The New Age of Radio?

The first podcast I ever attempted to make was a music podcast. It was seven or eight years ago and my life at the time was completely centered around music. I was reading magazines, and blogs, and buying books like “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” and “Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco.” I was discovering the obscure artists that obscure artists listen to. I would go to parties with pre-made music mixes in my pocket; mixes I had spent days putting together. When I look back now, I guess I really wanted to be a DJ. And when I first heard of this thing called a podcast, it sounded like the perfect way for me to have a show without going through the whole get-a-job-at-a-radio-station-and-work-your-way-up rigamarole. I didn’t quite have the terminology at the time but I immediately understood the power of all the gatekeepers being removed; I understood the power of direct distribution from creator to audience — no middle men.

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📸 Daniel von Appen

Eight years is a long time for modern technology so I don’t remember exactly what the process was like to submit to a podcast to Apple back then. I certainly don’t remember making an actual episode to submit. I think they required you to propose what the show was going to be in writing. I think you submitted a proposal (this fact seems supported by the fact that Apple Podcasts Connect shows my proposed name for the show as simply: MUSIC PODCAST.) If I’m remembering all of this correctly then I imagine my submission would have sounded something like this:

“Dear Apple, I wanna make a music show — kinda like college radio. I want to play really cool stuff from artists most people haven’t heard of, but I want to surprise them and juxtapose all of that with stuff they already know and don’t pay attention to. Make them hear stuff in a different way. Like maybe Rick Springfield is kinda cool between the Kinks & My Chemical Romance. It’ll be a rad show. I promise.”

The response was simple: rejected. I didn’t know at the time that there was some logistical loophole which made recording things and putting them on the internet different than broadcasting the same things over the airwaves. I didn’t understand the mess that music licensing is. I just knew I couldn’t make the show I wanted. So I gave up — ok, I didn’t really give up. That would insinuate that I had a choice. I didn’t have choice. No music podcasts. Period.

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And that’s how things have been for all of us ever since. Music podcasts have been a no-go format for anyone wanted to be listed in Apple Podcasts (iTunes at the time.) Which is not to say that podcasts have lacked music. Podcasters have been using royalty-free music, buying licensed music, and creating their own for background tracks, bumpers, and theme songs all along, but there have been almost no shows in which listening to songs is the primary focus. (A few notable exceptions are All Songs Considered — who are allowed to play songs via fair-use because they are public broadcasting & Song Exploder — who have recently been forced to removed a bunch of back catalog episodes due to record companies revoking previous licensing.)

Even the most casual radio listener can tell you that NPR offers very different programing than your local rock station offers. Until now, all podcasts have been in the NPR/talk-radio mold. This possibly changes with Anchor’s newest feature: music podcasts. With Spotify as their parent company, Anchor is able to offer podcasters the ability to intersperse talking and actual record label songs. For the first time podcasters can actual be DJs.

Spotify is able to get away with this because they already have the licensing to use these songs on their platform. It makes no difference whether they’re listened to individually, in a playlist, or embedded inside of a show. This is exciting and refreshing. A whole other side of broadcasting, which was not previously possible in podcast form, is suddenly opening up. It’s a format that’s extremely familiar to those of us who grew up on radio (when it was good), but for many others it’s a completely new format. And this possibility for a new/old form could be a great thing not only for podcasting but for music as well.

People often blame streaming music and the internet for the decline of radio, but in reality radio just got boring. Huge corporations like Clear Channel went around the country gobbling up local radio stations, breaking them down, and putting them onto assembly lines. Everything was pushed through the same mold. Radio became homogenized. Every country station from North Carolina to Washington State was soon using the same playlist. Every hip hop station was playing the same songs. Every rock station was running the same ads. Local flavor was erased. Nothing had a uniqueness. The individual tastes of each DJ’s were stamped out by projected numbers and charts. Radio became formula. So, we all tuned out and we dialed up on the internet. We downloaded songs. We stole them. We bought them. We streamed them. We made our own playlists. And along the way we lost the shared experience.

That’s what excites me about Anchor music podcasts. It democratizes music-based shows again. It opens the possibility for the best parts of radio to return. It welcomes back the niches; the scenes (remember scenes?) Once again we could be listening to shows that play nothing early 80’s goth, or pre-gansta rap, or ambient witch-house metal, or afro-funk noise. But not as a playlists, as actual shows! — shows with DJ’s who are passionate about the music; DJ’s with knowledge, and peculiar tastes.

But despite all the potential there are a few things to consider:

  1. Spotify’s stewardship of Anchor hasn’t been great so far. They allow far too much blatant privacy on their platform — people literally stealing someone else’s show, slapping on their own ads (another service offered for free in the Anchor app,) and reaping the financial benefits of someone else’s work.
  2. Anchor is clutter with dead shows. People create a show on Anchor, publish a few episodes, and then give up. This isn’t usually a problem because hosting costs money. When you give up on a show, you cancel the hosting, and the show disappears. But because Anchor hosting is free, these shows remain in all of the podcast directories forever with no one cleaning them up. This means eventually all the easily understood names will be taken. For example: Brain Storms. There is a dead Anchor show with the same name that only published three episodes in June 0f 2019. This show comes up next to my show in all searches and it’s likely some potential listeners have clicked the wrong one, decided that my show was dead, and gave up. It’s not a huge problem right now but it won’t be fun when eventually you go to make a show called something like “Joe’s Auto Garage” and you find that there are seven other dead shows with the same name. You’ll then only have two choices: either accept that when people search for your show, they’ll have a 1/8 chance of finding the right one, or follow the twitter/Gmail route and start giving podcasts incompressible names Joe_78sAuto.GaragepPod. So far, Spotify seems unconcerned with the digital footprint that free shows leave in their wake.
  3. This isn’t the first time that the music podcast has been attempted (legally.) The original Anchor (before they were purchased by Spotify) had a similar feature where users could intersperse talking segments and music (which would play in Spotify or Apple Music, depending on the listeners subscription.) But these “shows” weren’t distributed. They were never formed into an RSS feed and distributed to podcast directories. They could only be listened to inside the Anchor app. And as an early Anchor user, I can tell you this was drastically different than what Spotify is offer simply because there weren’t many people listening to things inside the Anchor app.
  4. Anchor’s new music podcasts are imperfect in a similar way. Because of the same nasty licensing, music podcasts can only be listened to on Spotify. In addition, if you are not a paying Spotify subscriber you will only hear 30 second snippets of the songs embedded in these shows. It’s all kinda of a bummer if you aren’t looking to make something exclusive to one platform. But it is the current reality, and I doubt the licensing legalities will ever change. Record Companies like things the way they are. So while we may never see an Anchor music podcast in Apple Podcasts, or Stitcher; we may see more podcast platforms following suit. After all, Apple, Google, Pandora, and Amazon all license music for streaming as well. We could see this type of feature pop up on every podcast platform.
  5. The future of music podcasts is based solely on the quality of the shows. If we get nothing but a bunch pf celebrity branded playlists filled with the same damn songs corporate radio stations are playing, then this will all be for nothing. Music podcasts will become like MySpace (or radio,) invisibly lumbering on with no one sure who’s still using it, but no one concerned as long as it makes a small margin of profit. For music podcasts to survive they need the outliers and the weirdos; they need the shows you can’t get any other way.

Overall, despite the limitations of music podcasts, I think this could be a very cool thing. I even think that platform exclusivity may help. Maybe, not being able to distribute beyond one platform will keep the corporations out of the game and leave only the hobbyists and musicologists to make these types of shows. And I have to admit, it’s all very tempting, particularly to the version of me from eight years ago who was so excited to be a DJ. If I didn’t have four podcasts already, I might indulge him. If my plat wasn’t full, I might start one today. Will you?

Categorized as Thoughts

By C.A. Hall

Writer / Podcaster I'm a well-written sentence marred by a curse word. In another life I might have been a criminal profiler, a jazz drummer, an architect, an acrobat, an actor, or a children’s book illustrator.