Podcasting, RSS, Openness, and Choice

The open RSS standard has provided immense value to the growth of the podcasting ecosystem over the past few decades. By publishing audio to the RSS standard, creators can be sure that their podcasts can be heard by consumers all around the world who use the many podcast consumption platforms which have adopted the standard.

When people speak to the positive benefits of the openness of podcasting, this is usually what they are referring to: any platform that discovers RSS feeds on the open web can choose to ingest and distribute podcasts to listeners on behalf of creators. But this openness brings potential downsides for individual creators, and as more people flock to audio as a medium, it is crucial to make sure the system fits creators’ needs. We must also acknowledge the limitations of RSS, and consider the tradeoffs, if we wish to push the medium forward.

An individual’s creativity is bound by the standard of RSS because it only supports one type of audio distribution. Audio is captured, stored in a flat, generally static file, and “pushed” in one direction towards the listener. The listener and creator have no opportunities to interact through this standard. Furthermore, creators are able to do little else with the audio that is captured, as RSS restricts its flexibility. It can’t be easily segmented, secured, expired, or targeted towards specific audiences. Thus, the creative freedom of creators is limited.

Since RSS only enables a flat audio file to be distributed to consumption platforms, creators gain limited and often inaccurate insight into how the audio is consumed, such as where it is being consumed, how much of the audio is being heard or enjoyed (or not), and whether or not the audio is even being heard at all (and not just automatically “downloaded”). This has broad, widespread implications on the creative process, not only on the ability for creators to improve their work, but also on how creators might be able to monetize their work.

The diversity of opportunities for monetization is also limited. The standard of RSS and the lack of insights about performance make it difficult for creators to find realistic paths to securing advertisers for their podcasts. Given that potential advertisers have difficulty understanding whether a podcast is successful (because of the limited insights referenced above) or suitable for their sponsorship (in terms of reach, brand safety, and alignment of values), this means creators suffer through a lack of potential advertising, despite strong demand by advertisers for the medium. Additionally, given the nature of the RSS standard’s focus on distribution, it’s difficult for creators to monetize using methods beyond advertising, such as through secure podcast subscriptions or direct, fan-supported models that are easy to deploy and use.

But maybe the biggest limitation of RSS is actually a product of the openness that has enabled the medium to grow in the first place. While creators increase the opportunity for their podcasts to be consumed on a variety of platforms by publishing a podcast to an open RSS feed, in doing so, creators also give up control over which platforms might distribute their content. This includes platforms whose incentives, goals, business models, and ethics may be at odds with the creators’. Additionally, creators sacrifice any choice or input over how the content is displayed, consumed, organized, and monetized (including whether or not the creator gets to participate in the monetization of the content at all).

Put another way, publishing via RSS does not enable much choice for the creator. Instead, it’s a simple on/off switch to indicate whether or not a podcast can be ingested by any platform, including those which creators might not choose if they had such an ability.

At Anchor (which is part of the Spotify family), given our commitment to putting creators first above all else, we’ve long leaned into the positive benefits of RSS, and will continue doing so. We believe creators should have the ability to publish their audio on the open web if they choose, enabling any platform to ingest and present these creators’ content to their users.

But we’re also interested in pushing the medium of audio beyond the limitations of the RSS standard, by enabling greater creative freedom (such as enabling creators to add music to their shows), more insights into how their shows are being heard (such as richer analytics that go beyond the capabilities that RSS enables), and more opportunities to monetize (such as moving beyond advertising to new models like paid subscriptions). We also believe that in order to democratize audio and achieve Spotify’s mission of enabling a million creators to live off of their art, we must work to enable greater choice for creators. This choice becomes increasingly important as audio becomes even easier to create and share.

In the coming months and years, we’ll be working to further enable choice for creators, including giving them the power to choose not only how someone wants to create or monetize audio, but also where specific content is able to be consumed, ensuring creators have an opportunity to decide if they are aligned with the platforms distributing their content.

Co-Founder, Anchor and Head of Podcaster, Spotify

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