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Happy Tuesday! Got a super-packed issue of Hot Pod today for everyone. First off, I’ll take a look at Spotify’s chief public affairs officer’s lengthy new blog post about Apple’s App Store policies. Also, Apple’s iOS 17 will bring episode art to Apple Podcasts. What will that mean for podcasters?
Before I hit the news, a couple of new developments. First off, Freakonomics Radio unveiled a new premium subscription today called Freakonomics Radio Plus. Members will pay $4.99 per month for a number of perks, including ad-free episodes of every podcast in the Freakonomics Radio Network. This includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, People I (Mostly) Admire, The Economics of Everyday Things, and The Freakonomics Radio Book Club.
Finally, Semafor’s Max Tani posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Sony Music is laying off employees in its global podcast division.
Apple Podcasts will finally allow for episode art with iOS 17
Individual episode art will now be supported on Apple Podcasts as a part of the iOS 17 update. Podcasters who attach a unique image to each episode via their podcast’s RSS feed will see it displayed on Apple’s podcast player. The episode art will appear throughout Apple Podcasts, including “Now Playing,” “Queue,” your device’s lock screen show pages, and “Up Next.” Any time you send a link to an individual podcast episode on iMessage, email, or share it on social media, the episode art will be displayed in the link previews. For an even more visually oriented experience, podcasters can also attach chapter-specific art, which will be displayed at specific points throughout each episode.
According to Apple’s guidelines, creators are advised to avoid repeating the episode’s title in their episode art, keep the “visual branding” distinct from the show and channel art, and use a colorful background that allows for white UI text to be visible. Creators can view Apple Podcasts’ templates for both episode art and chapter-specific art here.
While this is a nice development for podcasts that already create episode art (Spotify, YouTube, and a number of other podcast players already support it), the update likely won’t mean much for podcasts that have opted out of episode art entirely. Producing new art for every episode takes additional time and labor, and not every podcast finds it necessary. For example, most of the podcasts in the Vox Media Podcast Network (disclosure: Hot Pod is part of Vox Media), such as Today, Explained, The Weeds, This is Love, and others, do not include individual episode art. Other podcasts will deploy it on a case-by-case basis or to distinguish special episodes — for example, The Vergecast recently rolled out new episode art for its mini-series on AI.
Creating custom art for individual episodes can be a confusing process — especially since not all hosts and players followed the same standard. While Spotify, Castbox, and Podcast Addict support episode art through a podcast’s RSS feed, other players like Pocket Casts and Overcast will only support it if it’s embedded in an MP3 file.
Prior to Apple Podcasts, iTunes had the ability for podcasters to include episode art. Alex Goldman, a former host of Reply All, recalled that while the podcast occasionally experimented with custom art, it “never seemed all that useful” unless it appeared as a part of an iTunes banner, for example. Apple’s guidelines for podcast art didn’t make life easier for some creators. The Reply All team would submit art to Apple, only to get rejected — sometimes even multiple times.
“It always ended up being too expensive and not worth the return on investment,” wrote Goldman in a direct message to Hot Pod.
But for other podcasts, individual episode art is a vital part of their branding. Podcasts with highly visual subject matter, such as those that focus on the arts, may find it easier to come up with new material for every episode. One good example is Vulture and Vox Media Podcast Network’s Switched on Pop, a pop music podcast that features custom illustrations of the musicians or music discussed in each episode, from SZA to Taylor Swift to the music behind the movie Barbie.
For shows that do take the trouble to create individual episode art, an eye-catching image is just one more bit of information that can help with podcast discoverability — along with show descriptions, episode titles, show notes, and other details. Although images like show art and episode art aren’t searchable on podcast players, they can draw a listener’s eyeballs or even complement the episode itself.
Episode art is, of course, a different game on YouTube, where a decent thumbnail can wrack up thousands of views. Most YouTube-focused podcasters think of episode art as a vital part of their publication process rather than just an option. Some even hire dedicated thumbnail artists and devote time to A/B testing of thumbnails. Nathan Ragland, the host of the Post Modern Art Podcast (which features interviews with illustrators, animators, and other visual artists), will include a custom thumbnail for each guest, often by the artists themselves. Ragland either offers to commission the thumbnail from the guest or (if they don’t have the time) will commission another artist to produce it. This thumbnail will also show up as episode art where the podcast’s audio version is available, such as on Spotify and (now) Apple Podcasts.
Ragland compared a podcast’s episode art to YouTube thumbnails. “Sometimes the thumbnail grabs the audience’s attention and makes the person want to watch. Likewise, if the episode art shows off something or someone a person wants to know more of, they may be more inclined to listen in,” he wrote in a message to Hot Pod.
Spotify fires some more shots at Apple for App Store policies
Spotify’s chief public affairs officer, Dustee Jenkins, provided a status update on the streaming service’s years-long fight for global regulatory action against Apple’s restrictive App Store policies — which began back in 2018. The Swedish company has accused Apple of “choking competition” through its 30 percent tax on in-app transactions, which it says has specifically harmed its new audiobooks business.
While Jenkins acknowledged that “there has been some momentum” in the European Union, more progress was needed worldwide. “Apple has continued to enjoy — and profit from — the status quo while everything else in the world has seemingly advanced forward. In the absence of meaningful government action, Apple gets a free pass to do whatever it pleases and consumers are paying the price,” wrote Jenkins.
Spotify’s years-long battle against Apple and time spent lobbying multiple governments have led to one big victory: the EU’s tough new Digital Markets Act regulation, which classifies Apple as a gatekeeper, would require the company to include third-party app stores. The EU narrowed an investigation into Apple back in February, essentially dropping charges related to Apple’s in-app payment system. But depending on how the DMA is enforced (which goes into effect in May 2024), Apple’s in-app payment policy may face another roadblock.
Apple declined to provide a comment that could be attributed to a named spokesperson.
Just this summer, a US appeals court ruled in Apple’s favor in the Epic lawsuit contesting those restrictions — with the caveat that developers should be allowed to link to external payment options. There have been some rumblings of legislative movement in the UK and US. That includes the possibility that a bill known as the Open Apps Markets Act in the US (which would require Apple and Google to allow competing app stores) may come before a more sympathetic House panel, according to Politico Pro. But the possibility of the bill’s passage by both houses of Congress still appears to be slim.