by tech means that the economics of individual podcast production are often brutal now, sometimes simply because creators can’t rely on outsourcing advertising sales to one of the big platforms. An open system isn’t a panacea for all that’s broken in the media ecosystem.

But what we can take away from hearing “wherever you find podcasts” at the end of every episode we listen to is that, sometimes without us knowing, radical systems can survive and even thrive in the modern world of tech and media. They can inspire new creators to make similar systems that are unowned, uncentralized, and a little bit uncontrollable. And in this era where we’re seeing the renaissance of the open web, they point the way toward a future where we can use the same tone to say “wherever you find news” or “wherever you find your friends online”, and know that it means that there’s a way that our lives online could be fully in our own control.



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