One of the only ways to tell whether or not a podcast is popular is to look at Apple’s iTunes charts, which lists the top-performing podcasts in order to give a sense of who’s listening to what. Unfortunately, it turns out the charts are easy as hell to game, and we should all probably ignore them.
In a new story on The Verge, the podcast production manager at NPR’s Boston station WBUR, John Perotti, explains a ridiculously straightforward process that managed to push his small and obscure podcast to the top of Apple’s charts. After receiving an email from someone claiming they could take his little podcast WAVes (“mostly drone music and weird comedy/storytelling...I wouldn’t say [it’s] a pile of garbage, just nothing that would be on the charts,” as Perotti notes) and pull off this feat for the low fee of $5, he paid out of curiosity, and proceeded to watch as his strange podcast climbed up and up, finally hitting 55 on the overall charts and number two on the Arts chart. Whether it was the work of a click-farm in Bangladesh (as Perotti suspects) or some other automated process, all it took was five bucks to game the entire system—and it only resulted in about 200 additional downloads.
What it demonstrates is a confusing and easily fallible system of measurement for the podcasting world, one that is sadly still about the only game in town when it comes to metrics assessing popularity. Apple won’t make the algorithm public, but has been pretty open about it not being a clear ranking of actual listeners so much as a combination of new subscriptions, what’s trending, and other possible intangibles. Hence WAVes hitting number two on the Arts chart despite having only 300 downloads (total, not per episode). Unfortunately, given the dearth of other public metrics, it’s still one of the major ways people learn about new podcasts. Advertisers can turn to third-party software to harvest demographic data, but outside of just going off download numbers, there’s precious little data to measure engagement and popularity. (The full article goes in-depth on these issues and is well worth a read.)
Since 52 percent of listeners still go through the Apple platform to get their podcasts, the charts can make a huge difference, and unfortunately growing consolidation is starting to squeeze out little productions, for the very reason that Apple’s charts suck so bad. Because of problems like the one outlined above, whenever a small podcast comes out of nowhere and starts gaining steam, people in the industry assume it’s fraudulent. In other words, even if your little 10-part podcast series about how the lady in the Columbia Pictures logo has gotten taller and skinnier over the years starts to pick up subscribers, don’t count on that Squarespace ad revenue any time soon.