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Apple’s attempt at podcast subscriptions is off to a messy start

Bugs and design flaws

In April, Apple Podcasts was poised to revolutionize the industry. It announced in-app subscriptions, as well as an entirely new backend, representing one of the most monumental changes to the app since its launch. The hype was easy to understand: the biggest name in podcast apps legitimizing subscriptions could usher in a new podcasting era, one in which ad revenue plays a less essential role and more people could potentially support themselves off their work.

But in the months since Apple Podcasts’ announcement, podcasters say the platform has failed them in various ways. For a company that prides itself on functionality, design, and ease of use, the new backend’s bungled launch is a mess. Podcasters say Apple Podcasts Connect, which they’re required to use in order to take advantage of subscriptions, has a confusing interface that often leads to user error scenarios that have them pinging Apple at all hours of the day in a panic — one podcaster’s entire show was seemingly archived until Apple stepped in to help and explain what happened.

The updated app’s been buggy since launch. Earlier this summer, an auto-download bug caused a reported 31 percent drop in downloads, according to Podtrac. People who relied on Apple to download new episodes for them might have missed them entirely. (The company issued an update last month that reportedly fixed it, but that solution hinges on people actually updating their app.) Listeners also complained about problems with the app update in April — some say podcasts they had already heard flooded their libraries, and they also had problems syncing their podcasts across devices. It culminated in a slightly delayed launch of the subscription product, pushing it from May to June, some updates, and no public word from Apple on why everything went so wrong.

Worse than bugs, however, podcasters say the subscription push comes with a new labor cost that not all of them can afford to address. The promise of RSS was a centralized place to publish to all podcasting platforms; however, with this new subscription product, as well as other platforms, podcasters now have to publish in a variety of places and manage various backends — a particularly arduous task for small teams. One podcaster says they upload to Patreon, Apple, and their hosting provider right now, and they could end up also uploading to Spotify and other services, too. None of these separate feeds play nicely with each other, so the Patreon private RSS feed can’t be used to automatically upload paid content to Apple — every paid episode has to be uploaded manually.

“Apple is coming at it from the lens of a big corporation,” says a podcast manager of an independent show, who prefers to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of their relationship with Apple. “I think it’s harder for them to think about smaller independent shows that have so few people on staff. It’s such a foreign concept to them; they’re Apple.”

This manager says they’ve spent days troubleshooting the platform, and at one point, waited a full night for an episode to process on the backend, at which point it was already dated content. On another recent evening, they say they uploaded their exclusive content to Patreon within five minutes, but then waited hours for it to process on Apple Podcasts.

“That’s one of the consequences of us having a tiny team is like, it’s just me sitting around waiting for it to finish processing, so that I can publish the episode,” they say.

Bigger companies have a better chance of managing the subscription work uptick. They can hire producers to make bonus content, focus on multiple shows at once, and have the monetary resources to make a new project successful. NPR, for example — both an initial Apple subscriptions and Spotify subscriptions launch partner — hired two new people to handle the publishing of its six ad-free subscription shows, says Joel Sucherman, VP of new platform partnerships. They also help with quality checks, like making sure the subscriber feed content doesn’t accidentally have ads.

“The beauty of RSS was just publish it [and] it goes everywhere — it’s just there, and it’s available,” Sucherman says. “And so these additional steps have introduced potential for user error or machine error and sometimes you play a little bit of whack-a-mole trying to figure out which is which, but I would characterize it as growing pains and things that will clearly get better.”

Apple’s main podcasting competitor, Spotify, has announced a solution to solve this labor problem in the form of its Open Access technology. It says the technology will pair with existing subscription platforms, like Supporting Cast and Memberful, in order to make publishing in one place possible, even for premium content. However, both Apple and Patreon aren’t yet collaborating on the project, and Spotify is only making it available to invited partners right now.

“At the point that they do come up with a more automated solution for sending the files, that’ll be awesome,” says Tracy Leeds Kaplan, director of partnerships and operations at Tenderfoot TV, of Apple’s new system.

Even now, after the subscriptions launch, when one would hope the worst of the platform’s issues had subsided, podcasters say they’re still experiencing other technical glitches, namely, major delays in new episodes publishing. One executive, who prefers to remain anonymous, says one popular show, which is time-sensitive, experienced 72-hour publishing delays on multiple occasions. Another executive, who also prefers to remain anonymous, tells me their show listeners emailed them asking where the new episodes were, all because of Apple’s delay. (In a couple of these cases, the episodes in question weren’t even behind a paywall and relied on the typical RSS system.)

“People get in their routine, and if an episode doesn’t come out when they expected, it’s really easy to move on to a new show,” one of these executives says. “We’ve had fans asking us what was up, and I think that’s a real bad look and really impactful on our numbers which translates to ad sales.”

They also say the subscription product, at least for podcasters themselves, doesn’t feel complete and easy, especially compared to its competitors. In 2017, Apple began providing podcasters analytics about their show and episodes, like audience retention, for example, and one would presume those analytics would transfer over to the subscription product. Right now, though, podcasters say they have to download a txt.gz file, or spreadsheet, to view their subscription data. The indie podcast manager says they’re having trouble opening the file and still have no idea how many people are paying for their show, months after the launch.

“It’s frustrating because on Patreon, we can just go to a web browser interface and see our numbers — we can do that with anything,” they say. “It just seems overly complicated; why can’t you just put it on the internet?”

One of the podcast executives, who has been able to open this file, still says the existence of a spreadsheet, rather than an accessible, legible backend interface is “not very Apple-like” and “just not really easy to use.”

This is also a case where bigger networks might have an advantage — their employees, or at least their hires, might be familiar with spreadsheets and pivot tables. Smaller companies, however, likely lack the resources and capabilities, meaning the gap between those who have big budgets and those who don’t widens.

Other, smaller concerns exist, too, like the fact that podcasters can’t view the number of “followers” a show has or people who follow the show but don’t pay for it. This number is critical for podcasters who want to monitor conversion, like whether they’re turning followers into paying listeners, and can serve as an indicator of a show’s success.

Apple declined to comment for this piece.

Although Apple didn’t issue a response to these podcasters’ complaints, it’s easy to imagine the company saying that these folks aren’t forced to use the platform. Apple Podcasts has, and still does, support private RSS feeds, meaning people can publish on Patreon, Supporting Cast, or wherever else, and their listeners can enjoy the content within Apple’s world. But that choice comes at a cost: a lack of an in-app button. They’d miss out on the possible key to unlocking a new market of subscribers.

But the platform’s ongoing problems, and its vocal critics, speak to the industry’s power dynamics. If Apple Podcasts doesn’t publish an episode for a day or two, a podcaster’s month could be ruined, both infuriating their paying subscribers and advertisers. Outsized influence in the industry means outsized scrutiny, and podcasters want answers.

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