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Is embracing RSS a smart move for YouTube?

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Photo of Rutger Rosenborg
by Rutger Rosenborg

2023 saw YouTube bring podcasts to YouTube Music, but it did so without one of the podcast industry’s fundamental building blocks: RSS. However, just months later, YouTube has announced in a video posted to their Creator Insider channel that they are opening up RSS feed distribution. 

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication (though technically RDF Site Summary), is a standardised, decentralised web feed that has served as the primary distribution method for podcasts since their inception. RSS is arguably one of the defining characteristics of podcasting, allowing creators full control over their distribution channels. This is very different from music, for instance, where creators are beholden to distribution companies for DSP consumption. So, on the one hand, YouTube’s decision to open up RSS is a signal to creators that it wants to keep podcasting true to its roots on the platform. On the other hand, how necessary is it for YouTube’s podcasting growth?

Say Yes to RSS

Proponents of RSS argue that the distribution method empowers creators and consumers alike. If every major DSP were to go under, in theory, podcasters would still own their distribution channels (and their audiences). In other words, podcast content — and podcast subscribers, for that matter — would not disappear even if Spotify, Apple or YouTube did. By enabling open source distribution across various platforms and devices, RSS breaks down barriers to entry, gives creators control and ownership over their audiences, and fosters a more diverse and inclusive digital landscape.

In an age where many industries grapple with centralisation and monopolisation, the podcast industry shows glimmers of the power of decentralisation. This power is reflected most evidently in the collaborative nature of podcasting. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the overwhelming majority of top performing podcasts have guests. This is arguably a by-product of the decentralisation facilitated by RSS. There are certainly podcast stars, but those stars do not shine without collaboration. This collaborative spirit fosters innovation and creativity, driving the growth of the podcasting industry and enriching the content landscape as a whole, because as they say: a rising tide lifts all boats.

Does RSS inhibit innovation?

Not everyone agrees. In 2022, Michael Mignano, a co-founder of Anchor and former head of talk audio at Spotify, argued that RSS actually inhibits format innovation by requiring that creators adhere to a strict set of technical standards, which are virtually unchangeable. That is why so many podcast apps offer roughly the same user experience, he writes. He goes on to use Spotify as an example of a company that broke this “standards innovation paradox” by including podcasts in the same place as music. In doing so, he suggests, Spotify continues to offer a different user experience than most other podcast apps — although more than a year since Magnano’s article was published, that differentiator is now waning. Spotify resisted some RSS functionality during its exclusive foray into podcasting, and while theplatform has since embraced RSS fully, that initial resistance has not seemed to hurt them in the medium term.

The verdict on YouTube and RSS

While Spotify did limit some RSS functionality at first, it had more to do with creating a walled garden of exclusives, to establish itself as a major player in the podcast industry. For all intents and purposes, the consumer experience was the same, save for maybe a lack of access to private RSS feeds and a lack of choice when it came to Spotify exclusives.

YouTube recognised that. Without a strategy built upon exclusivity, limiting an open source means of distribution did not make sense. If YouTube does not support RSS, fewer creators will distribute their podcasts to YouTube, and YouTube ends up with less content. Right now, one of the most important things the podcast industry can do is make podcast listening mainstream. Once that mainstream adoption has happened, then YouTube might want to start walling off the garden in different ways. For now, it's probably to everyone's benefit to keep it as open as possible.

At the end of the day, content-based platforms, like YouTube, thrive on creator innovation, not on technological innovation. There is no doubt the latter will matter for the future of podcasting, but the heart and soul of the format is built upon the former. While some view RSS as an outdated method of data delivery that hinders technological innovation, YouTube knows well the creative empowerment that minimally gatekept content distribution offers. Value gap aside, that creator-first brand is what will soon take the platform to No. 1 in podcasting.

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