Ep5—RSS Resuscitations Transcript
Over the past two years, Mary, Dana, and I have had a lot of phone calls about aboutpreservation On one of the calls, Dana told us that she used to have a podcast.
DANA: The Podcast was called Sound of the Archives. I did the tenth episode, and then I meant to do an eleventh episode and then I think another year went by and I finally recognized that I wasn’t going to work on it again and I didn’t want to.
MOLLY: When Dana stopped making her podcast, she decided to stop paying Libsyn $5 a month to host it. One month later, she looked for her podcast in Pocket Casts. And a message popped up that said ‘Podcast Not Found’.
DANA: I thought it was just widely available. And I did not know until I took it down, that that meant it was down for the count, like it was down for all of the internet.
MOLLY: Dana was facing a problem that a lot of podcasters have faced. She didn’t realize that when she stopped paying Libsyn, she was killing her podcast at the root. And that to keep that to keep that root alive would cost money.
Welcome to the fifth and final episode of Preserve This Podcast. Today, we’re diving into RSS and trying to get an answer to an important question: When you’re finished making a podcast or when you don’t want to pay for hosting, how do you ensure that the podcast will live on?
For this episode, instead of working with a podcaster, we’re turning the magnifying glass on ourselves. And what we need to do to preserve the Preserve This Podcast podcast.
Preserve this Podcast – our podcast – is a perfect case study for this question of what to do with your podcast after it’s done.
And that’s because a limited-run show – there’re only going to be 5 episodes. And we’re grant funded. (Thanks Mellon Foundation!). Which means we only have funding to pay an RSS hosting platform until the end of January 2020.
That’s right people – we’re at a big risk of disappearing!
The reason why so many podcasts disappear from the ether is because they are distributed via RSS feed. And that feed pulls from one source. And a lot of times people are paying a monthly fee to that RSS hosting platform. And if they ever stop paying the fee – then the podcast goes dark. It disappears from all the podcatchers.
Which means that RSS feeds play a crucial role in the podcast technology ecosystem. But RSS feeds were built for sharing content, not for saving content.
So why are podcasts on RSS anyway?
To understand why, we need to go back to the year 2000 and talk to a man named Dave Winer.
DAVE: I think I’m not gonna wear the headphones.
Streaming music and video on the web took a long time back then. Bandwidth speeds were slow.
DAVE: You’d have these tiny little postage stamp size videos, and you’d click to watch it and you’d wait five minutes. And you’d get ten seconds worth of video.
Dave Winer called this the “click-wait” problem. Cuz you’d click on a file, and then just wait for it to load.
He got to work on something that could solve the click-wait problem.
DAVE: It could be that your computer is downloading the audio or video without you even knowing that it’s doing it, and you don’t get presented any of this stuff until it’s fully loaded already available on your hard drive. That was the idea. And now there’s no more click-wait problem, you click, it shows up.
MOLLY: He wrote code that could deliver MP3 files over an RSS format. With this code, anyone could send MP3 files over RSS. This, in many ways, was the birth of podcasting.
The people coding RSS feeds weren’t thinking about preservation or longevity of files. They were thinking about SPEED! And how to deliver files quickly.
A year later, Apple came out with the iPod… and the rest is history. Say hello to iPod broadcasts. Or, podcasts.
[MUSIC FADE OUT]
JASON: They’re calling them podcasts, and I inherently, and to this day, think the name is stupid.
MOLLY: You might remember that voice from our Prologue.
JASON: My name is Jason Scott and I’m the free-range archivist at the internet Archive in San Francisco, known to most people as the Wayback Machine.
MOLLY: Jason Scott is the one who built the Podsucker in his basement. He used it to download hundreds of thousands of podcast episodes in 2005 to save them from disappearing.
JASON: You had these servers that would go up, they were very expensive. They might disappear because funding went away or the school decided they didn’t want it. So I was used to stuff disappearing, and if you didn’t keep a local copy, you were screwed…
MOLLY: Jason had been watching people post serialized audio on the web since the mid 90s. These were proto-podcasts. But then everything changed when people started using RSS feeds.
JASON: Now you don’t have to go to the site, because RSS is kind of taking over. And you would have this feed be either at a service, or be located on a website, or be on a blog, and people were basically providing it as, go here, download it with your client, and then here’s the stuff to play.
MOLLY: The RSS feed made it a lot easier for podcast creators to share their content. But creating and maintaining the RSS feed became a job in and of itself – a job that podcasters started paying companies to do for them.
JASON: There are companies like Libsyn that are podcast hosts, I have no idea what their long-term policy is, I don’t know if they’ve allied with any archives. I doubt it. I mean I don’t trust anybody. But, never have! So that’s how I ended up with hundreds of thousands of episodes.
I talked to Elsie Escobar who works at Libsyn:
MOLLY: And I was wondering, what’s the point of a podcaster using a hosting platform like Libsyn? Like why don’t people just make their own RSS feeds and host them themselves.
ELSIE: Oh my gosh. Because it’s really hard to make an RSS feed and host it yourself. That’s why Libsyn started, essentially it was one of those things where they started to recognize that there was a problem with people who wanted to do this podcast where they didn’t know where to put the media. Like the media files needed to live somewhere right? And it needed to be delivered via this RSS feed. And most people didn’t know exactly how to do it, it was like you literally had to hand code your feed. It wasn’t necessarily accessible for the layperson, if you will, during that time. Even the most techie person to start to do it that way, it was time-intensive to update all the stuff, to make sure that it didn’t break.
The internet is a world of constant maintenance. Server space has to be paid for.
Podcast hosting companies need to charge podcasters money. Because the hosts are paying other companies. Companies like Amazon and Google. They’re paying them for storage space to store your audio. And they’re paying bandwidth providers to transfer the data.
Here’s Brad Smith, the CEO of Simplecast.
BRAD: Every time somebody download something we pay for every byte of data transferred. Like we are a podcast analytics and hosting service. The two things that cost us the most money are our analytics and the server farm, and all the databases and elastic search that runs that. And then just the core cost of streaming.
MOLLY: Brad explains that how much money it costs them to host a podcast depends on the podcast.
BRAD: We have some shows that cost us thousands of dollars a month.
MOLLY: So that’s why there are those monthly fees.
I talked to Elsie from Libsyn about what happens when a podcaster stops paying.
ELSIE: If the show is closed the content is pulled offline at the end of that current month… And so you do have to, as somebody who’s had this account, download all your content. If you don’t have a local copy already… But if you don’t, then you definitely need to do that because there’s not going to be a copy kept for you at the end of that month.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
MOLLY: Did you hear what Elsie said? If you’re going to close your hosting account, DOWNLOAD all of your content. Save all your stuff. Which, since you’ve made it to episode five of this podcast, you already know is something you should do.
I do want to emphasize something here, though. In archives, we have these terms for different kinds of digital files. There are preservation master copies, and then there are access copies. Preservation masters are high-quality versions of the original file – it’s uncompressed, it’s stored safely in multiple places. The access copy is the version that you share around with other people. In an archival setting, the archivists will save the preservation master of an audio file in their repository, and then they might post a compressed access copy on their website.
Think about the MP3 files that you upload to your RSS feed as the access copy of your podcast. Throughout Preserve This Podcast curriculum, we’ve taught you how to save a master preservation copy. And that should always live as an uncompressed file, on your own devices.
Now, after you stop paying, every company has different policies for how long they’ll hold onto your files. Brad told me that Simplecast will hold onto files for 90 days after payments lapse. They they purge the podcast from its system.
For Libsyn, it depends where you hit them in their quarterly cycle of weeding out files:
ELSIE: Media files are purged on a quarterly basis… like two months later, it might still be there because we purged those servers every quarter. But you can’t guarantee that, like we don’t guarantee that it will be there, that’s like oh my gosh, thank god you still have it – kind of stuff.
MOLLY: The lapsed payments and the purged podcasts – these are big reasons why podcasting is a particularly fragile medium.
It’s hard to get exact numbers, but we know that a lot of podcasts are disappearing. Amplifi Media did a study showing that an estimated 75% of all podcasts ever made have podfaded. They’re no longer in production. And when people stop producing a podcast, they usually stop paying their podcast host, and those podcasts disappear.
That’s a lot of lost podcasts.
All this brings us to our big question for this episode: When you’re finished making a podcast and don’t want to pay for hosting, how do you ensure that the podcast will live on?
There are a couple of places that will host your content for you, for free. They won’t distribute it to podcatchers. But they’ll give you a place for your episodes to live online.
One of those places is the Internet Archive. That’s where Jason Scott works.
JASON: The Internet Archive is a fun non-profit that has many many petabytes of disk space and will happily take these items, and by my estimate, at least 3 or 4000 episodes go up every month onto the archive. It’s a pleasure to put them up, we’re up to around 320,000 episodes up there.
MOLLY: I figured I would see how this works. So I made an account and then uploaded the mp3s from our Preserve This Podcast podcast. If you search for Preserve This Podcast on the Internet Archive, you’ll find our files there.
Another place that will host your audio files for free is Wikimedia Commons. They’re strict about having copyright ownership over any content you upload. By uploading to Wikimedia, you give open access to other people to share and remix and reuse whatever you post.
This isn’t a problem for us. We’re publishing our podcast under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. People are allowed to share and remix our show, as long as they give us attribution.
But what if you want it all? You want to stop paying for hosting, but you still want your podcast to be available on podcatchers?
This is a situation that the Preserve This Podcast team will face in 2020. We have funding to pay for a host until then – we decided to go with Simplecast because they have a nice nonprofit discount. But we needed to figure out what we’re going to do in 2020, when our money runs out.
SARAH: So I am Sarah Nguyen…
MOLLY: So I talked it over with Sarah Nguyen.
SARAH: I am the Project Coordinator for Preserve This Podcast.
MOLLY: And we decided that we should learn how to publish our OWN RSS feed. And self-host it. The only downside to self-hosting is that we won’t be able to get analytics about who’s downloading and listening to our show. But there are a lot of other benefits.
SARAH: Self-hosting is nice because you basically have full control of your RSS.
Then you can just put your RSS feed anywhere, and not have to worry if say Libsyn or any of the other platforms deprecate, or do an upgrade or they change their pricing model and you can’t afford it or anything like that.
MOLLY: To self-host our feed, we need to figure out how to do three things. First, we need to find somewhere on the web to host our audio MP3 files. Second, we need to create an RSS feed. And third, we need to find a place on the web to host that RSS feed.
We wanted to go as low cost as possible (as in no-cost).
So we decided to host our MP3 files on the Internet Archive, and host our RSS feed on our website, which we host for free on Github. We just pay about twenty bucks a year for our domain name.
Then Sarah got to work creating our own Preserve This Podcast RSS feed.
SARAH: RSS is built on this code called XML. And XML is similar to HTML where there are tags. Which identify what type of data you’re putting in it, whether it’s a title of your podcast, or your name, or the date field, a number field, or an MP3 file.
MOLLY: Sarah did figure it all out. She created the RSS XML fields, she filled in our podcast info, and she posted it on Github. Sarah has experience working with Github and XML – some of this might be a little inaccessible to non-coders. So we’re going to publish a self-hosting how-to guide for beginners on preservethispodcast.org in the coming months.
So now we’ve figured it out. We’ll be able to self-host our podcast when we close our Simplecast account in 2020.
There was one more thing to check on. We wanted to make sure that we’ll be able to export our RSS feed off of Simplecast’s platform and implement our self-hosting scheme in 2020. So Sarah checked in with Simplecast to explain our situation and learn how to do the transition.
Here’s what they said:
SARAH: There is a 301 redirect and you can do that once you close your podcast and it will redirect to whatever RSS you want.
MOLLY: A 301 redirect. We’d never heard of it.
SARAH: Uhh, what is a 301 redirect? I know 404 31:54 error page, but I don’t know 301 (laughter).
MOLLY: So we looked it up. And it turns out that this is something EVERY podcaster should know about. A 301 redirect will let you switch RSS feeds. It’ll take all your old listeners and subscribers with you to your new RSS feed.
Not all RSS hosting platforms provide a 301 redirect.
Here’s what Else from Libsyn has to say about that:
ELSIE: We really want to advise you to make sure that whoever you go with has a 301 redirect. It doesn’t matter if it’s us or anybody else. That is a key question that you need to ask before you host with anybody because I have seen many many heartbroken podcasters out there who have lost almost everything because their podcast host doesn’t know how to do that.
MOLLY: We’re glad we asked. Because in January 2020, we’ll be clicking the little button on our Simplecast dashboard that says “redirect”.
From that point on, we will be hosting our own podcast. And we will have no idea how many people are listening to it.
But you know what – that’s fine. As long as we stand a chance of being able to access and share our podcast in the future, I’m good.
The future is uncertain. Anything could happen. A solar flare could wipe out all our harddrives. We could be hit by a huge earthquake. Or nuclear war.
Archiving is about having some faith. Faith that civilization isn’t on the verge of collapsing. That people will care about this stuff in the future. Faith that in the years to come, someone will be there, listening.
JASON: The more history, the more saving, we will benefit as a race by having as much of this talking and music as possible.
Like 99% of archiving is going dah nah nah nah nah so that in 1000 years someone will do duh duh. And you have no idea if they’re going to be there at the other end.
Kaytlin: If I were explaining it to an alien I would say that it’s the recorded thoughts, musings, anecdotes, theater, entertainment that’s recorded by one person and then available to lots of people through the world wide web.
ALICE: Stories that will make you laugh, stories that will touch your heart, and stories that will make you angry.
AMANDA: God I love this show so much and I love audio drama.
DAN: Aalright, that’s me. Uh, tell the aliens. Weissman out.
JASON: My biggest hope is that the Preserve This Podcast project will cause people who have thought way too much about the now to think a little bit about the later, enough for them to make a few simple choices to increase the longevity of their work from one year to twenty. That’s about all we can really ask, of this project, so my hope is that what you’ll do.
If YOU would like to preserve your podcast for future listeners – which you OBVIOUSLY DO – visit our website at preservethispodcast.org. Subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. (Assuming it’s still there.) And please take some time to rate and review our show.
Preserve This Podcast is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It’s produced by me, Molly Schwartz, at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie are our resident archivists. Sarah Nguyen is our project coordinator. Allison Behringer is our story editor. Breakmaster Cylinder composed the theme music. Dalton Harts did the mixing and the mastering and the sweet song in the outro. Music in this episode by Breakmaster Cylinder and Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks for listening.