Can the Podcast Standards Project save us all?

As podcasting matures, we need universal open standards now more than ever

In an increasingly competitive media world where big tech companies scramble to grab market share in everything from social media to streaming services, it's refreshing to see a group of industry insiders banding together to protect the very essence of podcasting: its openness. 

Enter the Podcast Standards Project (PSP): a grassroots coalition of independent podcasting players determined to preserve and evolve the open, standards-based nature of podcasting.

OK, I get it, the idea of “standards” may not get your heart racing - but they form the essential backbone that keeps the podcasting world vibrant and flourishing.

Once upon a time, podcasting was a land of the free—an open frontier where anyone with a microphone and an idea could create, distribute, and monetise their content using the open RSS protocol. However, in the late 2010’s, as podcasting began riding the wave of mainstream popularity, tech giants like Spotify, Google and Amazon joined the party, introducing proprietary platforms and features that subtly (and in some cases not so subtly) chipped away at the open spirit that once made podcasting a unique and inviting space for all. 

But fear not - the cavalry has arrived in the form of the PSP, a consortium of podcasting pioneers from companies like Buzzsprout, Red Circle, Captivate, Acast, and Transistor. They've joined forces, leaving their potential rivalries aside to focus on a common goal: advocating for open podcast standards, much like the Web Standards Project (WaSP) did for the web in the late 90s.

If, like me, you’re old enough and geeky enough to have attempted building a website back in the day, you’ll remember how frustrating it was to see your beautifully crafted code rendered (or not!) in a myriad of different ways depending on the end user’s browser of choice. Thankfully, largely through WaSP, the industry managed to resolve these issues by creating a set of broadly adopted standards that guaranteed a satisfyingly consistent user experience across all browsers. This serves as a useful analogy for what the PSP is trying to achieve.

But why should we care about open podcasting? Well, for one, it levels the playing field for creators and listeners alike. When podcasters aren't shackled to a single platform's ad networks, they can monetise their content in any way they choose—be it through Patreon, Value4Value or selling their own ads. Listeners, on the other hand, benefit from being able to access their favourite podcasts through the listening app of their choice, without being locked into a specific platform.

Perhaps a more significant factor for listeners is their privacy. Keeping the RSS-based model of podcast distribution means only very limited listener data is ever exposed to apps and hosts. This, of course, is a fundamental reason why the big tech companies are creating these closed proprietary platforms - once they have you in their ecosystem, they have your data, and data equals advertising revenue…lots of it. There is a reason that Spotify has invested over a billion dollars in its podcasting division in recent years, and it’s not altruism!

As long as podcasting remains open, no single entity can dominate the advertising market, leading to healthy competition and a more balanced ecosystem.

The PSP has already unveiled its first standard - the PSP-1 Podcast RSS Specification, which sets a baseline for podcast RSS feeds. This lays the foundation for an open podcasting environment, where podcast creators and listeners can benefit from widely supported features. The PSP is currently in listening mode - it wants to hear from podcast creators and listeners as to what features they want to see standardised, and will then begin integrating these into its future specs. So we can look forward to seeing innovative features developed and supported across across the board, like video podcasts, cross-app comments and more monetisation options, to name a few.

The future of podcasting is sure to have plenty of twists and turns ahead, but the PSP is determined to fight the good fight. With a bit of luck, and the support of podcast creators, listeners, and industry stakeholders, we can join the PSP in ensuring that the world of podcasting remains a vibrant, open ecosystem where creativity, innovation, and freedom thrive.

So, let's raise a toast to the Podcast Standards Project, the unsung heroes of the podcasting world who are reminding us all why we fell in love with this medium in the first place.