A safer Apple means a lot to China's podcast community

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Hi there, I wasn’t expecting there were quite a few worth-sharing events this month in the Chinese podcast industry. I once jokingly complained in my first post about lacking writing material, but it’s time to give it a second thought.

Let me update these juicy events for you all:

  1. PodFest China Releases "2020 Survey: A Look at Chinese Podcast Listeners". It is the first research that aimed at Chinese podcasts listeners. The survey collected and analyzed their listening habits and consumption patterns, which revealed many compelling results.
  2. Apple has removed “PocketCasts” and “Castro” from China’s App Store.
  3. Ximalaya FM, China’s biggest audio platform, has unveiled significant restrictions applied to podcasts taking advertising. Ximalaya FM now requires podcasters to inform the platform of details of every advertising deal. However, this new rule has encountered a backlash among Chinese podcasters. It has been withdrawn temporarily.

I was supposed to give an insight into PodFest China 2020 Survey. But apparently “PocketCasts” and “Castro” have been removed from Apple’s China store was a more intriguing event than the former. You might want to learn more about it.

When I failed to find PocketCasts and Castro on China’s App Store earlier this month, a similar feeling from the past struck me. Apple Podcasts China did the same “remove” actions last June. And by the end of 2019, I wrote a feature story in Chinese and interviewed a few podcasters who had been affected by the “remove”. I have been following the case since then, so I ‘d like to give you a recap before I tell you all.

On the first day in June 2019, “Two I.T. Uncles”(两个iT 大叔), a Chinese podcast, received a message from an audience, “I can’t find your show on Apple Podcasts.”  Then Herock, the host, looked it up himself only to find that their show simply vanished into thin air.

It felt so weird for the two “uncles” because the website of their show had registered both in the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and National Internet Security, their cloud server was also based in China.

Note: It is too complicated to explain a government agency because it founded on a nation’s political system. Although I am not an expert in this regard, I will give it a go anyway: So what’s the difference between Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) and Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC)?  Well, MIIT is a government agency which is in charge of industrial policymaking and communications management. But CAC is more of a supervisory role than the former. In some aspects we might analogize CAC to Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. or Ofcom in the UK. This analogy might be a bit inappropriate, of course.  

Herock felt confused and sent an email to Apple Podcasts to ask for more details. On June 2, he received a reply from a guy called Larry,

“I can confirm your Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts in all territories except China.”

then Larry added,

“only shows from select partners are available in the Chinese Apple Podcasts store.”

Although Larry didn’t explicitly name those “select partners”, we can easily pinpoint a list on iTunes Connect. There were four “Podcasts Partners” in China on that list: Kaola FM, Lizhi FM, Qingting FM, and Ximalaya.

Herock made a screenshot of the email and posted on Twitter:

The post was soon wildly reposted in the Chinese podcast community. More podcasters then discovered that they were in the same boat with Herock.

If podcasters chose the four audio platforms that we mentioned above to host and distribute their shows to Apple Podcasts, their shows would be okay (people could find their shows on Apple Podcasts China) and vice versa. However, there were some exceptions, for instance, “Museelogue”(博物志), even though the show hosted on Fireside, an oversea podcast hosting service, it was still available on Apple Podcasts China.

There were many podcasters who tried to explain this bizarre situation to Apple or even their peers but they all failed to put the matter straight.

Two days later, TechCrunch published a story about that. I didn’t think the “affected scale” in the coverage was thorough because I soon found the situation of “International Podcasts” might be worse. A host of well-established English-language podcasts such as “This American Life”, “The Daily” and some shows produced by BBC had been “disappeared” altogether.

On June 28, 2019, CAC issued a press release, which read “recently, with the help of relevant departments, CAC will launch an action plan that will crack down inappropriate online audio programs.” “The policy states that there are 26 audio platforms including Zhiya (吱呀), Soul, Yuwan(语玩), YishuoFM(一说FM) which have violated the rule due to spreading historical nihilism or pornographic content. And these platforms will be the first batch of “rule-breakers” whose owners must conduct a talk with regulators, and the more severe punishment will be to temporarily or permanently close their services. Some reports said that this action plan will temporarily close “NetEase Cloud Music”(网易云音乐), “Lizhi FM”(荔枝), “Ximalaya”(喜马拉雅), Tencent’s “Penguin FM”(企鹅FM) and the other four applications for 30 days.

After 32 days, the disappeared podcast “Two I.T. Uncles” emerged again on Apple Podcasts China, Herock said.

During that period, Herock didn’t switch the hosting platform onto the so-called “select partners’” ones. He just did nothing.

Herock told me that on the one hand, this abrupt “action” played havoc with the show because Apple Podcasts was such an important platform and it could reach so many potential listeners. Therefore, if you were “disappeared” then you would lose a huge portion of them. On the other hand, he felt that Apple hadn’t paid a lot of attention to podcasts because there were nearly no changes for years. Furthermore, Apple’s UI interaction was way more backward than its counterparts. He also didn’t expect more from Apple, “I just wanted to use the platform for fun.” He added.

I had always kept an eye for the case, around the end of the last year I talked with Typlog, a small indie podcast hosting provider, about the issue. Typlog said that when the “remove” started, 22 Chinese podcasts that used their service disappeared from Apple Podcasts China. 6 months later, 19 out of 22 re-emerged one after another but the rest of them remained being disappearing.

You could find most of the shows which had been disappeared around June such as “Two I.T. Uncles” and many others on Apple Podcasts China now. However, those non-Chinese podcasts were basically died out here.

In a sense, Apple Podcasts in Mainland China was turning into an isolated island of podcasts.

After carrying out a bit of research on this field, I discovered something new:

  • The process of submitting a new show remains the same. After a couple of days, you usually get an email that gives you the approval to start your journey on Apple Podcasts.
  • If your show hosted on a non-select partners’ platform in China, your podcast will be under a “separate review” (review time will last 1 or 2 months) and it cannot be available on Apple Podcasts China during this period. But in the rest of the world, everything is normal.
  • You will not receive a mail about the result of the “separate review”. But if Apple gives your show’s approval, it will be unexpectedly available on Apple Podcasts China by any time. The standards of this review seem hard to define, but the server of this new podcast at least can be accessed in mainland China without a VPN.
  • If your podcast originally hosts on a Chinese audio platform, and then you switch to an overseas one, your show will be removed from Apple Podcasts China as well.
  • And the “disappeared” state can remain until you pass the “separate review”.  (review time will be the same as above)
  • If your podcast is luckily enough to be found on Apple Podcasts China, Apple will not further check your content from each episode. The mechanism itself is quite different from its Chinese “select partners”.

A drawback that was particularly denounced by podcasters in China was content censorship. Except for this one, Chinese audio platforms had many other weak points. I ‘d like to tell one more story here:

The last week in October 2019, many podcasters who hosted their show on Ximalaya discovered that their view count which were measured by the platform had suddenly plummeted.

A podcaster whose show “Surplus Value”(剩余价值) hosted on Ximalaya had encountered this problem. The podcaster, Zhang Zhiqi, told me that she received the notice from the platform which said it was under a technique updating, therefore the view count could appear abnormal. She thought it was fine due to technical issues but the situation hadn’t changed since then.

Ms. Zhang later asked Ximalaya for more details. The official reply was “Ximalaya will no longer calculate the view count from Apple Podcasts because of its inaccuracy.” That means this platform can only count those who use its own app in the future.

Ms. Zhang said although many counterparts had persuaded her to switch onto overseas hosting service, Ximalaya was still her first option at the beginning because back then Ximalaya could tally view count from every podcast apps, so she could spare from doing it by herself. However, things that had changed, she was going to switch onto Fireside, an overseas podcast hosting provider, which was beyond censorship and was also popular in the Chinese podcast community.

Her show could be temporarily removed from Apple Podcasts China due to the switching thing but she was positive about keeping her audience around.

After reviewing the case of Apple Podcasts China, I ‘d like to give some insights into the case of Pocket Casts and Castro which were removed from China’s App Store recently.

First, both companies expressed their own opinions towards the issue, say,

“We assumed that what they’d want us to remove are specific podcasts, and possible some of the Black Lives Matter content we’d posted”.

Generally speaking, China’s authorities and Apple would keep their mouths shut to the public even if the authorities did exert pressure on Apple to remove some APPs. But personally, “Black Lives Matter” or similar events that took place in such a short time were hardly igniting censorship.

The Chinese government would be very efficient if you looked at it through an outsider’s perspective. Its actions seemed so fast and thorough, tough, it indeed took a bit longer to put these measures into practice.

If you asked me the reason that was behind the case, I would suggest you read this piece of news from Bloomberg. China’s authorities had been sensitive to RSS for a long time. Because this technique had a huge “loophole” which was difficult to exercise censorship on its content. Let’s think about ByteDance’s case then, and it happened about a month ago before the removal of Pocket Casts and Castro. Given the time span of the “Black Lives Matter” event, I would say the former was more reasonable.

Second, I noticed that the two firms both expressed they would place a high priority on the Chinese market. Well, maybe.

“China represented its seventh-biggest market”, Pocket Casts says. The developers of Castro say “China made up 10 percent of its user base, although it accounted for a smaller percentage of paying subscribers”.

The point is a coincidence that I ‘d like to mention in my insight into PodFest China 2020 Survey: Pocket Casts ranked the fifth among all the podcast apps which were commonly used by Chinese podcast listeners. A press release from the survey concluded that

“It is worth noting that 72.5% of the respondents are accustomed to using podcatcher or directory-based podcast app developed by international companies, rather than domestic audio platforms.”

I was about to say that international developers still had a lot of potentials to strive in China. Well, that seemed merely wishful thinking from me now.

Last but not least, I’d like to talk about the censorship itself. Whether these cases happened in 2019 or today, many people pinpointed Apple Inc. They thought Apple was too weak to fight back, but let’s face the music that was not one multinational’s fault or weakness. We shouldn’t place all the stress on an America conglomerate that had an extensive business in China nor we exerted pressure on those podcasters who hadn’t found any solutions to monetize their business yet. We did have an urge for better, but if we held them accountable for everything, it would be way more unfair to them.

If our discussion founded on a practical base, then we could continue. We all knew the fact that companies like Google, Facebook, or Twitter which focus on “social network” or “services” couldn’t access to China for many years. Even if the company like Apple itself, there were abundant in “content services”, say, Apple TV+ or Books that couldn’t find here.

Actually, Apple Podcasts is crucial to the Chinese podcast community, and it is hard to imagine that thousands of Chinese podcasters could reach more listeners without it in audio platforms which were filled up with tons of audiobooks, “Pay for Knowledge” that took advantages of urbanites’ FOMO mentality, ASMR audio recordings or low-quality audios. Therefore, at a turning point in monetizing podcasting industry, more podcasters had realized that if their shows were labeled with “beyond supervision” or “rebels” by the authorities, which could be more destructive to the whole community.

One more last little chat,

On June 17, Castro posted a tweet in Chinese.

But alas! The tweet was translated by a machine (Google Translation). We all appreciated Castro’s thoughtfulness for their Chinese users, however, the machine translation did bring a bittersweet sensation to all netizens.

In their tweet,  “Times are dark” had been literally translated into "时代已经黑了” ( It was supposed to mean "we are going through a hard time”).  In Chinese' ears,  the phrase "时代已经黑了" was quite heartless and doomed. But if you read between the line, you would give a nod to the words. Maybe!