In summer 2021, iOS 14.5 introduced a major change to Apple Podcasts with implications many podcasters may still not realize. With that update, your audience on Apple Podcasts is no longer getting your podcast directly from your RSS feed, but from a proxy. And that has some potentially bad implications!
What is a proxy?
A proxy is usually a substitution that stands in the middle and serves a copy of your podcast to your audience. In podcasting, these are the two most common types of proxies:
- A feed proxy: This serves a copy of your podcast RSS feed to your audience instead of their getting your RSS feed directly from your original source (like the PowerPress feed or a feed from your podcast-hosting provider).
- A media proxy: This serves a copy of your podcast media files to your audience instead of their getting your episode media directly from your original source (like your podcast-hosting provider).
Media proxies are not common and they can make accurate analytics difficult or even impossible. You might remember how Stitcher used to download only one copy of your episodes, re-encode them, and serve their copies. That's a media proxy. Stitcher did that in order to save bandwidth, but they've since stopped using a media proxy and have switched to full “passthrough.” Spotify, however, still serves podcast media from their servers for some podcasts and Luminary made a bad first impression when they launched with a media proxy for all podcasts, but Luminary corrected it later. (It would be best if all apps supported passthrough, as most apps do.)
Feed proxies are more common. You've actually already used a feed proxy if you ever used FeedBurner or Podcast Mirror. Interestingly, FeedBurner's update in 2022 (yes, they actually made some major updates!) now calls each feed a “proxy,” which I think better communicates what FeedBurner is providing.
When you use a feed proxy and publish its feed, like from FeedBurner or Podcast Mirror, that service is hosting your RSS feed, getting the latest updates from your source. For example, when you follow The Audacity to Podcast in a podcast app, you're getting the feed from https://feeds.podcastmirror.com/theaudacitytopodcast, which is a proxy feed for https://theaudacitytopodcast.com/feed/podcast/ (and I've set that original feed to redirect to the proxy).
Why use a feed proxy?
Feed proxies have several benefits for both you and your audience.
First, they save you bandwidth by serving a cached, high-performance copy of your feed from a content-distribution network (CDN) instead of directly from your website. This can save a ton of bandwidth—even more than your media files use!
Consider this example. Imagine your RSS feed is 0.5 MB, you have 100 podcast followers, and you publish one 30 MB episode per week. Your 100 followers would each download that 30 MB file once, resulting in just under 3 GB of bandwidth per week.
But what about the 0.5 MB RSS feed? Most podcast apps have defaulted to checking feeds every hour. So that means 100 devices are checking and potentially redownloading your feed every hour. Even at only 0.5 MB, the feed's bandwidth could total more than 8 GB per week!
This bandwidth-savings for you is one of the biggest reasons to use your podcast-hosting provider's feed or a feed proxy, instead of hosting the feed on your own server.
The second benefit of a feed proxy is for your audience. A proxied feed is usually hosted on a CDN, which distributes copies of the feed across the globe, allowing for faster downloads no matter where your audience is. Plus, this keeps the feed online and protected from any instability your website might have.
Podcast-hosting providers (like Captivate, Libsyn, or Buzzsprout) already create high-performance, CDN-hosted feeds for your podcast. But if you don't use your hosting provider's feed, then I highly recommend using a feed proxy (Podcast Mirror is my top suggestion, and it's free from Blubrry!).
In short, I think feed proxies are good for you to use!
Now that you know what a feed proxy is and its core benefits, I need to show a potentially dark side of when a podcast app (and not you) uses its own feed proxy, which became a notable issue when Apple released iOS 14.5.
What did iOS 14.5 change?
The Apple Podcasts catalog offers millions of podcasts. When you look at a podcast in the catalog, you see the list of episodes from that podcast. For Apple Podcasts to offer a fast experience, they need to download the information from your feed to serve an optimized copy inside their app. That's why we've often seen the complaint that a new episode didn't show in the Apple Podcasts catalog immediately after it was published; it wouldn't show until Apple Podcasts updated its own cached copy of the feed.
Before iOS 14.5, this was merely a display issue that would eventually go away, but it would not affect your followers. We used to say that your followers could have access to your newest episodes as soon as your RSS feed was updated, even if that episode didn't show in the cached Apple Podcasts catalog. That's because—before iOS 14.5—your audience was subscribed directly to your RSS feed.
But iOS 14.5 changed that, and I have some concerns!
With iOS 14.5, Apple sought to make the podcast library (where you have all the shows you follow) match the experience of the podcast catalog (where podcasts are available for finding and adding to your library by following them). The Apple Podcasts catalog still works the same as it did before, but now anyone who follows your podcast from the catalog is getting your podcast feed (not the media files themselves) from Apple's feed proxy instead of directly from your feed.
First, this brings huge performance benefits! Let's go back to my example of your podcast with 100 followers. Instead of those 100 followers checking your podcast feed potentially every hour of every day, the Apple Podcasts servers now do that for your followers and push any updates to the 100 followers using Apple Podcasts. This reduces the bandwidth and computing needs from 100 checks every time to only 1. And this infinitely scales up without increasing demand on your server! 10,000 checks from 10,000 followers are now 1 check by Apple's servers. (That one check by Apple's servers is still done frequently in order to catch new episodes as soon as possible, but it's one server looking for new episodes instead of hundreds or thousands of separate devices.)
And anyone who followed your podcast from the catalog before iOS 14.5 was migrated to using Apple's feed proxy, so you don't have to ask your audience to unfollow and refollow just for you to get the performance benefits.
The potentially dark side of Apple's (or any app's) own feed proxy
Those first few months following iOS 14.5 were quite rough! Many podcasters would see their newest episodes not being available or downloaded for a day or even longer after publishing because Apple's new system was having a really difficult time updating millions of podcasts or it wasn't updating them often enough. (This affected only Apple Podcasts.)
Since then, Apple has improved their system so that updates happen more quickly. And the best thing you can do to ensure your new episodes show up on time is to publish consistently at the exact same time with each episode because Apple's system seems to learn when to expect new episodes. So if you publish at 8:00 am every Monday, stick to that schedule every time, as much as possible! Most publishing tools now allow you to schedule when a new episode publishes, so that makes it easier to be consistently precise. (This won't be reasonable for every podcast, especially TV aftershow podcasts that need to publish their episodes ASAP on the same night the TV episode airs.)
Nonetheless, you might still see some delays from when you publish an episode to when it shows up in Apple Podcasts (both in the catalog and for your followers).
But there's a potentially darker side to this that more people need to know, and I have some strong opinions about it!
By using their own feed proxy for your show, Apple Podcasts now has (but might not use) communist-level control over your podcast! Since your audience who followed your podcast through Apple's catalog now gets your podcast from Apple's feed proxy, instead of directly from your feed, Apple could potentially:
- prevent your audience from downloading a particular episode,
- prevent your audience from receiving any future episodes of your podcast (effectively “canceling” your podcast),
- or even replace one of your episodes or media with their own!
So if Apple doesn't like your podcast, they now have the power to completely disconnect you from your audience on Apple Podcasts, without you or your audience ever knowing!
But would Apple actually use this power?
I'll cite a controversial example. A few years ago, podcaster Alex Jones saw several of his shows (most notably InfoWars) kicked out of podcast apps and directories. (This is not a comment for or against Alex Jones or any of the claims for or against him.) That happened before iOS 14.5. So when his show was kicked out of Apple Podcasts, that removed it from the catalog, which prevented new followers from being able to find his show in the catalog (manually adding the RSS feed would still work). The expulsion did not affect his existing followers back then because they could continue getting his episodes from the RSS feed to which they were directly connected. (However, I suspect the show might not work for those followers anymore after iOS 14.5, but I couldn't find someone to help confirm this. So please let me know if you have first-hand experience!)
But if that situation had happened after iOS 14.5, then Jones's followers on Apple Podcasts would have completely stopped receiving his new episodes. It would have looked like Jones had completely stopped podcasting! He wouldn't have been able to get even a “Resubscribe here” announcement episode out! He would have been completely cut off even though his audience would have still had his podcast in their libraries.
This same kind of thing would happen if a podcast was kicked out of Apple Podcasts for keyword-spamming or chart-manipulation: no contact with the audience until the podcast was restored to Apple Podcasts.
This also happens if you willingly deactivate a podcast through your Podcasts Connect account.
I reached out to Apple for an official response to this and my concerns, but they declined to comment.
Spotify, Stitcher, and some others also use their own feed proxies
Apple isn't alone in this practice, and they're actually not the first to work this way, either. It's only that they're the most prominent podcast app to switch from direct connections to using their own feed proxy.
Stitcher was probably the first to use their own feeds for podcasts (and for the record, Stitcher was also the first podcast app to kick out Alex Jones's show), but Spotify also does this for some podcasts. And I think Google Podcasts and Amazon Music / Audible do, too (though I haven't tested these as exhaustively as I did for Apple Podcasts).
When a podcast app has its own proxy of your podcast feed, that gives them control over what your audience gets from you. Thus, this makes your podcast no longer safe from corporate or government censorship.
Before you think this is a concern for only conspiracy theorists, I urge you to realize that it could affect anyone. Imagine if Apple wanted to crack down on leaks discussed in the MacRumors podcast. Or imagine if Spotify wanted to prevent your audience from hearing about other streaming music services. Or imagine if your state or country starts forbidding content deemed illegal in that state or country and gets these podcast apps to censor your podcast. (Some countries already block all explicit content, and it seems like China—where there isn't even a word for “censorship”—blocks almost everything, even The Audacity to Podcast!)
So this could affect you, no matter your political leaning!
Will Apple, Spotify, Google, Amazon, and others actually exercise such censorship? I think the likelihood is extremely low, but they have done it before (like with Alex Jones's shows, shows that have discussed a particular virus from 2019, and some situations I know of), and now Apple has greater control to do it again.
But keep in mind that this is only in the context of what you add from each app's catalog. Apple Podcasts and nearly all other podcast apps still allow users to manually add any RSS feed to their personal libraries, and the app will not have any control over it. (In my opinion, to be a good podcast app, the app must allow manual additions like this. So yes, that means I don't consider Spotify to be a good podcast app.) So even if a podcast was publishing illegal content, even Apple still lets you manually add it to your library in Apple Podcasts.
I think it is potentially in their rights for any of the podcast apps to disallow particular content in their own catalogs. If Apple wanted to ban all podcasts about Android or Windows operating systems from appearing in their catalog, they have the right to do so! There are plenty of other podcast apps that might filter or censor differently, or not at all. So audiences still have a choice, and podcasters can still build an audience. There is also a fair case to make against any kind of free-speech censorship (at least in the USA) when a particular platform or service is used by a large portion of the market. In other words, when something becomes a “public town square” of the Internet. And such freedom-protecting legislation is already in progress.
If you feel you have a legitimate reason to be afraid of corporate or government censorship, then promote only direct means of adding your RSS feed instead of promoting catalog listings. If you do this, you'll have to accept that you won't get any ratings, reviews, ranking, or proprietary analytics from those catalogs because the manual-addition process usually bypasses any catalog features.
Somewhat similar to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and such
The closest example of these kinds of practices (or potential practices) is perhaps in the premium video-streaming services. And I have some direct experience similar to this: the X-Files TV show.
I never watched the whole X-Files series. But I picked up where I last left off by streaming it free through Amazon Prime—for a while. But then Prime no longer offered the show for free. I could only continue watching by buying or renting it from Prime.
Amazon wasn't “censoring” the show, and they weren't actually disallowing me from watching it. I only couldn't watch it for free anymore through my Prime Video membership. But I could rent the show, maybe find it on another streaming service, or borrow it from my public library.
Movies and shows frequently leave streaming services due to licenses. That simply means you have to get the content some other way.
Apple Podcasts and these other top podcast platforms are similar in that they're simply excluding certain content in their proprietary catalogs and the systems fed from those catalogs (like the Apple Podcasts search API many other apps use).
A technical aside for
<itunes:block> and explicit episodes
Some of the 175 countries with Apple Podcasts block explicit content from their catalogs. If your show was otherwise normally “clean” or unmarked, a single explicit episode could get your show kicked out from those regional catalogs. Before iOS 14.5, that wouldn't affect your existing audience. But now, getting kicked out of a region's catalog disconnects you from your audience in that region.
There is a slight workaround for that single-episode situation. You could add the
<itunes:block> tag to that specific episode, and that would block it from showing in the Apple Podcasts catalog and thus prevent your podcast from being kicked out of those few explicit-blocking regions. If you did that before iOS 14.5, your followers could still get that “blocked” episode because they were connected directly to your RSS feed. But since iOS 14.5, your followers will never get that “blocked” episode because it's blocked from the feed proxy. Thus,
<itunes:block> now completely blocks that episode from Apple Podcasts followers, unless they had manually added your RSS feed.
Podcasting 2.0 provides better solutions!
Podcasting 2.0 and the open Podcast Index were started before iOS 14.5 was released, but Apple's update made the need for Podcasting 2.0 and Podcast Index much bigger.
I see two relevant solutions that Podcasting 2.0 provides:
1. A censorship-free podcast catalog
The open Podcast Index catalog is free from corporate and government censorship. The goal of Podcast Index is to include every podcast unless opted out by the podcaster.
But even Podcasting-2.0-compliant apps can block whatever they want from their own catalogs. And that leads to another benefit of Podcast Index. If your show is kicked out of Apple Podcasts, it's also removed from the search and catalog data that many other apps use, making your podcast unfindable in those apps (but not affecting your existing listenership in the apps). So Apple's actions can affect many other apps. But since Podcast Index doesn't censor, there's no one entity in control of whether your podcast appears in dozens of other apps that use Podcast Index.
2. A better way to catch and distribute podcast updates
Podcasting 2.0 created the PodPing protocol, which offers an extremely fast and amazingly resource-efficient system to catch and distribute updates from podcast feeds, whether that's merely a changed title or a new episode.
So instead of a slow and resource-costly farm of servers scraping millions of RSS feeds looking for if there's anything new, PodPing provides a way for podcast updates to be written to the Hive blockchain (don't run away!), and those updates can be monitored with a service so small and fast, you could run it on a Raspberry Pi! (Check out PodPing.cloud for more technical information.)
Want to watch it work? Visit PodPing.watch to see the updates displayed in real time.
So what should you do?
I created this primarily to inform you and only partially warn you. The most important takeaways are:
- Use Podcast Mirror or another feed proxy for feeds hosted on your own website server.
- Know that Apple Podcasts and some other apps might not deliver your new episodes as quickly as you want, until they support PodPing.
- If you're worried about censorship, promote only manual-follow methods with your RSS feed instead of promoting catalog listings.
- Ask your podcast-hosting provider and favorite podcast apps to support Podcasting 2.0 and the PodPing protocol.
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