The Sisyphean Challenge Of Moderating Podcasts

The last few days have seen much discussion over the moderation of podcasts. Short of locking down your podcast client and directory to a small number of curated shows, the open nature of podcasting is going to work against any form of regulation.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. A podcast is content, in exactly the same way as a block of text on a website is content. The delivery system is different, but fundamentally they are the same thing.

Which should gives you a clear view of the problem. How do you moderate an opinion on the internet that is published on someone’s own server? This is a problem that has been around for… rather a long time. With the underlying structure of RSS creating a direct connection between the publisher and listener, there’s no easy answer.

Very few podcasts exist in isolation. Podcasts are generally found through search engine, and through podcast directories more specifically. If moderation is going to take place anywhere it’s going to happen at the directory level. With years of audio minutes published every day, there’s never going to be any accurate way to moderate the content as new episodes are published; in any case finding a podcast in a directory does not mean that the podcast flows through that directory… remember that direct connection between the podcast publisher and the listener?

The issue is blurred by companies that present themselves as a one-stop shop for all things podcasting, including searchable directories of podcasts. The lines are even more blurred when the same companies also offer hosting… but again the practical answer to moderating is that, even though you can look at the show notes and descriptions provided, the direct connection makes moderating all of the individual episodes you do not produce practically impossible.

There are mechanisms that would allow shows to be ‘delisted’ from a directory. These would primarily be driven by staff moderation with the podcast text descriptions potentially raising flags, people reporting the podcast directly, or a general upswell of noise on social media. Throw in a neònach of lawyers and you have a system that looks remarkably like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a system of selective post-publishing assessment that is easily seen in action on YouTube.

There is another answer, and that’s to lock down the process and control all the parts of the chain. In terms of the current digital behemoths, Spotify is probably the closest to achieving this with its exclusive serialised audio shows only available inside the Spotify client. It’s Spotify that hits the publish button, and with a (currently small) number of exclusive shows I suspect they do go through an editorial process on each episode. Of course this creates a two tier system,  my podcasts appear in Spotify immediately on publication thanks to Spotify reading my RSS feed.

That editorial process will be very familiar to radio broadcasters – you can take it as read that shows coming form the likes of the BBC and NPR will have been ‘signed off’ – but part of the appeal of podcasting, both in the early days and currently, is that there are no gatekeepers for those who want to publish their own audio.

And that makes it a wild west that asks the same basic question the internet has been dealing with forever… how do you moderate an ecosystem built on open standards that anyone can enter?

I don’t think ‘open podcasting’ is going to go away; even though I’m sure there are certain big players who would happily drop the whole idea of RSS and keep listeners locked in their proprietary apps. If someone wants to publish serialised audio online, in a universal format that is accessible to all, podcasting will always be there for them.

Perhaps the question should not be about moderation, but discovery?

If people are only heading to the search boxes provided by Spotify, Apple, and Amazon, then you better hope that your show does not cross the line of decency these companies have decided on for their family-friendly platforms.