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Apple Podcasts Continues to Be Plagued by Technical Issues

Photo: Primakov/Shutterstock

This article first ran in Hot Pod, an industry-leading trade newsletter about podcasting by Nick Quah.

Between the sharp uptick in bugs leading to alarmingly fundamental problems with publisher-side usability, new user-experience frictions that have caused ever more listeners to deem the app near unusable, and the stumbling rollout of its much-touted podcast-subscriptions tool — all generally pegged to the iOS 14.5 update — Apple Podcasts has had a pretty rough stretch of months, and the scene doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Last week saw the surfacing of yet another consequential bug, one that’s been active for at least a few weeks now. On Thursday, the company posted a brief note on its “Apple Podcasts for Creators” portal flagging the problem:

Listeners on iOS 14.6 may experience an issue that prevents automatic downloads for new episodes from completing in the background. Although listening is unaffected, this issue can reduce downloads reported by third-party hosting providers and will be resolved with a software update, which also includes enhancements to Library, in the coming weeks.

Here’s my understanding of the issue: For Apple Podcasts users on iOS 14.6 with the appropriate settings, new episodes of shows subscribed to on the app aren’t being fully downloaded in the background as expected. Furthermore, if the affected user opens the app, only some of those partially downloaded episodes are completed. It’s only when the user directly interacts with the show listing — by tapping follow, play, save, and so on — that the affected episode will download in its entirety, guaranteeing its recognition as a reported download.

There appears to be some uncertainty as to how publishers should best interpret the way in which they’re affected by this problem. Here’s my understanding on that front, based on what I know right now: Firstly, it’s important to emphasize that the issue impacts how Apple-Podcasts-specific downloads are being reported on the hosting side as opposed to a show’s actual listenership on the Apple Podcasts platform. Which is to say, listeners using Apple Podcasts are still likely consuming episodes at the rates that they normally would — though, of course, it’s entirely possible that the lost convenience of automated background downloads might cause listeners to bounce off an affected show, or, more broadly, that the increased crappiness of the app might’ve driven people off the Apple Podcasts platform entirely. It’s just that, because of the background-download hiccups, downloads that would’ve typically been banked on the front end of an episode are now being recorded as they come in. For some publishers, this can bring considerable complications to how podcast ads are bought and sold, especially if a publisher is in a position of estimating and reporting the average per-episode listenership of a given show to an advertiser up front.

The bug’s emphasis on background downloads brings another, perhaps more fundamental question to the foreground. If we’re chiefly talking about automated downloads here, and if those downloads are guaranteed completion only when a listener actively pulls the show up and interacts with it, does this mean that the reported download numbers that publishers get from this bug are actually a more “true” picture of an episode’s listenership than without the bug?

Sure, this is probably the case on some level, but I also think it’s a little more complicated than that. As discussed earlier in this piece, it’s important to note that the convenience afforded by background downloads may very well have causal effects on the relationship between a listener and the show as subscribed on the Apple Podcasts platform. An episode that’s not automatically downloaded in the background might be an episode that never would’ve been consumed in the first place — a.k.a. the “leaflets in a mailbox” syndrome — but it might also be an episode that lost a listener because of that lost convenience/additional friction or, alternately, an episode that ended up being consumed on an Apple Podcasts platform competitor. (Though, as a publisher, you’d still be able to record the latter consequence at the end of the day.)

Of course, this causal stuff probably doesn’t matter from the standpoint of reporting metrics to an advertiser, which just wants to know whether its brand message reached X amount of people in theory. It might matter, however, if you’re operating from a standpoint of having to explain to management or a publishing partner as to why your show’s Apple Podcasts downloads have become distorted all of a sudden — in which case, it’s prudent to say, “Apple Podcasts is a mess for just about everybody right now. Seriously, I swear.”

It should be reiterated that this bug is specific to listeners using the Apple Podcasts app on iOS 14.6, which means that the affected downloads only represent a slice of the Apple-Podcasts-specific slice of a given podcast’s overall listenership. This composition of the problem suggests that not all shows are affected equally, their reported download losses varying based on whether the bug hit them in the first place and based on how a given show’s audience is distributed across Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or other third-party apps like Overcast, Stitcher, and … uh, Audacy, I guess? So, in theory, a show that’s heavier on Spotify audiences would experience this disruption to a somewhat different extent than a show that’s Apple Podcasts–heavy or evenly distributed across the multiple platforms. This, by the way, has been my impression checking in with a few shows as we drifted into the Fourth of July weekend: Some saw heartbreaking drop-offs in downloads, while some saw more muted effects. To be clear, this is generally bad for everybody on the publishing side. It’s just that, again, the badness is not equally distributed, so keep that in mind if you’re trying to visualize the bigger picture.

Speaking of the bigger picture: Based on this bug and all the other technical issues that have popped up over the past few months, it’s really hard not to be acutely nervous about the current state of Apple Podcasts and what its growing cascade of instabilities means for the broader podcast ecosystem. Apple Podcasts’ problems, some alarmingly fundamental, seem to be stacking up in a moment where the so-called “Podcast Platform Wars” have never been hotter and thicker with platform-level competitors, many of which come with deep pockets and intents to centralize. It’s been my belief that the future of podcasting’s historically open nature is intimately connected to Apple Podcasts’ position as a strong, popular, maybe even default listening choice for podcast consumers. And on that basis, the future of open podcasting is looking pretty tenuous, much more so than it already is.

One last note. The issue around the automated-background download stuff on iOS 14.6 is expected to resolve with a new software update, said to be scheduled for rollout in the coming weeks. A more specific release date is not available at this time.

ICYMI: Amazon Music strikes a pricey deal with SmartLess

Last Tuesday, Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported that Amazon’s audio-streaming platform — which is not Audible — has bought “exclusive rights” to the celebrities-interview-celebrity podcast hosted by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but a source tells Shaw that it comes in between $60 million and $80 million and will stretch across three years. SmartLess is repped by CAA.

Now, the concept of “exclusive rights” should be qualified significantly here. According to the report, the deal will see new episodes of SmartLess appear exclusively on Amazon Music — along with Wondery+, the subscription channel of Wondery, which, as a reminder, was acquired by Amazon Music at the end of last year — for just one week before being more widely released on other platforms. In other words, the deal appears to be premised on an extremely brief one-week exclusivity window as opposed to a more complete exclusivity arrangement, which is what governs many of the other high-profile platform-exclusive deals we’ve seen in recent years. (For example, Spotify’s deals with Call Her Daddy, The Joe Rogan Experience, Armchair Expert With Dax Shepard, and Higher Ground, though the Obamas’ podcasts do tend to get windowed out into a wider release, albeit with a significantly longer lead time than just one week.)

Amazon Music is also getting what amounts to a first look with the SmartLess team on future audio projects as a part of this deal, which I imagine has some value, but, again, many of the other exclusive licensing deals already have this element baked into them as well.

Listen, I’m just a small newsletter operator — a business no larger than a banana stand — but this deal just seems wacky to me. At least $20 million per year for one-week-release exclusivity for a show that’s barely been around for more than a year? Yeesh.

I’m aware of the counterarguments. Yes, it’s Amazon. Yes, I’m sure Amazon Music’s business-development team has modeled out how one-week exclusivity could theoretically lead to more users and time spent listening on the Amazon Music platform. They’re all very smart people, so on and so forth.

But it seems to me that the big story here, more than anything else, is the way in which $60 to $80 million feels like a drop in the bucket for the tentacular, nation-state-size Amazon — and how the point of this deal for Amazon Music probably isn’t necessarily about the show per se, but the price being paid itself.

Speaking of exclusive deals …

The New York Times: “Joe Rogan Is Too Big to Cancel”

It’s been about two years (and an extremely lucrative Spotify deal) since the last time someone took a swing at comprehensively decoding the Joe Rogan phenomenon, which came courtesy of Slate, and last week, we saw the Times’ Matt Flegenheimer mount the latest attempt.

As usual, Rogan declined to be interviewed, and while the resulting piece is mostly a write-around, it’s also the most comprehensive accounting of Rogan’s history I’ve seen thus far.

It also contains new information and context about The Joe Rogan Experience’s current position behind the Spotify walled garden. The Times reports that the show saw an “initial audience dip” when it first went exclusive to the platform — putting to paper what had previously been the commonly circulated gossip — and in regard to the controversies he’s brought to the platform (which, I should note, functions as his publisher), Flegenheimer writes:

… among top Spotify leadership, people familiar with the company say, the notion that Mr. Rogan presents any kind of regrettable executive headache is laughable. Though some die-hards may grumble — like fans of Howard Stern, perpetually convinced he’s gone soft — Mr. Rogan’s following remains young, loyal and increasingly global. So central is he to the company’s fortunes that the podcast is listed as its own category on the app: Sports. Music. News and Politics. Joe Rogan.

The notion of Rogan’s centrality to Spotify’s podcast-platform fortunes has been well-established before, easily discernible from the fact that The Joe Rogan Experience was listed as the most-streamed podcast on the platform last year.

However, it’s also important to point out that the dynamics fueling Spotify’s podcast fortunes continue to be in some flux. For one thing, note that the two other shows present in Spotify’s five most-streamed podcasts list are now subjects of Spotify deals: Call Her Daddy and The Michelle Obama Podcast. (The other two, which aren’t affiliated with Spotify, are TED Talks Daily and The New York TimesThe Daily.) Consider also the fact that Spotify has signed, and continues to sign, a fairly huge pile of these podcast deals, including with Kim Kardashian, Armchair Expert With Dax Shepard, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, and Archewell Audio. Any one of these deals could produce returns that, while not necessarily individually comparable in value to one Joe Rogan Experience, could well be so in the aggregate. Add to this Spotify’s other nonmusic machinations, including its push into live audio — I imagine we’ll see some talent deals come out of that effort at some point — and its attempt to build out a podcast-advertising marketplace, and you start seeing a picture of Spotify diversifying its podcast position away from critical Rogan energy dependence.

Then again, Spotify isn’t the only one in this situation with evolving leverage. Whenever Rogan’s deal with Spotify nears its expiration date, he’ll have a podcast industry that’s a lot more populated with eager and capable buyers than before, including, among others, SiriusXM, iHeartMedia, and now, Amazon Music.

Well, for now, anyway. I guess that depends on your belief as to whether this whole podcast thing is a bubble. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Speaking of Archewell Audio …

Archewell Audio Hires Rebecca Sananes As Head of Audio

Sananes joins from the Vox Media Podcast Network, where she was the lead producer on Pivot With Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway.

In case you need a refresher: Archewell Audio is the audio-production arm of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s broader Archewell organization, which also houses a nonprofit, the Archewell Foundation, and a video-production arm, Archewell Productions. Taking more than a few pages from the Obamas’ Higher Ground playbook, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex struck a Netflix deal through Archewell Productions last September as well as a multiyear Spotify partnership through Archewell Audio last December.

When she starts at the audio-production arm in August, Sananes will be leading that Spotify partnership and will report to Archewell’s head of content, Ben Browning, who was brought on in March.

Meanwhile, Over in the Bay Area

Insider reports that Clubhouse is seeing a surge in downloads after several months of decline, thanks in large part to the social-audio app’s Android launch and subsequent uptake in non-American markets. The plot, as they say, thickens.

Union Push at New Hampshire Public Radio

A group of NHPR staffers, chiefly in content-production roles, are organizing to form a union with SAG-AFTRA. The group, identifying as the NHPR Content Collective, announced the effort on Twitter last Tuesday, noting that it has sent a petition to station CEO Jim Schachter, who joined the station from WNYC in the fall of 2019, requesting voluntary recognition and to begin negotiations in good faith. More details can be found in this piece from the Manchester Ink Link.

This Podcast Company Was Dad on Arrival

By Aria Bracci

Even before Terry O’Reilly convinced his wife and kids to join him in launching the Apostrophe Podcast Company, he had a track record of being persuasive.

Under the Influence, perhaps his most well-known podcast, is a narrated show about the world of marketing, and it started as a syndicated program for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, even though, by Terry’s assessment, it didn’t have the best shot of getting picked up. “I didn’t think they would buy a show on advertising on an advertising-free network,” he laughs. But he made it happen.

Terry’s productive pitching, whether to his family or to the CBC, is certainly due in part to his own background in marketing. Before Apostrophe, he co-founded the commercial firm Pirate Radio and Television in Toronto and, before that, wrote scripts for ads; he graduated to directing them after starting Pirate. Though he’s long experimented with the art of persuasion, it’s hard to say if his now-full-blown podcasting company came to be purely because of his convincing nature, or if it’s also because he’s just a nice guy, one who’d be pleasant to work with. It’s likely a mixture, just as there are multiple reasons why his own family members are his best-suited partners for this new storytelling business: They, too, come from marketing backgrounds. And they, too, are pretty pleasant to work with. In fact, they’re so aligned professionally and socially that they’ve actually done this before: Until recently, Terry’s daughter Callie was one of Pirate’s directors.

Terry and Debbie O’Reilly have three kids, two of whom, Callie and Sidney, now work for Apostrophe. Mother Debbie comes from a career in advertising; daughter Sidney studied journalism. All four had a hand in making the flagship Apostrophe show Under the Influence before Apostrophe was even an idea, with Debbie line-producing, Sidney pushing out social-media content, and Callie coordinating the music when the program was still strictly for radio. Having extra O’Reilly hands on the project made sense, considering the four have worked in varied enough roles within the communications field that they all bring something unique, says Terry. They’re “not one homogenous group,” he says, “and that collision and those sparks are pretty wonderful.” At the same time, they’re still able to approach projects with an aligned understanding of what works for a given audience, he notes. Callie agrees: “It’s so easy to share work and hand things off to each other because we have complete trust with what that person is going to do with it.”

While one might assume that such synchronized standards are a product of similar careers, it goes back much further than that. “We grew up in a pop-culture house,” says Callie, and she and her siblings were shown how to analyze media, whether they knew it or not, because of their dad’s ever-present interest in entertainment and the art of the ad. This undoubtedly planted the seeds for future jobs in media, but it also established a more fundamental synergy in how the family interacts. “We have a shared taste and a shared trust in each other’s instincts,” Callie notes, not from work alone, but “in a way that can only come if you’ve grown up together.”

It works particularly well that at the heart of Under the Influence, the first production that the O’Reillys collectively left their mark on, are the movies and commercials they’ve spent so much time consuming and discussing as a family. I personally felt drawn to listen as if I were part of the family myself, since a good amount of the show’s subjects are familiar to me, too, having come up of age around the same time as Callie and Sidney, albeit in Massachusetts. Who doesn’t love a “ten commercials you forgot about”-style roundup? (I’m currently 18 minutes deep in this one.) Under the Influence, though, goes one step further by explaining how things like commercials came to be and the effect that certain elements were intended to have.

“We developed that language early on,” Callie says, recalling that watching the Oscars together, for example, was a household tradition. “It’s kind of in our blood.” These days, brainstorming sessions often reference those early, formative memories, which makes it possible to cut out small talk or roundabout discussions, thus speeding up the editorial process. “Shorthand is critical,” Terry says. “One of us will say, ‘Hey, remember that moment in that movie where someone says that thing about that thing?’ and we all just say, ‘Yeah, yeah yeah!’”

Being exposed to entertainment so early and often gave the O’Reillys a sort of double education on the world of media — one informal, in the home, and one supported by academic institutions and real-world jobs. Such comprehensive schooling doesn’t hurt, considering that the best marketing references other media, or else it depends on complex and compelling characters, framing, and hooks. It’s a “fascinating field,” Terry says, because it’s a “study of human nature,” playing into and revealing what drives people to feel and act certain ways. And the O’Reillys seem to have it down.

Speaking personally as a fan, Under the Influence hits many of the right notes. When the show itself isn’t reminding me of the cereals I used to eat as a kid, its theme music, an energetic, jazzy tune overlaid with crackly recordings of vintage commercials, achieves a setup akin to the THX intro — it sets the tone, and it gets you excited. I once described it as a great show to listen to while roller-skating. Because of that energy, it’s very nearly a show that I can’t listen to at 1.5x speed, for fear of not being able to keep up with all the action. But fear not: Each episode ends by recapping the stories’ lessons and through-line. Even if you don’t need a summary, you might listen through anyway, if only to hear how Terry will lead up to the last line, which always ends with “… when you’re under the influence.” When I learned that the O’Reillys call their shows “driveway podcasts,” meaning that you’d gladly sit in your now-parked car to finish listening to an episode you started on the way home, I agreed.

The O’Reillys’ marketing know-how yields a polished product that’s jam-packed with stories, a widely applicable skill set that’s allowed them to branch out from a show strictly about the marketing world to other narrative series, such as Alone Together and We Regret to Inform You. They also just launched an interview show that breaks from their trademark style of a solo narrator guiding you through a curated list of stories.

Indeed, the company appears to have various marketing tones that it can dial up or down. When showcased through its official website, on which the origin of the company’s name is front and center, Apostrophe (referring to the punctuation in “O’Reilly”) is a family business. But if you come to one of the company’s shows purely by way of that show, you might have no idea, and instead all you get is a sharp, highly produced audio product, able to duke it out with something from a much larger or more established media company. (Though it built on collective decades of work, Apostrophe itself only launched in January 2020.)

I found Under the Influence through the CBC’s podcast directory, took a liking to it, and one day just happened to listen all the way through the credits and notice that the host and one of the producers had the same last name. I Googled and Googled and was able to find only one thing suggesting that the two were married (Terry’s Wikipedia page, because, for some reason, maybe having to do with international borders, the Canadian company’s “.ca” site never came up). I boldly emailed Terry to ask if I was right, and I was. And thank goodness, because “O’Reilly” isn’t exactly a rare last name: According to 2014 data on the site Forebears, every 1 in 8,462 people in Canada has it — that’s compared to the 601,093 you’d have to sort through to find a Bracci in the U.S.

Perhaps the O’Reillys will more aggressively market the family angle in the future if it becomes useful or relevant; after all, that’s exactly what they did with the Airstream-trailer-turned-podcast-studio they use: Though they’ve been recording in it for years behind the scenes, as soon as a listener jokingly referred to it eponymously as the “Terstream” studio, the team adopted it as part of their brand and messaging.

Until then, the O’Reillys’ family dynamic shines in how it sets a foundation for the business, rather than how it operates as a façade. It does occasionally make itself known, though. For one, you can’t ignore it when you get two of them on the phone together and pose a question to them both, and Terry, in such a dadlike way that it could’ve been ripped straight from the script of The Parent Trap, volleys the inquiry to his director — and daughter — with a “Go ahead, Cal.”

Apple Podcasts Continues to Be Plagued by Technical Issues