This is an interesting story that showed up a few days ago. The very popular sex education podcast “Sex Is Fun” has been removed from the iTunes directory. “Sex Is Fun” is a sex-positive podcast/videocast that focused on educating their audience on a whole host of sexual issues. It is controversial in that the video cast can be somewhat graphic in nature. According to the producers of “Sex Is Fun” here is what happened:
On Tuesday, August 22nd, the podcast "Sex is Fun" reached the top 100 list (73 to be exact) on iTunes for the very first time. At 8:08 PM on the very same day the producers of "Sex is Fun"? received an email from Apple Computer stating that their podcast had been "rejected from iTunes"? though neglected to state the reason for being kicked out of the iTunes directory.
“It seems that iTunes has begun some form of morality cleansing as we are not the only podcast that had been removed from the list.”? Stated, Kidder Kaper, the primary host of the show. “Other podcasts that offer information about sexuality or fringe topics, such as homosexual issues, have also been removed, receiving the same email giving the owners no reason why or information as what they may change about their shows to get back on."
Now, I should stress that I haven’t heard anything about any other shows being removed, and we should consider this implication as unconfirmed. As their iTunes subscribers constitute 80% of their audience, the producers are looking to see if their is any legal action available to them, but I doubt they will have much luck. The iTunes directory reserves the right to remove “offensive” material, although the definition has always been vague.
I don’t so much care about this show in particular, but what will be interesting to see is how this all plays out. I’ll be curious to discover how many other shows (if any) have been removed and what Apple will have to say when bloggers turn this into the inevitable circus this kind of issue always becomes. But all this crying foul is really missing the point, which is that this situation was to some degree avoidable.
Honestly, I think it is ridiculous for any producer of a podcast dealing so graphically with controversial topics to allow themselves to becomes so dependant on a single corporate-run directory. True, there are a lot of iTunes users, and thus an iTunes listing has a lot of influence in the podcasting world, and so perhaps the SiF podcast’s ratio of iTunes listeners in their audience might be an organic development. The show has resubmitted an audio feed of their show in the meantime, while they weigh their options. So far it hasn’t been removed, but this seems to be the exact opposite approach they should take if they feel they have been truly wronged. iTunes is really a terrible podcatching client and an unreliable one at that (failing to correctly update feeds), and it would seem like this would be a good opportunity to encourage their listeners to not use iTunes and to use other free directories and/or podcatchers instead, as some other podcasters have done. It might not be a bad idea for most podcasters creating controversial shows to do the same.
I don’t want to blow this too far out of proportion, as so far it’s really just one show, and I don’t think Apple has some conservative agenda to sanitize their directory, but they are a corporation and as such have to bow to pressure from their shareholders and thus not a very safe option for centralizing listenership for any podcast, much less a controversial one. The point is not whether SiF was dealt an unfair hand (it is too early to tell), the point is that this illustrates a lesson for all producers of New Media: decentralization is key.
If you depend on some other single centralized source to connect you to your audience, you are always vunerable. It is essential to use a multitude of means to distribute and publicize your content. The future of the technology is distributed computing, and it is the future for online media too. By all means, use the iTunes directory for promotion, but don’t depend on it (or any other directory for that matter). Centralization is equitable to the old web portals of the early 90’s, and let’s face it, portals are dead. And for good reason.
Let’s see how many podcasters learn the lesson.
P.S. I’ll probably have more to say on this topic of decentralization at a later date, but this is all I have time to write now.
UPDATE: Violet Blue, a noted sex blogger and podcaster has suggested in this (NSFW) post that this removal is likely just the result of the iTunes automated response to the “report a concern” feature for users. I was sent this link by Xeni Jardin after submitting the SiF blog post to Boing Boing, although she has since indicated that she has heard from another sex-oriented podcaster who is suffering similar iTunes woes.
I do think Violet Blue has a point though, this is just as likely a user-based initiative (or even more likely) than a corporate one.
Regardless of any premature conspiracy theories, I still feel this effectively illustrates the dangers of centralizing your readership on a platform as unreliable and out of your control as iTunes.