It is September 2023. And I finally am able to display up to date download stats for my podcast on my podcast's website. This has been a 5 year project! And I'm so mad at how hard it was to do. Time to rant about what's wrong with real time podcast stats.
First we built a top 25 most played episode table. You can see it live here: https://darknetdiaries.com/top/
Additionally every episode on the website now displays number of downloads for that episode. Example: https://darknetdiaries.com/episode/92/
These downloads are IAB certified, and count across all podcast players (except YouTube), and all regions of the world. These stats are updated daily. Which is as real time as I can possibly get at this stage!
Now if we back up 5 years. You'll see that I've actually been hand compiling all this and wrapping it up into yearly reports. 2022 stats. 2021 stats. 2020 stats. 2019 stats. 2018 stats. So it is a big leap to go from yearly to daily! Perhaps in another 5 years I can go from daily to hourly?
Why is this important to me? Because I believe that sharing stats is important for a lot of people. It's important to my listeners who want to dive in but have no idea which episodes are the good ones. I regularly post my top downloaded episodes and tell people to start there. I also think it's important to other creators to see how people are doing in the podcast space. Pat Flynn was a huge inspiration to me when I was starting and he was always very open about all his stats even his income! Overall I think sharing benefits and I cannot understand why people are so closed off about sharing their podcast stats.
And what I mean by closed off is I cannot find a single other podcast out there that displays their episode downloads in this way. I am possibly the first to do it real time. Additionally none of the major podcast players display stats for podcasts. Like if you go on YouTube you can see how many downloads a video has, but you can also look at that channel and sort by most downloaded. Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc, do not show how many downloads an episode has or give any indicator as to what the most popular episodes are. Which is surprising because Spotify does do that for songs... just not podcasts. And don't ask me why podcasts stats are so closed off and hidden. It's never been explained in the history of podcasting. I'm on a crusade to change that.
Oh and don't get me started on places like Patreon. Where I offer bonus episodes in the app, but Patreon offers 0 stats even to me, the creator, to know how many downloads my bonus episodes have seen. I have to specifically open a help desk ticket and have them run the numbers manually to get that info. What year are they in???
The Long and Winding Road
So all I want is to display number of plays on my website for each episode. Sounds like an easy ask, but it's been hell. My hosting provider is counting downloads, so we can start there.
- 2018 I asked my hosting provider Libsyn for an API. No response. They've since made one, but it has no option to pull per episode download counts.
- 2018 I registered this website (lime.link), which had the sole intention of building a podcast metrics tool. To provide this exact data to any podcaster that wants it. We got the tool stood up and working about 90% of the way there. That's when I created this blog too, thinking articles here would be good to bring in new users. But the devil is in the details and never eeked out that last mile to make it publicly available. Coulda shoulda. If you're wondering why is it so hard to get download stats, it is. It really is. Do you count when someone downloads 1 byte of the mp3 or the whole mp3? How can you detect when a phone moves from wifi to cell signal so you don't count it twice? Things like smart watches will sometimes start and stop downloading an episode 100 times while playing it. And there are blackhats downloading podcasts continuously trying to boost numbers so they can charge more to sponsors. It's an absolute mess to measure.
- 2019 I switched to Megaphone for hosting my podcast. I asked them for API access to my podcast. They told me I can't have it. Said it was for enterprise users only but said they'd be rolling it out soon.
- 2020 I asked Megaphone again. They said in the near future I can get API access. But then proceeded to tell me metrics aren't going to be there. Apparently the API is only for updating episode data. But they said they can export my metrics to my ad management company, who could then pass it to me. So the way my podcast is setup is sort of under a network, called AdvertiseCast, who runs all my ads. They pay the bill at Megaphone so they get extra privileges. Now keep in mind this was not an API. They were saying they'd dump your metrics into an AWS bucket. Which is just weird as hell to get my data in a gzip file, but ok, I'll take whatever.
- 2020 I ask my ad management company AdvertiseCast to get me this data. They said it's kind of impossible because first they don't have this enabled, but second if they did, they'd get all the data for all the shows they manage. So they didn't have the expertise to programatically pull my data out of that AWS bucket of daily gzips and provide it to me. Now keep in mind, I wanted real time data. Just a one time export is not enough. So it would need to be programmatically delivered to me, I guess daily? But nope that was entirely too hard in 2020.
- 2021-2022 I kept asking Megaphone for this but they were bought by Spotify and drastically reduced their development on the product. I'm not sure they ever did make an API I can use. By this point I had integrated a few other podcast metrics tools. Specifically Podtrac and Chartable. Both of which are IAB certified, meaning the downloads they are counting are validated by a 3rd party to be official. So since my download stats are in these places I tried to check. Podtrac makes no mention of having an API. When I asked Chartable they seemed to understand the idea and need but didn't have that feature. Then Chartable was acquired by Spotify too, so who knows what initiatives were lost or changed during that.
- 2022 I started looking into website scrapers. Where maybe I could build a tool to login to Megaphone through a normal browser, run the downloads reports, and then store that in my own database. While I've made website scrapers in the past, this seemed extra complex, since the report generation process was a bit tedious. So I didn't pursue this option. I think it's doable, but not by me.
- 2023 I ask Megaphone again, they referred me to my ad manager, AdvertiseCast. I ask AdvertiseCast they say same thing, no because it has all customer data not just mine. But then, it hits them. "Hey wait, Podtrac has an API and we pull data from them. Would that work?" I'm like WHAT? Since when does Podtrac have an API, I've been a user for 5 years and never saw that. They said it's for enterprise customers only. I'm like but still, they don't market that at all. I'd be more than happy to pay enterprise fees for this if I knew about it.
So the 5 year wait was now up. And it was time to start building. Let's see that sweet API data! It wasn't that easy. Podtrac is giving AdvertiseCast the API access, they can't give it to me because then I'd see all AdvertiseCast customers data. And AdvertiseCast doesn't have an API to provide me the data. They were very gracious enough to build me a customer API endpoint that exclusively lets me see my podcast stats in Podtrac. Thank you very much AdvertiseCast!
Well of course. The moment I start looking at the data, it's all wonky. Huge gaps in downloads. No download data for months in a row. Lots of episodes missing entirely. So I had to work with Podtrac to try to get them to fix my missing data problem. And they did. Thanks. But this took another month. And at this point I had an API where I could plug in the date and it would tell me how many downloads each episode had for that single day.
Well, that's clearly not a total downloads number for each episode, and it won't tell me the most downloaded episodes. So I tapped a good friend Starfox707, and him and I got to work trying to get the data to look the way we want. Step one was to pull data for the 6 years my podcast has been on Podtrac. One day at a time. To store it in our database, so we can add up the numbers. This of course made us notice there is still a ton of missing data that Podtrac doesn't have. So once again I showed Podtrac this discrepancy and once again it took them a while but they found my missing data and put it in. Very sus, but I'm too tired to focus on that. Additionally we found the Podtrac API lags significantly sometimes. And can go days without giving us new data, then suddenly catches up.
So. Now that we had all our download data in a database, we could then continue to pull new data daily, and have the server add up all the data ever pulled to get us a count for how many downloads each episode has, and what are the top 25 most downloaded episodes. Starfox707 worked on it for a few weeks and basically created a new API for the website to quickly grab the data from. So this means we have to manage a whole cloud server, database, codebase, and keep it up and running to keep this working. Not ideal but that's how desperate I am to get this.
So to sum up. Podtrac collects download metrics for my show, provides an API for this to AdvertiseCast, who then provides an API to us, which we then work the data the way we want and created an API to serve the website. Yeah that's 3 APIs we need for this basic number of how many downloads did my episode get? Bonkers.
Oh and also, this month I started having an identity crisis because, all these stats, don't take YouTube into account. And just recently my YouTube channel is starting to outperform my podcast. So having YouTube out perform my podcast is making me rethink a lot.
I wish for the following podcast future:
- Podcast apps like Apple Podcasts and Spotify should display download counts, top episodes, and number of subscribers. Just like how YouTube does. It will be a tremendous help to listeners who just want the best episodes but have no idea where to start. If Apple and Spotify integrate this, other apps will quickly follow. Castbox comes closest (they display total subscribers and downloads for a whole show), and Podcast Addict displays total subscribers. Good start for those two, but where's everyone else???
- All major hosting providers should provide API access so their users can quickly pull total downloads for any given episode, and top downloaded episodes. To me this is a no brainer option to add, yet I've never seen a single hosting provider provide this. If the hosting provider doesn't want to provide API access, then they should at least display it on the show's website they generate for you. If you host on Podbean they do provide a website that shows the public how many downloads your show has, and how many downloads each episode has. Good, now everyone else needs this feature. I'd also like to see any metrics gathering tools such as Podtrac or Chartable providing this API access. My listeners want this data! Please let them have it!
- I'd love to see a SocialBlade for podcasts. Where you can see over time how a show is doing. Currently it's impossible because all this data is hidden, locked up, no peeking. But I dream about a future where these podcast stats are free and open to anyone and then a tool like that can be created.
I'm satisfied to finally be able to provide up to date download stats to my website visitors. And I hope to see more shows do this too.
Let's all demand better tools.