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Podcast startup Luminary’s launch week keeps getting worse

Podcast startup Luminary’s launch week keeps getting worse


Podcasters pulled shows after the app obscured listener data

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Major creators are continuing to remove their shows from Luminary, the $100 million subscription podcast startup, over its business model, and even more are leaving after the company was exposed for using a proxy server that hides listener data from creators.

Joe Rogan’s popular show was pulled from the platform yesterday, and Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini said her network’s shows would be pulled, too. The New York Times was already withholding its blockbuster hit The Daily, and Gimlet Media, Anchor, and Parcast — which are all Spotify-owned companies — also didn’t make their shows available at launch.

Now, smaller creators, including Ben Thompson, Owen Williams, and Federico Viticci, are pulling their podcasts, too. Their withdrawal comes after podcasters noticed that Luminary was serving shows to listeners through a complicated linking system, depriving them of important listener data. The platform also stripped their shows notes, which can be used to share sponsored links or other relevant information.

When a podcast player serves a show, listeners’ requests are usually sent directly to the server that hosts it. Luminary said today that it’s added an extra step to that process. Instead of directing listeners to the original podcast server, it’s routing the requests through its own servers first.

After the controversy blew up, the company issued a statement to The Verge and said it’s used this approach to streamline the listening process and make it faster for users. “We believed it would improve performance and speed for our users when listening to public feed audio files, particularly from smaller hosts.”

But using this method also meant that podcasters didn’t get accurate data on where their listeners were coming from and how many people were actually listening — which is vital information for understanding their audience and selling ads.

The Verge confirmed with podcast hosting platform Simplecast that hosting providers, and thereby the podcasters themselves, weren’t receiving listeners’ IP addresses. This data is important to creators because it tells them where their listeners are located and how they’re accessing the show.

“If I go in and click play on a show on Luminary, we as a platform do not get real data back,” Simplecast CEO Brad Smith said. “We get the IP address and location of a proxy server around the globe.”

Smith said that the team looked at the “thousands” of plays coming from Luminary and saw only a grouping of IP addresses, all of which were Luminary’s proxy servers. This would prevent creators from getting useful information about their show, he says, and it could hurt their ability to connect with advertisers. Under the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s podcasting standards, the type of proxy traffic Luminary is sending has to be thrown out because it’s classified as bot traffic. “Creators and podcasters are completely blind to what traffic their RSS feeds are getting on Luminary,” Smith tells The Verge.

Overcast CEO Marco Arment echoed Smith on Twitter, saying Luminary’s method “breaks any modern podcast stats.”

Luminary now says it has implemented “changes” that’ll give hosts the data they’re used to receiving, and that those changes are already incorporated for the iOS and Android app. It’s “working to retool” the web player. It isn’t clear whether the proxy servers are still in place.

The podcasting industry is moving toward smarter, more dynamic ads that can be geo-targeted based on where a listener is located. Without accurate location data, the entire premise of these ads falls apart.

This proxy server use is an unusual approach for a podcast player. Spotify is the only other major platform that doesn’t rely on RSS feeds and instead hosts most podcasts on its own servers. But in those cases, creators upload their RSS feeds by choice and agree to allow Spotify to ingest their feed. In return, podcasters have a large reach around the world and access to Spotify’s analytics platform.

In Luminary’s case, it wasn’t ingesting the RSS feeds completely, but it still came between the creators and their audience. “Transparency around why and how this was done would have solved everything,” Smith says.

Update April 25th, 4:35PM ET: Luminary says it’s updated its system to begin providing additional listener data to podcasters. This story has been updated to reflect the change. Luminary’s full comment is below:

Luminary appreciates the feedback we’ve received today about how our technology works. We’ve heard you and want to explain what we have done in response. To be absolutely clear: Luminary has never hosted or cached audio content for any open RSS feed podcast. We used a pass-through approach purely because we believed it would improve performance and speed for our users when listening to public feed audio files, particularly from smaller hosts.

We now see that this approach caused some confusion. We have spoken with multiple hosting providers who suggested changes we could make to clarify that public feed audio is not being hosted or cached by Luminary, and ensure that hosts receive the data to which they are accustomed. We have already implemented those changes for iOS and Android, and are working to retool web player settings.