May 30, 2020

We Lose A Lot When Podcasts Go Closed Instead Of Open

By Mike Masnick
Just last week, Ben Thompson’s excellent Stratechery site had a great post describing the important differences between open and free, specifically with regards to podcasts. The occasion was his decision to launch a paid-for, but still “open” podcast. And he explains how there are important differences (in particular) between “open and for-pay” vs. “closed and free.” Open and for-pay means that it’s not locked down, and can work on a variety of different setups and open platforms. The payment is part of the business model, but the openness gives the end-users more control and freedom. In the software world, you might talk about this as “free as in speech” rather than “free as in beer.” The “free, but closed” model is one where you can get the products for free — but they’re locked in a proprietary system. Facebook is an example of free, but closed, for example.

Thompson was talking in particular about his own podcast (open, but paid) as compared to Spotify’s podcast strategy (free, but closed). Last year, when Spotify purchased a bunch of podcast companies, we worried that it foretold the end of the open world of podcasting. You can get a Spotify account for free, but unlike most podcast apps, you can’t get any podcast you want via Spotify. Spotify has to agree to host it, and as a podcast you have to “apply” (indeed, Techdirt’s own podcast was initially rejected by Spotify, though has since been let in). That’s a “closed, but free” setup. Most podcasts are both open and free — published as open MP3 files, using an open RSS feed that any regular podcast app can grab.

Spotify, so far, hadn’t done much to close off the podcasts that it had purchased, but perhaps that’s changing. Earlier this week it was announced that one of (if not) the most popular podcasts in the world, Joe Rogan’s, would now be moving exclusively to Spotify. News reports have said that Spotify paid over $100 million to get Rogan’s podcast on board, while some have put the number closer to $200 million.

While it’s totally understandable why Rogan would take that deal (who wouldn’t?), it does remain a sad day for the concept of an open internet. When we lock up content into silos, we all lose out. The entire concept of podcasts came from the open nature of the internet — combining MP3s and RSS to make it all work seamlessly and enabling anyone to just start broadcasting. The entire ecosystem came out of that, and putting it into silos and locking it up so that only one platform can control it is unfortunate. I’m sure it will get many people to move to Spotify’s podcasting platform, though, and that means those that do offer open podcasting apps (most others) will suffer, because most people aren’t going to want to use two different podcast apps.

Even if the initial economics make sense, it still should be seen as a sad day for the open internet that enabled podcasting to exist in the first place.