Podcasts At the End of the Indie Web
There’s been a lot of restrospecting lately, lamenting the loss of the “indie web” and its subsumption by content platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Twitter. (I’ve always wondered where Tumblr fit in - more indie than any of these, but still - owned by Yahoo!). A few casualties that fell by the wayside: blogs, web comics, and independent, topic specific forums.
All of these media still exist, much diminished and publishing social posts to route you to their sites, but they are still self-hosted, free of editorial control and in their author’s hands. To some degree, these forms will probably stay on the web until millenials die out.
I want to highlight the real last bastion of the indie web, beeping on life support now: podcasts. Why does it feel like podcasts are drying up when there are more listeners than ever before? Well, why can’t indie musicians make a living anymore?
Podcasts filled an interesting niche in the indie web ecosystem: harder to make and host than a blog, too small for the big media companies to notice or care about. It was powered for over a decade by an underground comedy scene (okay one more, a tech-enthusiast audience, public radio archives, and the benign neglect of Apple. I think there are so many interesting parallels and departures on the road of blogs and podcasts in their respective heydays.
RSS: Thank the world for Aaron Swartz and Dave Winer. This foundational format laid the groundwork for blogs and podcasts, making it possible to pull updates from across the web and consume the whole thing in one place. It’s the underlying tech that makes general-purpose podcast players like Overcast and aggregators like Reeder possible. It gave you web users a feed before Twitter.
Big Tech Platforms: Over time, Google Reader became the standard way to curate your RSS feed. It worked great, a thousand blogs bloomed. And then Google decided that the rich stream of data it had flowing through its backends about millions of people’s reading habits was worthless. The app was shutdown and the blog ecosystem withered as a result. Twitter can take some of the blame, too - microblogging was embraced by the tech blogging set, with a power-law curve of rewards. The rich got richer and the long tail shrunk.
Compare with podcasts. Apple added podcasts support to iTunes in 2005 and then promptly forgot about them. There were awesome people like Scott Simpson working at Apple on podcasts, but it was a small part of the iTunes app that was left to flourish and diversify rather than be cultivated and harvested. Apple didn’t release a podcast-specific app for seven more years, and Apple was smart enough to leave the ecosystem alone.
Big Media Arrives: Blogs died (sort of), but podcasts consolidated. A few years back, big media companies took notice, and there was blood in the water. Gimlet Media at Spotify. 99% Invisible at Stitcher. The Murder Podcast Industrial Complex. Every National News Organization. Let’s not even talk about Rogan. Popular shows have been snatched up, smaller shows starved of oxygen.
Podcasts already fit a media model that the industry understood, and they had loyal audiences who could be analogized to radio or TV audiences. The podcast that started the gold rush came out of professional radio. Podcasting’s biggest star is a former TV actor and sports host. The entire business was legible to broadcast media, and they swooped in with exactly the same tactics as streaming apps: buy all the shows, lock them behind exclusive subscription models, cross your fingers that your exclusivity is better than theirs. How long until Disney starts a podcast network?
I’m glad to see some real indie networks survive, and even thrive, in 2022, but with more listeners than ever, the ecosystem feels more consolidated than ever, and the playing field ever more tilted. I hope we’ll see a resurgence of indie media at some point, but video hosting is damned expensive, and it’s harder than every to pursue a passion project that brings in little money.