History podcasting is a hobby, but within that hobby one is confronted by several 'business type' decisions which could have the effect of improving your pod's profile, but which could also consume your time and in some cases, monies. In the first part of a new blog series I like to call Pros and Cons, I'm going to examine one such aspect of the history podcasting sphere which has its fans and critics. Give it up for the world's biggest podcatcher - iTunes!
iTunes is inescapable if you produce a podcast of any size. 'How can I get it on iTunes', 'When will it be on iTunes', 'What do you mean it's just going to be on Soundcloud?!' In line with the fact that Apple created podcasting as know it, it follows logically that Apple should in turn spend adequate time marketing and improving their podcast platform, right? Well, sure, in an ideal world, that would be the case.
Unfortunately, along with every convenience that iTunes brings, it also brings its own headaches at the same time. With an increasing number of podcast fans turning to arguably better alternatives, it is worth asking yourself - is it worth caring about iTunes, investing that time into applying through Apple's still ludicrous process, and then wondering forever why your artwork just won't seem to load? Let's find out, but I should drop a few facts on you guys first. I have to make clear that I have not tried to use 'tags' nor do I understand them, so I can't say if they're a good or bad thing either way. If tags are somehow massively groundbreaking and I made the argument unfair by excluding them, then sorry.
Also, I should clarify that I'm not talking about Apple or IOS software in general, I am referring instead to Apple's podcast platform as it stands in iTunes. Since I have never personally had an iPhone or a Mac, all I can do is relate what I've learned from my own unique experience of trying to make iTunes work through my trusty Samsung laptop, as I diligently connected my 160GB iPod classic each time a new show came out. I still can't believe I went through all that, because once I decided to check, out of interest, as someone who hates change, whether listening to podcasts on one's phone was viable, I never went back. That should tell you all you need to know about my limited Apple experience, but it doesn't mean that I also dislike the iTunes podcast platform for podcasts as well. Or does it? Read on!
We should bear in mind exactly how different everything would be right now if Apple never decided 'hey, let's give people the opportunity to create their own radio show - let's call it a podcast, because it's on an ipod and you cast it on the internet.' Probably, that is how the conversation went, but regardless, we should all be mindful of the fact that we owe Apple a debt for what it has done for the world of creativity. Without Apple, I wouldn't be writing this blog right now, and I wound't be knee deep in research for the Korean War. Apple's commitment to podcasts initially at least distinguish its great minds from the countless other tech giants of the world. They also, while in the process of bringing the concept of podcasts to life, brought us iTunes - a place where you can store your music, buy new music and listen to your podcasts. What could possibly go wrong with this great...oh look an update!
iTunes is a convenient place where all forms of media converge. In terms of history podcasting, it is the place - still after all these years - to check and see if said podcasts are any good. 'Give me a review on iTunes' is one of the best ways to show your love to your favourite shows. It's the I in our BEFIT acronym, which of course you all love. Without me pushing people to rate and review the show, I would probably never have reached as many people as I did. A rake of positive iTunes reviews demonstrate your podcasting prowess, and they also, on the other side, provide a great medium through which the author can see where he/she is going wrong. Listeners who wouldn't normally get in touch tend to make their voices heard in the review store, and so long as they're not being nasty, it's an invaluable resource for any podcaster that cares about his stuff.
iTunes provided the benchmark for other such apps to follow. While the act of buying music online has mostly been replaced by streaming software like Spotify and Google Play etc., iTunes initiated the trend of purchasing digital copies of music online, and listening to them at your leisure. Much like streaming services eliminated purchasing music, iTunes gave us a glimpse into the future by letting us buy the most obscure music out there. With such a handy platform, it stands to reason that iTunes and then its podcast app will remain the one stop shop for music, podcast and media lovers the world over for some time.
As the technological race between Apple and Samsung rages on, with other competitors entering the market, it is remarkable that no true titan has stepped up to claim the mantle of best podcast interface. If it has, then it has yet to compel an abandonment of iTunes on any notable scale. iTunes' staying power and the appeal of its podcast app are sourced in the appeal of Apple products themselves, since (as far as I'm aware) you can't access a Podcast Addict app on your iPhone. Even if you can, with all their podcasts in one place, why would an Apple owner bother? All their podcasts, all their subscriptions and all their account details are conveniently synced to their iPhone.
However one can explain the domination of the podcast market by Apple and iTunes and its Podcast App, we don't need to explain that this domination makes iTunes and therefore iTunes reviews critically important. Simply by browsing the iTunes store is how many new podcasts are found - for history podcasters in particular, the need to get your name is out there is given a critical leg up by the extra press which iTunes provides. If you're lucky, you could be placed in the New and Noteworthy category, and use this notoriety to wrest even more publicity out of your launch. This means that even if you despise how iTunes operates, you cannot afford to ignore it. Now that we've acknowledged that, let's take the gloves off.
Where does one even begin? For starters, I absolutely love seeing when I have a new iTunes review, but do you know what I really love? Podcast Addict allows me to access reviews on each of the iTunes stores without having to load up iTunes on my computer. Do you know how big a deal this is?! To put it in perspective, the last time I booted up iTunes it had managed to update itself, delete my entire library and then tell me what a great job it was doing. I don't give a monkey's about Genius, whatever that is, but apparently iTunes was gathering details to create a Genius playlist too and...no, never mind, it's not responding anymore.
For a while, don't get me wrong, using iTunes was a breeze. It was so simple to hook up first my iPod Nano, and then my iPod Classic when I had too much podcasts, and then switching things over was an easy peasy process, which I used to do religiously every Monday, since that was when the new shows would come out. This was how I listened to History of Rome and History of England, which seems bonkers now, considering I literally press three buttons now and the new episode is there on my phone. Back then though, this was a big deal, and I think that's something I've really come to learn about iTunes - whether it's because it just doesn't work without crashing, it always seems to need some kind of update far out of proportion to what it actually does that is new, or whether it's just laziness on my part to not want to have to plug something in and wait patiently for things to load - I can't help but shake the feeling that iTunes has been left behind by the competitors.
Now I know what some of you are probably saying 'but Zack, you can access iTunes on your iPhone anyway, so what's the difference?' Well that's all well and good, but to me, the reason why Android's systems are so appealing is because they're so separate. All of my apps aren't linked together by some overriding software - I don't have to install the latest IOS software to listen to my podcasts - and I don't have to worry about them vanishing in the interim either. And before you Apple fans grab your fruity pitchforks, this isn't designed to be a technology master race argument. All I'm saying is that, to me and for the sake of what I'm looking for as a history podcast fan and producer, iTunes leaves a lot to be desired.
When we come to the issue of iTunes reviews, you'll remember I mentioned these in the pros section, and yes, iTunes reviews are a good thing. The problem with them though is that, like most technological ideas that depend on human beings not being dicks to one another - the problem is that it depends on human beings not being dicks to one another. Take one specific example, but one which many a podcaster has experienced over his/her lifetime. You work really hard on a show, and you release it to the world. Nicely done, some reviewers say, and you feel happy. Sometimes you'd even like to thank these people for their feedback, but since it's good you don't mind too much.
Then it happens - you get a bad review. And not even a bad review, but a smarmy, self-congratulatory, condescending and just plain inaccurate review. What can you do about it? Absolutely nothing. You can't argue the point, you can't stop it being published even though it's your podcast (though I know that would prevent problems in of itself) and you can't do anything to show that you've read this review, you think it's a steaming pile of ____, and you can think of all these reasons why. The reviews, good or bad, just float there like some uncontested statement, in which the only way to signify your approval or disapproval is to use the meaningless vote system, or to comment in your own review 'what the guy said above is a complete load' etc.
Where am I going with this? I would just like a bit of accountability. I'm not asking for a revolutionary change, but since iTunes' review system has been the same since it first emerged over a decade ago, and since these days people have the ability to reply to everything, I feel it wouldn't be too hard to somehow authorise yourself as the producer of the show, and then issue a legitimate response. Bad reviews generally don't happen without good cause, since people, most of the time, are not dicks. However, a bad review like a 1 star with a comment along the lines of 'where's the latest show' is the cancer of the review system. What is more, it can have a detrimental effect on the way the iTunes store places your show in the 'What's Hot' or 'New and Noteworthy' categories...and don't even get me started on those....
Ok fine, but I don't mean to offend anyone by this. I'm just curious really. I ask you, how is it possible that for the past 4+ years, the What's Hot category on iTunes has remained virtually the same the entire time? No new faces, no switching around of the order, nothing. Are you really going to tell me that Hardcore History or a History of English is consistently as highly downloaded every day? Are you really going to tell me that some 3 year old show still belongs in the New and Noteworthy category after all this time? It would be incredible for our work if a genuine rankings system developed, because although I'm running the risk of sounding bitter, I'm honestly not, I just don't understand how the rankings never seem to really change. You always have the same shows on top, and no new ones ever seem to appear.
Could it be that the ranking system is flawed? I believe it is, and I believe that iTunes, having established its foundations, is in desperate need of a home makover, or upholstering, or spring cleaning - something! It would just be nice to feel like your show is going places on the world's biggest podcatcher, and that it isn't getting lost in the shuffle. Speaking of shuffle, what's up with those categories? Why do we STILL have to lump history podcasts into Society and Culture after all these years? Surely by now the history podcast genre deserves its own section of the iTunes podcast store? I don't think many would disagree with me on that, and I also think it would help refresh the ranking system too!
If I had to summarise the problem with iTunes, and why this Cons section and turned more into a rant than a fair and equal comparison with the Pros section of this article, it would have to be the simple fact that iTunes is an old dinosaur in need of an upgrade. Until Apple puts proper money into iTunes and helps it realise its potential, history podcasting and podcasting in general will always be held back. I know I'm risking sounding ungrateful with this line, since I've gone into detail already with how much we as podcasters owe iTunes and Apple for giving us this platform, but you can only stand on the same platform for so long. iTunes, I fear, has been resting on its laurels for too long, and so long as it continues to do so, the small time podders like myself will always be held back.
What do you think? You have clearly seen that my view on iTunes and its system of categorising and presenting history podcasts leaves a lot to be desired, but what has your experience been with it? Is there any big issues with the system that you think I missed? In my mind, to answer the original purpose of this article, I would argue that any history podcaster needs to invest some time in building up his/her iTunes profile, and even strategising his/her launch to fall in line with how the iTunes store algorithm supposedly works. Otherwise, you'll be missing out on as much as 80% of your potential market. Until people stop asking 'when will it be on iTunes?', we're doomed to endure its faults together.
Thanks for reading history friends and patrons! Make sure to take part in the discussion here or on Facebook and let me know what you thought of this article - I'm always interested to hear from you! This is a multi-part series which will hopefully prepare would-be podcasters for this genre, and open the eyes of the listeners as well. In the next part of this series, we'll be looking at the pros and cons of making one's own website, where the best place to go make one is, and whether or not such a model is for you. I hope you'll join me then! Thanksss!