When iTunes version 4.9 was released in late June of 2005, it included support for subscribing to podcasts. It was widely reported that in the first two days after its release, users had already activated 1 million subscriptions to podcasts. Granted, although subscriptions do not equal subscribers (many users were subscribing to multiple podcasts), it's still a significant number that went far beyond the general consensus that only about 200,000 to 250,000 people had ever subscribed to a podcast (and honestly, that number is probably high). By the end of 2005, the various published surveys and reports indicated that anywhere from 1 million people on the low side to about 5 million people on the high side had subscribed to at least one podcast. Even if you go in the middle of that range, it is still a greater than 10 times increase in subscribers since the release of iTunes v4.9.
On the Pro Side
The community accepts that iTunes (see Figure 1.2) has been both a blessing and a curse for the independent podcaster. For the most part, we feel it has been a good thing for podcasting. Don't worry, though. We haven't sold out to the Man just yet, and in the next section we'll talk about the ways the iTunes whirlwind has been a detriment to podcasters. But even given that, iTunes has undeniably done its share of good too.
Figure 1.2. The main iTunes podcasting page.
Public Awareness and Apple's Media PR Juggernaut
If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it really happen? Or more to the point, if a podcaster rants into a microphone and no one is subscribed, was the podcast really funny? What Apple has done more than anything else is help spread the word about podcasting. No company in the world does a better job at PR than Apple...period. Steve Jobs has mentioned podcasting in all his major keynote speeches since June of 2005, and that means each time the press is also reminded about podcasting.
A true story: At a major media company a friend had been trying to wave the podcasting flag since January of 2005, but was not getting any uptake. He sent around links to different podcasts, directories, and news articles on podcasting, but he could not get anyone to take notice. Then, right after the launch of iTunes v4.9 in June, a vice president in that company sent around an email to all employees talking about this great new thing called podcasting. He talked about how many downloads Apple's "New Music" podcast was getting per week and said to contact him with any questions and that there was "more to come."
Like many niche technologies, people do not take notice until a major company like Apple gets behind it. And it was not until after Apple was fully behind podcasting that many people started taking it seriouslyor for that matter had even heard about it.
Ease of Subscribing
Before iTunes v4.9, if someone wanted to subscribe to a podcast, they needed to go and download a third-party software application such as iPodder Lemon (now Juice), iPodderX (now Transistr), or Doppler (still Doppler) and install it on their computer. Then they needed to find the RSS feed (a term with which many users are still unfamiliar) of the podcast they wanted to subscribe to and then figure out how to actually subscribe to it using the particulars of the program they downloaded. For many "flashing 12's," this was either way over their heads or just too much work. With the release of iTunes v4.9, whose user base is over 100 million, listeners could easily find and subscribe to shows from within iTunes itself. Naturally, this greatly increased the potential listener base. Additionally, with iTunes, you as a podcaster can put a link on your site that allows potential subscribers to just click it and then iTunes opens right up to the page for your podcast. With just one more click, the person is subscribed to your show. No copy and pasting, and no adding strange software on to their computers. This ease of use more than anything has made iTunes a plus for all podcasters.
A "flashing 12" is a person with no technical inclinations. The name comes from the fact that when you walk into their house, their VCR is flashing 12:00, because they can't figure out how to program it.
Centralized "Must Be On" List
There are over 100 different podcast directories, but none is as important to a podcaster as iTunes. One thing that Apple has done by being the first major company to support podcasts is to create a directory everyone wants to be in. This is good for listeners because it gives them one place to go to find most of the podcasts available.
Although enhanced podcasts are not for everyone, podcasts such as The MommyCast and The K9Cast have done a good job integrating enhanced podcast features into their shows to help improve the listener experience. Enhanced podcasting makes sense for many educational and commercial reasons. However, there's the issue that not all MP3 players can handle this format (AAC), although it is supported by all the iPods (75% to 80% of the market) and is an open standard. Hopefully, more MP3 manufacturers will add support for AAC in the future.
Enhanced podcasts are specially encoded audio files with additional data inside them, such as images, chapter marks, and URLs. These items are time-coded to appear at a specific point during playback. If you are talking about building a model airplane, you can timecode the pictures to change as you progress through the project. If you have a long show, you can include chapter breaks so people can jump directly to different sections of your show. And if you want to include links to websites or advertisers you mentioned during the show, you can include those. Unfortunately, as of March 2006, you still need a Mac to create an enhanced podcast.
On the Con Side
So, given everything iTunes has done for podcasting, you might wonder how anyone could malign it. The sad truth is that anyone who says iTunes and its support of podcasting has been nothing but a blessing for podcasters obviously has their paycheck signed by Steve Jobs. For the rest of us, and most specifically independent podcasters and those looking for independent podcasts, iTunes (since the release of v4.9) has brought with it lots of angst and frustration. Some of the major sources of frustration are listed here, and if you have been podcasting or looking for podcasts for any amount of time, you probably have a few others to add. (We're not even going to get into the whole issue of iTunes-specific RSS tags and the lousy job Apple did in letting people know about those tags.)
No Easy Way to Contact Apple
One of the most frustrating things for many podcasters has been trying to get their podcasts listed on iTunes. Some have been trying since June of 2005, when v4.9 launched. The problem comes with the inability to get any real feedback to and from Applewhat we call the infamous "iTunes black hole." The problem is that the main way to interact with Apple with regards to podcasting is through an email robot at the following address:
Currently, if you enter your feed into iTunes and there's any issue with the feed, you will get a message back stating you need to fix the feed. Then after you fix it and you go to resubmit, iTunes comes back and states that the feed is already in therehence the "black hole." The feed does not show up in iTunes for you to click "Submit a concern," yet it says the feed is in there. There are reports of podcasters waiting three and four months with no resolution on getting their podcast entered.
Interface Issues when Searching
When it comes to scanning for new podcasts, iTunes is not the best directory, or even in the top 50%. The layout of the directory with the different lists has some real issues. iTunes breaks its directory down into genre lists, with 21 broad categories to choose from, ranging from Arts & Entertainment to Travel. If podcasters choose to do so (and many spammers do), they can change the name of their podcast to "- Show Name -". The lists are sorted alphanumerically, which means a hyphen (-) or other special characters can move your show up to the top of the lists (see Figure 1.3). If you go through all the different lists, you will see these spammers at the top. But in some ways you can't fault the podcasters for trying to move up in the lists. Apple needs to address this issue, because it makes the directory look second or third rate. One suggestion has been to just kick anyone out of the directory that does this, and eventually we think Apple will have no choice but to do just that. So be warned if you are or plan on using this technique.
Figure 1.3. Alphanumeric directory list from iTunes showing spamming.
Confusing Top-100 List
There are many different reports on what Apple's iTunes Top-100 list is based on. Adam Curry stated Apple told him it was based on new subscriptions over the past 24 hours. However, some industrious souls were able to take advantage of problems Apple was having with subscriptions to use scripts to spam new subscriptions for a few different podcasts to test out some theories. What they found was that the Top-100 list was based on new subscriptions over a period of four to five days, with a weighted average toward the more recent days. What is uncertain is if there's any weight bias based on the total number of subscribers.
Apple has yet to come out and say this is exactly what the Top-100 list is based on, but one thing is for sure: If you are a featured podcast, you will get more new subscribers, and Apple heavily biases the number of featured podcasts toward big media companies and not toward independent podcasters, who make up the majority of podcasts in the iTunes directory.
Now some would say never blame on malice what can easily be explained by lack of resources. In other words, it is very likely that the people at Apple making this decision are picking only those they have heard of, and do not have the time to look into the different independent podcasts available. So when CNN releases a podcast, in their mind it is a safe choice, rather than, say, looking into what The M Show (www.themshow.com) is all about.
Heavy Big Media Bias
Only about 15 to 20 of the Top-100 podcasts on iTunes are now independent podcasts, compared to over 70 when it first launched. And only two to three independent podcasts are now regularly in the top 20. It would be great if Apple would decide to focus a little more on the independent podcasters again, the ones who grew podcasting as a grassroots movement. Unfortunately, it appears Apple is happy to play on AstroTurf. If Apple would take just a few hours a week looking for some of the better independent podcasts and then showcase them on the front page of iTunes, it would go a long way toward helping promote the indies. For this we suggest the folks at Apple take a look at what Yahoo! is doing. Over half of the shows that Yahoo! features each week come from indie podcasters.
The bottom line isn't that Apple is evil. Far from it. Apple is a great company, and with all its other products it has set the bar very high. We're just trying to hold them to those same standards. We do believe in time Apple will work out most of these issues, and clearly we believe the sooner that happens the better.
Alternatives to iTunes
In the wake of iTunes changing the face of podcasting came two other players on the scene: Odeo, a relatively new service, and the veteran Internet network Yahoo!
Odeo had a name powering itone of its creators was Evan Williams, co-founder of the popular weblog tool and website Blogger. At first, it was merely another directory, another place to go to find a podcast, but soon it became more. Now Odeo allows you to listen to podcasts on the site and through its downloadable player, as well as sync the podcasts directly to your MP3 player. Although it's unlikely that Odeo will ever make iTunes obsolete, it does serve as an alternative for people who enjoy the system. And considering how popular it is becoming, it seems many people do. Unlike iTunes, however, Odeo also offers creation tools and hosting services, aiming to become a one-stop hub for podcasters and listeners alike (see Figure 1.4). At first, many people felt this was overly ambitious, and several podcasters didn't believe Odeo's creation tools would work for direct recording on its site as promised. But Odeo's "Flash recorder," although not having the flexibility of Audacity or Garageband, does produce a clean sound and automatically saves recordings to MP3 files. The only downside is that users must use a separate ID3 program to add that vital information (more on ID3 tags later).
Figure 1.4. Odeo allows you to podcast directly from its site.
Yahoo!, a long-standing hub for Internet users, got into the podcasting game in the Fall of 2005. Like Odeo, it offers several services to both listeners and podcasters alike, serving as a directory and a tool to subscribe, download, and sync with an MP3 player.
For podcasters, Yahoo! offers one of the most comprehensive tutorials online for beginners, including tips on finding a subject to cover, what equipment you need, the basics of recording, how to find a hosting provider, and how to find podcast directories to market your show.
Yahoo!'s other main offering to existing podcasters (or, as we saw earlier, "indie" podcasters) is the simple gift of its huge customer base. Just as Apple introduced millions of its iTunes users to podcasting, Yahoo! also let another massive Internet community know about podcastingnot only what it was, but also what they could do with it. By bringing more listeners into the mix, Yahoo! allowed many podcasters to see their subscriber numbers spike again, as well as the total number of podcasts. Sometimes we get so entrenched in our little podcasting communities that we forget it's still in its infancy, and the rest of the world has yet to discover it. The larger companies have been instrumental in spreading the word about podcasting (they did better than we did, truth be told).
Although these directories seem to be similar, they each strive to have at least one feature that sets them apart. Odeo attempts to be a one-stop podcasting hub for listeners and podcasters alike, providing tools for listening and creating. Yahoo! brings its entire community to the party, giving the existing podcasters more listeners and enticing new podcasters to join. Although it may be difficult to keep up with them all, they're each worth watching.
Beyond Odeo and Yahoo, there are of course programs that focus only on being an RSS aggregator, or in popular terms, "podcatcher." Table 1.1 provides details on a few.
iPodderX (now Transistr), developed by August Trometer and Ray Slakinski, was one of the first aggregators and was quickly followed by iPodder Lemon (now Juice). Transistr boasts more features than Juice, but then you have to pay to use it. Still, thousands of listeners are so pleased with Transistr that they wouldn't go to a free program if you paid them.