Why the golden age of podcasts may be coming to an end

You might look at it as the arrival of podcasts as a big business. My fear about what it really means is that the golden age of podcasts is coming to an end.

Anne Steele of The Wall Street Journal (one of our great Northeastern journalism graduates, by the way) reports on the looming podcast war between Apple, Spotify and a few smaller players. It sounds like it’s going to be just like video streaming services — if you subscribe to Spotify, as I do, you won’t be able to listen to podcasts that are exclusively on Apple, and vice-versa.

Steele quotes a business analyst named Daniel Ives as saying this about Apple:

Even though they have the keys to the kingdom in terms of overall customer base and the App Store and broader content, what’s going to differentiate them is not just aggregation, it’s exclusive content.

Just what we need — another walled garden. And look, I’m glad that this will enable podcasters to make some money beyond the ad revenue they get from the likes of MailChimp and Dollar Shave. But it also represents the end of something special — just as the rise of paywalls about a dozen years ago ended the open web.

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It’s no surprise that Google Podcasts include hateful content

I think there’s something of a category error in today’s front-page New York Times story on the hateful and false content you can find on Google Podcasts. Reporter Reggie Ugwu repeats on several occasions that Google Podcasts includes some pretty terrible stuff from neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists that you won’t find at Google’s competitors. He writes:

Google Podcasts — whose app has been downloaded more than 19 million times, according to Apptopia — stands alone among major platforms in its tolerance of hate speech and other extremist content. A recent nonexhaustive search turned up more than two dozen podcasts from white supremacists and pro-Nazi groups, offering a buffet of slurs and conspiracy theories. None of the podcasts appeared on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

The problem here is that Apple, Spotify and Stitcher are all trying to offer a curated experience. Google’s DNA is in search. If you Google “InfoWars,” you expect to be taken to Alex Jones’ hallucinatory home of hate and disinformation. And you are. So if you search Google Podcasts, why should that be any different? Indeed, that’s exactly the reasoning Google invoked when Ugwu contacted them for comment:

Told of the white supremacist and pro-Nazi content on its platform and asked about its policy, a Google spokeswoman, Charity Mhende, compared Google Podcasts to Google Search. She said that the company did not want to “limit what people are able to find,” and that it only blocks content “in rare circumstances, largely guided by local law.”

Let me be clear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Google could choose to keep its searches wide open while providing users of Google Podcasts with the same safe experience that its competitors offer. And maybe it should. It’s just that I find it unremarkable that a search company would run its business differently from those whose business model is based on creating a safe, walled-in environment.

I’m hardly a Google fanboy. I’d like to see it broken up so that it can no longer use search to leverage its advertising business to the disadvantage of publishers. But unless you think it ought to stop showing hate-filled websites when you search for them, then I don’t think you should be surprised that it also shows you hate-filled podcasts.

Extreme social sharing and the rising cost of free

Does your Flashlight know what you're doing?

Given that my life is too dull to be of much interest to anyone, I generally go along with the ever-increasing demands from the digital tools that I use to reveal my location or connect with Facebook. I don’t like it, but I don’t care enough to take a stand. (Yes, I’m well aware that that’s the road to hell.)

But three recent experiences have me wondering. I’ll take them in increasing order of ridiculousness.

I’ll start with Spotify, the free music service (premium versions are also available) that requires you to log in using your Facebook account, after which all of your Facebook friends can see what you’re listening to.

I had been using Rdio at the recommendation of Josh Stearns and found it was a little less bewildering than Spotify. Even better, there was no Facebook connection. But after I used up my free-music quota for the month, I switched over to Spotify, and joined the stream. I suppose a 55-year-old shouldn’t worry about whether his musical choices strike others as sufficiently cool, but I do.

Now, I don’t think Spotify’s social-networking policy is particularly outrageous, because it is offering an expensive service for free. So I have no real complaints. But I’m not crazy about having to do my listening in public. And if I get a sudden urge to listen to Barry Manilow (I’m kidding! Really!), I’ll be sure to do it on Rdio.

Considerably farther down the food chain, yesterday I wanted to download a PDF of a legal decision from a site that uses Scribd. With PDFs, you can usually just click and download. But with a Scribd-ified PDF, I had to register, either by creating a new account (ugh) or logging in with Facebook. Hmmm … I did as I was told and got my download.

In paging back through my Facebook status updates, I see no evidence of anything saying “Dan downloaded a document from Scribd!” But still.

Finally — and the mind still reels at this — I recently received a notification that there was an update available for Flashlight, an app that turns your iPhone into, yes, a flashlight. What, I wondered, could be new and improved about Flashlight? A brighter light? A setting that shines a Batman logo on the sides of vacant buildings?

I installed the new app, started it up — and was asked whether I wanted to provide my location information. Seriously. Well, that was easy. No. But is someone sitting in a room somewhere with a giant Google map, checking to see who’s looking for their car keys?

My prediction: Social sharing is here to stay, but not at this level. Businesses are going to discover that there’s no social-media pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. And as I said, though I’m not particularly obsessed with protecting my privacy, I think all of us should be concerned about living increasingly large chunks of our life in public.