Episode 53: Podcast Saga Part 6


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            Assuming Luminary is actually listening to this episode. Let me just say, that you need to give the poor little social media intern who found this episode of an obscure podcast a raise. Because that person did far more than could be expected of them. After all, I’m not going to say anything so negative as to trigger a sort of (quote) “damage control mode,” so it would take some nerve to bring this half-hearted criticism and non-expert opinion to higher ups. And that nerve can really help a fledging xx23wstart-up if you persuade it to stick around.

            And yep, you heard me right. This isn’t going to be a scathing criticism of Luminary, though I had my issues with the service and a strongly worded take down email for this podcast and all the podcasts on this makeshift network, which did include a phrase something along the lines of “your company specializes in burning through whatever good will is offered to it,” which was a bit strong, but also I was reacting to the fact that my full, legal name was being used on each podcast page despite the fact that I have a very good reason for not attaching my name to this. So first pro tip, there’s a reason publishers and authors show up like they do, so make sure that information is accurate.

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            I’ve got a lot more to offer. But for now. Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 53.

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            Now for once, this podcast is going to be talking about something that is essentially a current event in the podcast world. I’m to the time to bring anyone up to speed who doesn’t know, which is hard to believe because the indie podcasting community occasionally gets overrun with memes about this whole thing and then there was the very real backlash it met with for a few of the choices they had made in terms of structuring the app that—even if well intentioned—were not going to land well if they thought about, particularly when you consider how poorly explained they were. Look, I know we have our knee-jerk reactions. Those “Hahaha that was so stupid” moments, and I enjoy those too, but for everyone’s sake, I think we need to unpack what went wrong when, where, and why. There’s a teachable moment in this madness.

            Now, nothing I say means that I suddenly love Luminary. I actually still have a lot of bitterness from the whole name thing…. And other issues but ultimately, if they are willing to actually contribute to the growth of podcasting, particularly as a medium for previously marginalized creators and stories, I’m somewhat willing to make this bargain, partially because as a proponent of the idea that intention and effect are two different things, and if all of that were true, the effect would be really valuable.

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            So Luminary is a new podcasting app-slash-$100 million-dollar startup that tried to initially market itself as the “Netflix of podcasting,” in the beginning, and Source One in the notes is proof of this. It’s a New York Times article that was a profile of this whole thing long before the actual launch. Well, relatively long before in terms of start-up time lines. To a great extent, Luminary still kind of presents itself like this, from what I could tell, but it’s hard to say for sure, given how much flack it gets for so many of their choices. I’ve just found it’s hard to parse out what Luminary’s main identity is now besides it being a startup-experiment stuck in damage control.

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            And that’s something else I need to unpack that is critical to the narrative I’m trying to present to you. Now, if you don’t remember what Netflix was in an age before streaming became the norm, Netflix initially prided itself on being a commercial free way of enjoying television whenever you wanted it. Basically, once putting a wire-antennae on your roof was no longer a viable option that would work, you had to pay for television service and still sit through periodic ads on every television program that were somewhat tailored to what you were watching. Companies would make informed decision when it came to buying buy ad space, focusing on programs that they thought were reaching their target audience.

            We still have that, in many regards, in addition to having so many alternatives available to us, but back then, advertisements were seen as inescapable. We didn’t have something like ad-block resetting our expectations.

            It didn’t matter that people found them annoying for any plethora of reasons; advertisements were built into the foundation of the television model. And the idea of even fast forwarding through them with something like DVR was huge back even if it’s trivial thing now. Netflix got its foot in the door by capitalizing on this and other frustrations we had with the traditional way we consumed media, pushing out and outright destroying Blockbuster and forever shaping our relationship with content. Luminary tried to do something similar by promising that none of its premium podcasting would feature advertisements of any kind. And the phrase they did toss around for a while was ad free.

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            In addition, to all of that, Luminary also developed a great deal of exclusive content available only for those who paid the $7.99 a month for its service. $7.99, if you don’t remember was the starting price for Netflix back in the day. And I’ve personally wondered if that’s why the number was selected or if it was calculated like any other price would be. I guess it all depends on how far Luminary wants to carry this narrative.

            But as for this exclusive content, which is what Netflix is specializing now and means the branding works on multiple fronts, Luminary has commissioned a bunch of promising shows from people like Russell Brand, Patti LuPone, Trevor Noah and more to create a series of 40 shows exclusive to paying Luminary listeners and that includes, most importantly, The AMA Archives from Lauren Shippen, creator of The Bright Sessions, a much beloved podcast whose world The AMA Archives is building off of. And that is a very important point.

            Now, on the other hand, there was also some talk of migrating established shows to Luminary’s exclusive catalogue. I went to make a nod to that because that was something that did land poorly. When you hear that people don’t want to pay for content they once got for free, I think this is the branch of Luminary’s business plan that this is relevant and not the whole plan. While it’s worth discussing this particular nuance, I need to hold off on doing that here because when I went to search for these titles, I found some anonymous comments online that non-Luminary players are still updating with new episodes on these so-called exclusive feeds if you were subscribed prior to the migration, so I’m not sure what’s going on here, so I’m not going to comment on that here. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if this plan was shelved when things started to go awry. If this is still the plan, but it’s just going poorly. That might be a thing. And you know what, Luminary isn’t the best at communicating, so plausible deniability here. If they messed up, I’m not helping them out.

            The point I’m trying to make here is that Luminary didn’t just depend on the appeal of being ad free. It did want to offer exclusive content and a lot of it as a further incentive for replacing your current podcast player with their app. In the New York Times article I have designated as Source 1, Matt Sacks the creator of Luminary highlighted this point in the following quote. He says, (quote) “That what sets Luminary apart is our exclusive content right off of the bat. Nobody comes close.” (end quote) (Music fades out) And, yes, I’ll say it again exclusive content is more of what we think of when we think of modern Netflix. It was a step Netflix had to take to survive when faced with more and more competitors onto the streaming space and producers elected to make their own platforms rather than licensing with Netflix.

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            Now, none of that is to say there wasn’t going to be a bunch of free content on the app for anyone who didn’t want to pay but preferred the functionality or user interface of that app over its competitors. In fact, the free version of Luminary to paying was just having another podcast app on your phone down to every last detail. Which is what led to more problems.

            The free version of the Luminary app seems to do what a lot of podcasting directories do and that is pull feed information from Apple Podcasts. I mean, no one asked to be on Luminary—partially because we didn’t know how—and yet, on launch day, there our shows were. It’s a theory people pieced that together because it’s somewhat industry standard and when you submitted your take-down request (because that was going to be the quickest way to get your legal name that you had reasons for not posting everywhere off of the internet) you had to tell them the iTunes ID associated with the show.

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            Now at this point in the story, we can jump to launch day. The actual service launched in late April, and at the absolute best, Luminary is guilty of not communicating with the existing podcasting world at all.

            For one, there’s the belief that Luminary likely scrapped podcasting information from another directory rather than recruiting creators which caused the attributions, specifically creator names, to appear incorrectly, ad data and donation information was stripped off of the show notes (potentially because of safety concerns, but more on that later), and finally and most worrisomely they were accused of rehosting the feeds in such a way that creators would not receive any stat information from Luminary listeners, which makes it harder for a creator to understand and leverage their audience but I’ll get to that in a bit, and I will trying to memorialize all this “oh-goodness-panic” in the many webpages that collectively make up Source 2. It just got to be a lot, covered very quickly.

            Personally, I feel like that could have all been summarized with a livestream of a dumpster burning for 48 hours, which is how long that initial backlash seemed to last at least in the internet circles I was looking at. But the details do matter a bit. I said this on Twitter when it was all happening, and I’ll say it here potentially better because I won’t have character limits. The problem with Luminary isn’t that it is trying to innovate and change the podcasting space. Quite the contrary. Whether or not we want to admit it, we need change. Podcasting needs to be more financially sustainable because that’s how the world works. Funds make things possible. And in the current age, it will remain “adapt or die.” In light of this, Source 3 will be an interview given by Lauren Shippen when she describes some of the problems The Bright Sessions ran into in those early days, and many of them involved financing. You can say that podcasting has a low barrier of entry. But that doesn’t mean these costs aren’t still very much real, and she does a better job parsing them out than I ever could because her flagship shows actually had a lot of costs behind it that I’ve been able to avoid.

            But to get back to the point, the problem with Luminary is that this is a business model being imposed on an environment where it doesn’t quite fit. And we could tell you this if you would actually communicate with us.

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            Luminary is still around. It might not be as popular as it could have been, but it’s not completely dead. There is this sense in which the podcasting community is still giving them a bit of a chance, and I think it’s because Luminary unintentionally saved themselves by tapping Lauren Shippen to make their flagship audio drama The AMA Archives and while I don’t know who decided that it needed to be a spin off of The Bright Sessions, that person deserves a cookie. Or several. Because they probably saved this company.

            While there was uproar over what Luminary did—or did not communicate, I’ll put it that way—there was this sense that the majority didn’t want Luminary to outright crash and burn. We wanted them to fix things and felt compelled to give them a chance because if they failed The AMA Archives would fail too.

            In the name of communication and as a good will gesture, I will offer up some of my own thoughts of what they could have done better. Like better communicating. Have I mentioned communicating is important when you are trying to enter into a space that is inclined to not want you because it’s kind of important that you communicate when you enter into a space that doesn’t exactly want you?


            But basically, though, I need to build off of what I said in the last few episodes. Hence why I’m only now getting around to this. And by the way, I can toss one out real quick. Transcripts: hey Luminary, you should have them. It’s important, you could justifiably put them on the same price tiers as the show they represent and we could all say fair is fair, it’s a testament to how much you value your own creation, and also it’s great PR that will likely generate enough much needed positive buzz to make your blunders negligible.

            But there’s also a lot more to this larger conversation than that.

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            Now, when I was working on this script, I did a quick cursory glance at Luminary’s twitter, and the words “ad free” are no longer prominently featured on their bio, and its shifted once again to an emphasis on having new and exclusive content. Great move. Genuinely. Advertisements, particularly in podcasting, aren’t the same pox that they were with television shows or with other contemporary platforms like YouTube. In podcasting, I’m not creepily targeted by an algorithm while still being exposed to new goods that could be of interest to me. And podcast ad reads can be fun, true to the tone of the show I love, and feel communal. And most of all, they can be skipped.

            Do people still complain about ads on podcasts? Yes, I fully admit that, but this is not segment of the audience you should be catering to, and the most passionate detractors will only come out when their decision to skip these ads is called into question because it can feel like an attack on their ability to make informed decisions. So just don’t throw that out there. Don’t criticize people who skip ads. Easy.

            On the other hand, podcasting ads can feel repetitive because it’s a small pool of advertisers so far, and having more advertisers enter the space is going to cut down on the repetition that can also lead to people skipping ads. Case in point, I skip ads for SquareSpace. I have a SquareSpace account. This podcast is hosting on SquareSpace. So help me I am not listening to a SquareSpace ad, no matter how much I love the show. What’s the point? They are already getting my money. But then again there was that true crime mystery, subscription box that started making the rounds a while back, and I was really excited about it. (Pause). For a while. Now not so much because I have thoroughly weighed the cost and benefits and it’s not for me. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, especially as I pour more of my money into podcast production.

             Now, the other part of this whole advertising thing was that their free app was going to have advertisements on it, but I never understood the details of it. I mean, I can confidently say that podcasters who had their feeds lifted off of iTunes would likely not receive any of that ad revenue if ads were running against their content because that would be a logistical nightmare to figure out considering no one submitted to Luminary directly. So how are you going to get those checks to us? It’s an interesting idea.

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            In the absence of a clear pay model, it just seems like you are making money off of these unknowing creators. In the presence of a clear pay model, we’re going to end up with a YouTube situation. Neither is great, and we’ve been doing just fine without it. More good will: immediately gone.

            On the other hand, Luminary has been leading with the subscription model probably because it would generate more revenue that could be targeted better towards the originals they were spending so much money on. And that makes sense but it was to the detriment of everything else. And that gets kind of literal in the next section.

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            Now, the next point to be consider would be if it was this obsession with an ad free space led them to strip the affiliate links and other donation information out of show notes for many podcasts? Donation links being things like ko-fi and Patreon accounts. And by the way, in all fairness, none of my show notes were stripped when I checked them. It could have been coming and would have happened had I been a larger show, but I was… I was pretty aggressive on that take down, so they didn’t get a chance. Also, I really just had a ko-fi link sprinkled amongst my other social media handles. The Oracle of Dusk had a more pronounced one, but on the episode I checked, it was still there. I didn’t give that show too much thought because my name wasn’t on that one, though. That attribution was displaying properly.

            Luminary says no. This wasn’t the reason for the link removal and that—instead—they didi it because they didn’t feel like linking off of their platform was safe for the consumer. I mean who knows what you were linking and calling it a Patreon link, so they had to make a judgment call, and I’ll put their response down as Source 4. But by that point, quite a bit of the trust was gone. In all fairness, if that’s really their intention, then okay, you tried. You failed but you did try, and you failed because you missed the point of show notes and what those donation links mean to their communities.

            Here’s the thing, show notes are both important and a point of contention between podcast players and everyone else. So there’s precedent for a disconnect there. From player to player, sometimes links are disabled so you can’t just click through. Sometimes the formatting doesn’t translate, and things get a little wonky. But regardless, we’ve all learned to make do. After all, they are still important to the community behind the show and to the show runners themselves.

            Like affiliate links are part of the sponsorship contract, and even if the show wasn’t the one to take them out, that still might have stung that relations a bit. Now affiliate links are a way for creators to get credit for the purchases they audience make, so it’s a way to make a kickback that Luminary is taking from them. It might also weaken any existing partner-podcast relationship if a partners knows that a segment of an audience using a specific player will be untouchable, and it also shows off how little control the podcaster actually has.

            But that’s starting some sort of descent into relative madness. And if we’re going to go ahead down this rabbithole, this is where the whole proxy/rehosting accusation comes into play. Basically, for a while, Luminary was using a proxy server was to say that instead of linking the computer directly to the podcast host, allowing the host to know how many distinct IP addresses were accessing that feed, Luminary had a what we’ll call a computer hub—to keep it simple—in the middle. The initial accusation is that Luminary was outright rehosting intellectual content, i.e. downloading every podcast episode onto their servers and having their users access it from that point, not the hub the podcast creator initial set up, but to that, Luminary replied they just used a middle point computer as a proxy to speed up the process of downloading or streaming an episode. It was meant to provide a better experience for the end user, but either way still isn’t great. Either situation messes up a podcast’s statistics. Proxy statistics aren’t valid under certain and very important metrics, and rehosting means you don’t get stats at all.

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            Most obviously, statistics are a way to present your audience to potential advertisers. You can take your stat sheet and say “I average x amount of listeners per episode within thirty days of launch” or “y number of people heard your ad. Isn’t that great? Don’t you want to give me more money?” If you do want to make podcasting your job or something that at least covers its expenses, statistics are critical. They’re like the car you use to drive to the office every day. And we all know that slashing tires is a bit of a jerk move. More than a bit.

            What I’m saying is this and removing affiliate links or donation links—even unintentionally or with different motives—undercut the way podcasters can generate income. But more than that, statistics also help a creator gauge what their audience is interested in, particularly for a podcast like this where I cover a bunch of different topic week to week and mix things up constantly.

            Sure, each time I make an episode, I have a vague sense of how it will be received, but it’s a sense I first got from tracking the statistics. For example, my episode on the song “Unanswered Prayers” did unexpectedly well considering it was a thirty-minute podcast episode on a single song, and it’s a song that I don’t think is super popular with people in the podcasting space. So it really surpassed my expectations, and the takeaway was having that information is that a fair portion of the audience is coming not for discussions on things—because your desire to hear the episode would have depended on the thing—but for my perspective and for my stories. Great to know but no pressure on me, I guess.

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            Now, assuming the Luminary audience remains representative of the podcasting audience as a whole, then this shouldn’t be that much of an issue relatively speaking. The numbers would still be accurate just smaller. But I would personally say that’s a pretty big assumption in my opinion. Whatever, let’s just skip passed that. The proxy issue and the stripping of Patreon links are both ways in which Luminary’s model would have created a disconnect between creator and audience member. Quite literally with the insertion of another computer in the middle of that, and figuratively by restricting access through knowledge to the Patreon community.

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            Patreon, if you didn’t know, is a subscription service in which an audience member pledges to make a month donation for a certain amount to their favorite content creator and in return they receive a previously agreed upon perk or perks, depending on what level the audience member lands on. The great thing about this model is that fans pledge what they can comfortably and willingly afford to spend and creators provide merch, bonus content, or something like a private Discord, and everything is laid out right up front.

            The other part of this is that regardless of the perk you end up getting, being someone’s patron can feel like being a part of a club, a club that Luminary listeners, per the link model would have restricted access to. Yes, you can put a call to action in your podcast that mentions the Patreon page, but who listens to those calls when they’re at the end of a podcast? It might make it harder to access in some small way. I completely understand that it’s still doable, but also that’s assuming Luminary doesn’t start—if they were going to rehost—editing those calls out. Which is hard and unlikely but aforementioned comment about burning every shard of good will that is offered.

            What I like about Patreon is that it is a gathering place for hardcore fans of content to share things or secrets amongst each other. If you listened to last week’s episode, you’ll know that podcasting takes on an important role for people because it’s potentially the only medium where aspects of themselves to find an audience of get traction. It’s the only place for some people to exist as they are, which is incredibly sad but still a factual statement.

            I think this is more so in the Patreon community. Or—at least—it might feel more concrete. It’s a more clearly defined space in the digital realm for something like this. A place to exist as you are. Or a clubhouse; it’s just a clubhouse full of people you never get to see. Physically see.

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            But there’s more to it than that. Because I would imagine, the rebuttal to that would be that communities online can sprout up anywhere and especially without a paywall. The thing is, particularly if you are Luminary or a start up like it, Patreon isn’t just about donating money or getting exclusive merchandise; it’s proof that people are willing to pay for their podcasts when they think it’s worthwhile and particularly when they are given additional content like a bonus series.

            To give you a quick example of a Patreon exclusive bonus series. Within the Wires offers a $10 Patreon tier that features quarterly episodes of a series called The Black Box set in the Within the Wires universe but has no substantially bearing on the main series. As in, it won’t necessarily detract from the experience of listening to the main series if you don’t chip in the $10 dollars, but it would be great if you did. It would help the show and you would get something out of it.

            Now, to some extent, that’s what The AMA Archives is doing. Let’s say I am a fan of The Bright Sessions. Well, I would happily pay eight dollar a month for a bonus series. In fact, that’s a steal, given how expensive it is to make a podcast. I have a lot I could say about The AMA Archives but given how long this episode already is, that’s going to have to be its own subject. And I really did not want to have to make this a two-parter, but I’m going to have to make this a two-parter.  Sorry not sorry.