Megaphone is a podcast hosting provider. All podcast hosting providers collect listener stats, but that's only seen by the hosting provider and the podcaster themselves. Stats are fine, but Megaphone collects listener data in order to serve targeted ads to listeners. Not only that, they are sharing this data with big ad tech like Neilsen Media Research. Which is bad for privacy and creepy. So bad that some anti-tracking tools are blocking all podcasts hosted on Megaphone.

Full discloser: I use Megaphone as the hosting provider for my podcast.

What is going on?

Here's a video made by Megaphone explaining what they are doing and what MTM is.

In short they have a service called Megaphone Targeted Marketplace (MTM) which tracks listener behavior and pairs it with Nielsen segments to present listeners with ads that are targeted for them. It's actually some amazing tech because if you think about it, all that has to be done on demand in real time and new ads are stitched into the mp3 as it streams over to the listener.

A more longer version is that when you request an mp3 from Megaphone to listen to, you first request it from traffic.megaphone.fm. Then it redirects to adserver.va3.megaphone.cloud, which grabs all kinds of listener data such as geo location and type of device and sends that to Neilsen Media Research to find a an ad for the listener. It then redirects the listener to the actual mp3 which is hosted on dcs.megaphone.fm. The problem is, listener data is now being collected by an advertising agency. Which means podcast listeners may be tracked across multiple shows even.

Megaphone has a website which explains their ad choices and even gives you a link to Neislen to opt out of targeted ads. However it's not clear that if you opt-out in the browser if it also opts-out for the podcast players too.

Also from Megaphone's privacy policy it explicitly says they are collecting listener data:

And later in the privacy policy it says this:

So Megaphone makes it clear they are collecting listener data and sharing it with ad tech companies (such as Neilsen) to insert targeted ads into podcasts.

And of course when people listen to podcasts they have no idea where it's hosted, and aren't going to look through this privacy policy to even know their data is collected and shared with advertisers.

Why is this a problem?

Well as it turns out people don't like being tracked. And there's a whole suite of anti-tracking privacy tools out there. There are DNS sinkhole services like pi-hole and NextDNS which block domains that track you, there are browser plugins to block this like AdBlockPlus, uBlock Origin, and PrivacyBadger, and there are browsers that block this too like Brave. These tools work tirelessly to figure out what website are tracking us and it blocks them so they can't do it anymore. Megaphone tracks listeners.

Megaphone is now blocked

For the first time this has become an issue. At no point in the history of podcasting has this ever been an issue before, but now it is (thanks to Megaphone). In the last few months certain blocklists have began adding Megaphone to them. This means that people who use some of the tools above may not be able to play some of their favorite podcasts.

For instance when you go to my podcast website and try to play my podcast with an up to date version of Brave, you cannot play the audio. When you hit the play button you get a big red exclamation point.

Then when you investigate what's going on you see that Megaphone was blocked.

And there's the real problem, Brave blocked traffic.megaphone.fm because it considers it a tracker. This means podcast listeners cannot play podcasts if they use certain privacy tools and tracker blockers. It's not like Brave can block just the tracking part of Megaphone and let through the audio. No it blocks the audio which fundamentally breaks the podcast listening experience.

What blocklists is Megaphone showing up on?

Once again, when someone goes to listen to a podcast (mp3) hosted on Megaphone it first goes to traffic.megaphone.fm which is just a CNAME for adserver.va3.megaphone.cloud. And this does show up on some blocklists.

(The ones with the green check marks means it appears in the blocklist. The red ones mean it was on the list previously.)

That's 6 blocklists that lists Megaphone!

Brave is blocking Megaphone. This is a privacy focused browser which has a feature called shields which blocks ads and trackers by default. Specifically it blocks traffic.megaphone.fm because that has a CNAME resolution to adserver.va3.megaphone.cloud, which does appear on one of their blocklists. Brave blocks CNAMES which resolve to domains on the blocklist.

uBlock Origin is blocking Megaphone. This is a browser plugin to block ad content. It sees that when you go to download an mp3 it sends you to adserver.va3.megaphone.cloud and blocks it.

Now the reason Brave and uBlock are blocking Megaphone is because they use the standard EasyList blocklist. But if you search EasyList you won't see Megaphone. Instead it's hitting the rules that look like this:

.adserver. 
/adserver/*
_adserver.
###AdServer
##.ADServer
&adserver=

So simply because they redirect people to adserver.va3.megaphone.cloud means that these rules above will block it. And Brave, AdBlockPlus, and uBlock all use this list.

So that makes 7 blocklists they are on!

NextDNS is blocking Megaphone. This is a service that will block trackers through DNS queries. This is probably even more of a problem since this means listeners can't play the podcasts on any apps since the DNS service is blocking it. NextDNS uses the GoodbyeAds blocklist https://github.com/jerryn70/GoodbyeAds. Specifically the domains blocked are playlist.megaphone.fm, adserver.va3.megaphone.cloud, and player.megaphone.fm.

Some pi-hole users have reported that Megaphone was being blocked when using certain blocklists. They've had to do workarounds like adding a whitelist for Megaphone to play their favorite podcasts.

Privacy Badger appears to be next. This is a browser plugin that also blocks trackers and currently has Megaphone.fm on their yellow list. https://github.com/EFForg/privacybadger/blob/master/src/data/yellowlist.txt

If you include this yellow list, that puts Megaphone on 8 lists!

Podcast directories now warn listeners

Overcast is an iOS podcast player and it has recently began warning users that Megaphone tracks listeners. Here is what it says:

Here you see a clear difference also between stats and tracking. I am not saying stats are bad. Stats are good even. But this whole listener tracking thing is not something anyone wants or benefits from except the advertisers.

If you search for my podcast on the Podnews.net website you also see a warning there too, which looks like this:

It's not a good sign when podcast directories are now warning people that this hosting provider tracks listeners.

My show doesn't track listeners

This is where stuff gets mucky for me. I have a podcast hosted on Megaphone. I even used MTM in the past, but it's always felt creepy to me, so I switched it off because I don't feel comfortable tracking listeners like that. Which means I am leaving money on the table, but choose my listeners privacy over the extra money the show would generate. And I have confirmed that by disabling MTM, Megaphone won't share my listener data with Neilsen. Yet, because my show is hosted by a company that does track some listeners, I'm being negatively impacted by this. I have to tell listeners to whitelist my hosting provider so they can play my show. My show is suffering from collateral damage. And this is particularly bad because I make a podcast about all the nasty stuff that goes on over the internet. I look like a damn hypocrite for hosting with Megaphone. But it's not so easy to up and move hosting providers. First of all not many hosting providers do dynamic ad insertion, which is what I need, but second it would mean losing all my stats and having to do tech support on helping tons of listeners move over to the new RSS feed. And I like Megaphone as a host, they have a good service and I continue to use them even though I don't use MTM. Which means MTM isn't their secret sauce to success. It is only a small feature they offer and it isn't crucial to their business. They don't need it and they can succeed just as well. So I'd rather not leave them. I'd rather they make a better decision on what kind of company they want to be.

Tracking listeners like this is creepy

Megaphone's competitor is Art19 (Megaphone is bigger). Art19 just rolled out their own version of targeted ads.  

Collecting listener data and sharing it en masse with advertisers is a violation of our privacy.

We can do effective advertising without the need to track user behavior. Let me give you an example. If someone uses a search engine and they search for "vacation destination ideas", from just their search alone you can give them very relevant ads telling them about certain travel deals. You don't need to know their age, location, income status to know that they are ready to take a trip and want some ideas.

The same goes for podcasts. I make a podcast about tech and hacking. So I can easily run ads about tech and security and my audience is probably interested in it. I don't need any fancy AI or big data algorithm to tell me what the most effective ad is. My ads perform pretty well even though the same ad goes to all listeners. I have many long term sponsors of my show because they've seen a good return from their ad placement.

In short, it's completely unnecessary to use Neilsen to find the right ad for the listener, and going through this process feels creepy because it is.

What shows are hosted at Megaphone?

A simple Google search for websites which contain a Megaphone RSS feed shows there are about 4,700 podcasts hosted at Megaphone. Some of these are the biggest podcasts out there. Here is a short list of shows hosted at Megaphone.

  • All Gimlet shows which includes Science Vs, Reply All, Crimetown, The Clearing, Homecoming, and so many more.
  • Slate's podcasts which include Slow Burn, Political Gabfest, and more.
  • Pushkin uses Megaphone to host Revisionists History.
  • iHeart uses Megaphone to host Stuff You Should Know.
  • WSJ uses Megaphone to host The Future of Everything and a many more.

All of these podcasts are now being blocked by certain blocklists. If you are using the blocklists then you cannot play any of these shows unless you whitelist Megaphone.

Megaphone, Please Stop

Recently Megaphone was acquired by Spotify for $235,000,000. So this is a perfect time to change their strategy of how MTM works. However, Spotify has already announced they will take user data and use it to serve targeted ads. Which is scary because Spotify also owns Anchor which by far hosts the most amount of podcasts and is already toying with the idea of getting sponsorships to smaller shows. But I hope Megaphone can see this is not a good strategy. It doesn't put listeners first or even podcasters first. It puts advertisers first. This is not the future we want in podcasts.

I spoke with Megaphone's customer support to tell them about this issue. They seem to be aware of it now but told me they "have no intention of retiring MTM". And so my question to Megaphone is, when will you consider retiring MTM? Megaphone is already on 7 blocklists (explicitly on 6). What if you get on ALL blocklists? Will you consider it then? What if podcast players decide to add these blocklists or what if certain countries start using these blocklists at their borders and now you see a widespread complaint from listeners? What if your own customers, the podcasters themselves complain to you enough that they don't appreciate how their shows are suffering because of this? At what point do you consider that MTM is not good for listeners or podcasters and reformat how it works?

There's ways to keep MTM but without tracking listeners. You can target users based on real time information, instead of collecting it and cross referencing and sharing it with big ad tech and storing it in a database. There's no reason to store listener data for advertising purposes. You can target ads using podcast content and not listener data. Or just have the podcaster fill out a survey of what types of ads they'd like their listeners to hear. You can still run MTM the same just without collecting listener information and sharing it.

I'm not the only one who feels this is a bad idea. You saw the NY Times article above by the founder of DuckDuckGo. You saw how the Rework podcast switched away from Art19 once they found out Art19 was doing this. And you now see how blocklists are adding you. Is this enough outcry that what you're doing is wrong? Or do you still need more people telling you?

No other podcast hosting providers are showing up on blocklists at this time. Megaphone, you're making history here, but is this the history you want to be making?

Megaphone, please stop tracking listeners like this. Thank you.

Sincerely,
The million people who listen to Megaphone hosted shows