The Download on Podcasts: RSS vs API — what it means and why it’s important

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It probably goes without saying that podcasting is an exploding category — but there it is. Rarely does a content type gain public awareness and adoption as quickly as podcasting during the past 18 months. A lot of opportunity is being created for all kinds of stakeholders: consumers, creators, distributors, and advertisers.

But opportunity usually comes hand-in-hand with challenges, and there is one stubborn issue which challenges the growth of podcasting as a healthy business ecosystem. That issue is listening metrics.

How do consumers listen to podcasts? When do they start, stop, abandon, complete their shows? In particular, do they hear the ads? How is advertising effectiveness verified? When those questions can be answered, it will “unlock the agency floodgates,” in the words of Sean Carr, head of recently launched podcast platform Art19.

This column has discussed the drive toward a universal podcast ratings metric. Not all podcast networks feel the need,  but advertisers generally do. And many people think the category as a whole cannot be lifted to the next level until advertisers understand the opportunity in terms (audience metrics) they understand, and which extend across separate networks with their individual audience measurement systems.

“API listening” is the hot buzzword in podcast analytics. What does it mean? The phrase refers to a technology shift from RSS (Real Simple Syndication) to API (Application Programming Interface). RSS is the legacy backbone of podcast distribution. Podcasting was invented as an extension of blogging, which was likewise distributed via RSS Readers. Podcasts were embedded in RSS feeds from which they could be downloaded, and that is still how iTunes and the Apple Podcasts app get their content and put it in front of listeners. Estimates say that 65-80% of all podcast listening occurs through Apple distribution, and RSS is the circulatory system of that massive distribution.

Compared to the simple syndication of RSS, API is smart. As an interface which can be programmed, API distribution of content can carry instructions that go beyond merely handing over a file. Those instructions can track how the file is consumed, and send the information back to the source. Modern podcast hosting platforms which develop sophisticated APIs for their players can send their podcasts into the world and receive back detailed telemetry of how the shows were handled by listeners. Was the midroll ad heard? By what percentage of the audience? When advertisers can get Big Data which answers questions like that, podcasting will be demystified for them, and budgets will start leaning in.

API listening can be accomplished through any podcast app (sometimes called podcatchers) which ingests APIs in addition to RSS feeds. Whether Apple will ever be an API-informed podcatcher is unknown. We have heard, anecdotally, that Apple might loosen up its stranglehold on whatever listening analysis it is gathering from its distribution firehose. Last week Omny Studio announced a capacity to derive listening metrics from Apple downloads (although technical details were not disclosed).

Apple represents a black box of non-data which is holding back the podcast industry as a whole, even if some individual networks are doing fine with their own in-house analyses and sales efforts. While the solution to the “Apple problem” is not clear, the shift from RSS listening to API listening moves things along in the right direction.

Brad Hill