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The case of Facebook’s puzzling podcast data

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Plus, Aaron Rodgers’ big podcast time

Photo by Michele Doying / The Verge

Hey hey, Tuesday’s back again. Today’s a relatively tame one, but Aria has a fun piece on the website that we’ll tease below, along with a whole debacle around attributing podcast plays to Facebook. We’re talking user agents, yes, and then we’re getting into the wild world of podcast prefixes. It’s gonna get wonky up in here; let’s get to it.

Music meets podcasting

(First up: Aria has a programming announcement — I’ll let her take it away.)

Morning, y’all! Aria here. I wrote a story for all of you about a funny feature popping up in podcasts: full musical tracks with lyrics and vocals.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that sounds messy. Songs with words? Within a format that’s already… mostly words?” That’s an appropriate reaction. At face value, it seems wonky and hard to get right, and that’s why I wanted to dive into this trend. Why are people making these kinds of podcasts? How are they structured? And how do they sound?

Well, my friends, you can hear ‘em for yourself — we’ve embedded the episodes! We’ve got cool art, too, courtesy of the Verge team! And many cultural references! Satan is also mentioned!

I would be real tickled if you checked it out on the site. Happy reading — and listening.

Facebook podcast data is messed up — the company says it’s fixing it

We’ve been covering Facebook’s inclusion of podcasts on its platform closely, and I’m now hearing reports that people are unable to accurately pull performance data for their shows from their hosting providers.

As a brief reminder: Facebook allows people all over the world to input their RSS feed links into their Pages, which then allows podcast episodes to populate there and for US-based app users to listen. As you can imagine, podcasters want to know how their shows are performing on Facebook — it’s pretty critical information for anyone trying to manage a show. If your show does amazing on Facebook, maybe you’ll double-down on your Page. If not, well, you’ll go on continuing to pretend Facebook doesn’t exist.

The problem is that hosting companies, among other analytics providers, aren’t able to definitively say what plays are coming from Facebook. The issue relates to user agents, or the data a hosting company receives when a third-party server asks to receive a podcast. This user agent often tells the hosting company where a person is listening, like what platform, and what type of device they’re using. This is especially critical in podcasting, where data is scarce.

In Facebook’s case, hosting platforms and other companies that monitor podcast data are receiving confusing user agent data. James Cridland over at Podnews compiled his findings on the Facebook user agents a couple weeks ago, and it’s a super helpful and technical write-up of what he saw happening. To put it as simply as I can: iOS devices appear to be pinging these hosting companies’ servers not only as iOS-Facebook but sometimes as AppleCoreMedia.

[Takes deep breath] AppleCoreMedia is the generic user agent that iOS app makers receive when they build an app with Apple’s API — but it’s also the user agent Apple Podcasts submits, making this doubly confusing. Some Facebook plays might be attributed to Apple Podcasts — not good!

This is a lot, I know, but really the takeaway here is that people whose podcasts are on Facebook don’t have an accurate picture of how many people are listening. I reached out to Facebook for clarification on why this AppleCoreMedia agent is showing up, and here’s what I’m told: Facebook’s user agents are FB4A on Android and iOS-Facebook for iOS. That iOS user agent only works on the latest version of the iOS app, however, so that’s why some pings come from that while others come from AppleCoreMedia. As more people update the app, more accurate data will populate. The company also confirms to me that it’s working on providing native podcast analytics within its app, which would help avoid this situation entirely — assuming you trust Facebook’s data, which is a whole ‘nother thing we can talk about at a later point.

PHEW. We did it. This is complicated and technical stuff, but it’s critical to the industry! Everyone needs to know how and where their shows are doing well, including on the newest Big Tech player to care about podcasts.

I hate to do this to you, but we have one more techy thing to get through, and this one involves prefixes.

Magellan AI wants to validate your listens

As you can tell from the above write-up, knowing how many people listen to a podcast is coveted data, and as I also hinted at above, trusting that data is critical. So, today, Magellan AI, the podcast media planning platform, is announcing “verified downloads.” These give Magellan a way for it to definitively tell advertisers that a podcast receives a certain number of downloads, which then entices them to (hopefully) spend more money on shows. To participate in this, podcast publishers have to include a prefix in their RSS feed. John Goforth, Magellan AI’s CRO, tells me “thousands” of publishers have already signed up, including NPR, which is the only name he shared.

I write about this feature because there are now quite a few prefixes podcasters can affix to their shows. Magellan AI, Chartable, Podsights, and Podtrac all offer them, just to name some I thought of immediately. These prefixes are one way to work around RSS technology; you can only do so much with a link, and these prefixes give all these companies an opportunity to build a business around the podcasting ecosystem. This also keeps the ecosystem open rather than closed. (For reference, with Spotify and Apple requiring shows to upload content to their backends, these companies, like Chartable, have to work around that by directly integrating into podcasters’ accounts, which is a lot of access to provide but also the only option when the RSS feed is lost.)

I wonder now, though, if we might reach a point of prefix bloat. How many prefixes will podcasters be willing to include? When does it become too much? (To say nothing of the fact that the data is now going to many companies rather than just the podcasters and their hosting providers, around which many people have many privacy thoughts.)

“I think of prefixes the same way I think about layering up when it’s cold outside,” says Goforth in an email to me. “Is it slightly bulky and you’d prefer not to? Sure. But do the ends justify the means? Absolutely. Prefixes unlock a ton of opportunity in a myriad of ways for publishers. Also, much like layering up — the number of layers (prefixes) will vary depending on your needs.”

I honestly don’t have a hot take here, as much as I realize that’s the wrong thing to say in a newsletter that would probably do well with a hot take. I just raise this issue as something I’m thinking about and tracking (heh). If you have thoughts about the impending prefix bloat, I’m here for it.

All right, that’s all for the techy stuff. Now we can move on to a couple quick bits and get you outta here and onto your week.

Acast podcasts come to Samsung Free

Acast announced yesterday that it’s bringing its 30,000-plus shows to Samsung Free, the company’s app that’s pre-installed on all Galaxy phones and, as of earlier this year in the US, supports podcasts. Acast is an inaugural partner for the app’s European launch, which, Acast says, is used by 31 percent of people on the continent. I admittedly haven’t paid much mind to Samsung’s inclusion of podcasts, but this feels like something.

There are a few possibilities for how this could play out: In one scenario, this app is purely seen as bloatware, and Galaxy users refuse to tap into it. In another world, this app is akin to the free Roku Channel that, with the right programming, might do well? (The Roku Channel reached an estimated 70 million people in the US during the first quarter of this year, the company said, and its acquired Quibi shows reportedly have more views than they did on Quibi, which is a small feat but nonetheless.) Then, there’s the chance the Samsung Free app turns into the Apple Podcasts of Android — something I’m skeptical will happen, but let’s be optimistic.

Acast doesn’t lose much here — why not get their shows in front of listeners? — while Samsung gains quality programming. Everyone is happy. I’ll be curious how this player pans out, just as I’m curious how Facebook is doing, and Amazon Music, and all the other apps that recently decided to get into the podcasting game.

One last thing, then we’re done.

Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers goes on a podcast, says wild things about COVID and vaccines and that Joe Rogan guided him through the virus

I hate to end on this note, but we have to mention it. As many of you readers know, I don’t keep up with sports, but every so often, a story crosses into my feed, and this was one of those. Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback, caught COVID and isn’t vaccinated. The information around his vaccine status was murky, and Rodgers apparently told reporters, who directly asked if he received the shot, that he had been “immunized.” In reality, he received a homeopathic treatment that is not the vaccine.

Anyway! For the podcast angle, Rodgers went on Pat McAfee’s SiriusXM podcast to say he “consulted” with a “now-good friend of mine,” Joe Rogan. He, like Rogan did, is taking Ivermectin, among other things, and touts the merits of natural immunity. Podcasts! People really seem to like to let loose on ‘em, huh.

All right, that’s it for today. I’ll be back here Thursday for you paying Insiders, and I’m always around in my DMs or email, which you can get by replying to this email. Bye!!!!