Reliance on Platforms Versus Promise of “Audience Control”
As the case studies illuminate, a major reason why media outlets and individual producers have been drawn to podcasting is the ability to engage directly and “own” a relationship with an audience. However, how direct is this relationship really?
Much as online publishers are at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithm, so too are podcasters at the mercy of iTunes. The whole advantage of the platform—its access to huge audiences—is compromised by the simple fact that the audience “belongs” to iTunes (or Stitcher or Overcast). Podcasters cannot be certain who their listeners are.
Sarah van Mosel explained the situation eloquently:
What we’re giving up is knowing who [our audience is] and what they’re doing because they have to go through a gatekeeper—it could be the podcast app, Stitcher, or Overcast. That’s the challenge we face as a producer/distributor of content. We can’t close the loop on whether someone’s pushed play or not pushed play.133
Clea Conner Chang, director of marketing for Intelligence Squared, a show that is published on YouTube as well as on iTunes, sees this as a serious limitation of the medium, especially for its monetization: “I mean, marketing 101: You’re only as good as your list. When you’re at the mercy of another organization, you’re many steps removed from knowing who your listener is.”134
As much as podcasters attempt to circumvent this fate by creating their own apps (as has Intelligence Squared), or using metrics-focused players from SoundCloud or Acast (whose socially rich player can be embedded to keep listeners within an outlet’s own ecosystem), the fact remains that iTunes is the major way podcast listeners access audio content.135 Only Audible, which will produce audio accessible exclusively on its own platform, is exempt from this Catch-22. However, for podcasts that seek to reach large, mainstream audiences and earn advertising revenue from audience impressions, iTunes remains the most important platform for distribution.