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The Download on Podcasts: Pioneers of podcast streaming are gaining traction

The Download on Podcasts is a weekly feature sponsored by PodcastOne.


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The news that Pandora acquired its second streaming podcast deal underscores the sometimes uncomfortable division in how podcasts are consumed — download or stream? Technically, the difference is artificial. But it becomes more important as a usability issue, and in audience measurement.

Pandora’s first podcast deal was for Serial, the poster-child program of the podcast resurgence. In that arrangement, Pandora acquired exclusive streaming rights. That in itself is a a problematic assertion, since most podcast apps allow streaming, even if they promote downloads first and sometimes hide their streaming functions. (Also, media cacheing, known as “progressive downloading,” makes the distinction even more artificial.) But Pandora locked in a clear differentiation by carving up each Serial episode into five-minute snackable segments, the more to resemble music tracks in the music service. The platform bookmarks where you leave off and resumes whenever you start up again.

The second Pandora deal, announced last month, is for public-radio hit This American Life, hosted by mumble-mouthed Ira Glass. Same presentation as Serial — carved-up episodes. Exclusivity doesn’t seem to be part of it with TAL. The show has been on iHeartRadio in a 24/7 version for a long time; likewise on TuneIn since October 2013. Both these streams are available today.

Taking stock of all this, we see three podcast streaming methods in play:

  • Normal on-demand streaming in the Apple Podcasts app and other “podcatchers” (where downloading is also supported or emphasized).
  • Continual, non-episodic streaming as with This American Life in iHeartRadio and TuneIn (no downloading component).
  • Pandora specialty streaming with a unique snackable presentation (no downloading component).

Add to this the inching emergence of audio podcasts in music subscription services, notably Deezer (which acquired podcatcher Stitcher), Spotify (which is building out a selected curation of shows), and Google Play Music. All of these reverse the podcatcher prejudice for downloading, hewing to their organic nature as streaming services. Google Play Music is the most determined in that regard, refusing (so far) to offer podcast downloads, and instructing producers to avoid using the word “download” (the D-word?) in their promotions.

If podcasting were to eventually separate from its legacy consumption model of downloading (which was necessary 10-12 years ago when consumer internet bandwidth was unreliable for media streaming), it might simplify the notorious measurement problem. While some podcast network execs deny that there is a problem (e.g. Norm Pattiz, founder of PodcastOne, sponsor of this column, who explained at RAIN Summit West that the “analytics issue” was rubbish), one undeniable truth is that there is no third-party standard measurement system, whatever significance that might have for the industry. It’s the same essential problem as in audio generally, which is bifurcated into terrestrial radio ratings and streaming audio ratings. It might not be a publicly admitted problem for audio publishers, but complicated audience metrics are definitely problematic for advertisers which fund these industries.

As things stand now, the deep and narrow dives into podcast streaming executed by Pandora, Google, Deezer, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn — and experiments like Podbay.fm which prioritizes streaming as an easier way to listen — are pioneering a way forward while deepening present-day divisions.

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Brad Hill

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