While working on last’s week’s guide to podcast directories, I stumbled onto one of the great mysteries of the podcasting world: Just how exactly does Apple choose the featured podcasts in its popular podcast directory? And the more I looked at other directories, the more I had similar questions about what was chosen and why.
So I methodically contacted each one to find out the reasons behind spotlight picks. Why is this important? In the nascent world of podcasts, new listeners want help choosing the best podcasts out of the tens of thousands of offerings. If there are ulterior motives behind the picks — a payment of some sort or a backroom business deal — then people visiting the directories should know this.
What I found is that in most cases, the spotlight picks were made at the judgment of site managers who were simply choosing what they deemed to be the best podcasts. PodShow, Yahoo, Odeo and Apple all say that they accept no payments for their highlighted picks. PodShow is a commercial network of podcasts, so it features its own network podcasts in its picks and fan favorites slots.
PodShow director of marketing Aaron Burcell told me PodShow’s other sites choose their picks in different ways.
“We also own Indiepodder.org, Podsafe Music Network and Podcast Alley,” Burcell said. “Indiepodder.org is a user-supported independent podcasting community that is managed by genre node managers — they determine how content is featured, presumably based on their favorites. Podcast Alley contains featured content that is voted on by listeners of podcasts. And Podsafe Music Network reports ‘podplay’ of independent music that is reported by podcasters. As you can see, these are all different models. PodShow is an independent media network — naturally we feature our own programming there.”
“Those slots are not paid for; we feature them when we find some that we like or that we think our users will be interested in,” Stone told me via email. “It’s similar to ‘Staff Picks’ in your local book or record store. We did a similar thing at Blogger for ‘Blogs of Note’ when Ev [Williams] and I worked there.”
The bigger mystery has been Apple’s iTunes Podcast Directory, with its plethora of featured slots. At the top of the directory’s home page are three large graphical spots that catch your eye in a big way. I noticed recently that those slots now rotate to feature 12 different podcasts. Plus, when you dig deeper into genres, there are more featured content slots, usually for podcasts from larger organizations. The sports category, for instance, features ESPN, CSTV and MLB.com podcasts.
I couldn’t get multiple Apple spokespeople to respond to my queries, but I did find a technical specifications page on the iTunes site that had one explanation for featured picks on iTunes.
Under the heading, “Being Featured on the iTunes Home Page,” the copy reads:
At iTunes, we’re constantly on the lookout for podcasts that are breaking new ground with this medium, have new or unusual content, or just capture our interest. When we find them, we like to feature them on the Podcasts home page. While there are no sure-fire ways to get your podcast featured (and no, we do not accept payments for promotion), there are some minimum requirements. To be featured by iTunes, podcasts must have:
1. An image.
2. A robust and accurate description.
3. Proper language, category, and explicit tagging.
In addition, featured podcasts must be regularly updated with new episodes. We occasionally feature a podcast after its first episode, but we generally like to see podcasts with at least 3 episodes, and we like to see that the most recent episode has been added in the past month. Ideally, the episodes should be released on a regular and predictable basis. More than 100 podcasts are submitted every day, so it is impossible to feature all of the good ones.
While they might not accept payments for these slots, there might be other corporate or commercial considerations for Apple when choosing slots. For instance, one of the 12 top slots yesterday was for Disney DVD News, basically a marketing podcast for Disney promoting its new DVD releases. Disney made a high-profile deal with Apple, making its hit shows available for download on iTunes. Plus, Disney recently bought out Pixar, a company helmed by Steve Jobs, who also happens to be Apple’s CEO. The result is that any featured podcasts done by Disney (or its ABC or ESPN networks) smells of a sweetheart deal.
iTunes also has a running list of “Today’s Top Podcasts,” with no explanation of what that might be beyond the amount of subscriptions that day. At one point, podcasters learned they could manipulate that list by simply pushing the subscribe button on iTunes multiple times per day. Again, Apple hasn’t responded to my query on how they can keep this list clean.
Elle Webb, who runs the popular Podcasting News site, told me all this mystery around picks and Top 100 lists might be besides the point.
“I’m not convinced that rankings are especially useful,” Webb said via email. “We don’t promote rankings at Podcasting News, preferring to focus on creating a clear, easy-to-navigate directory. One of the biggest benefits of podcasting is that it opens up a tremendous world of niche content, and one of the big challenges is making this world something people can explore.
“Focusing on the top 10 or top 100 podcasts is horseless-carriage thinking. When there are 5,000 or 50,000 podcasts that you can listen to, on demand, the top 10 list isn’t as important as it used to be. If your interest is in a niche like media critiques, or techno music, or knitting, you don’t care what the top 10 podcasts are. You just want to find the podcasts about the niche that you’re interested in.”
That might be so, but as these niches fill up with many podcasts for each one, we’ll still want to get the best ones, rather than subscribing to 10 knitting podcasts or 48 techno podcasts.
And until Apple does come clean about its methodology for featuring podcasts and charting them — and explain it prominently for listeners — it will remain under a cloud of uncertainty, making those picks less than trustworthy.