You’d think that a topic like determining explicit content in a podcast is straightforward, but it has a lot of nuances that even seasoned podcasters can misunderstand. In this episode, Tom Hazzard explains why we need to understand Apple’s explicit content guidelines and takes a deep dive on how to navigate it. Universally speaking, podcasting is a safe haven or free speech. There is no broad controlling authority that determines what can be said and what can’t. Individual platforms are responsible for creating their own content policies around them. But in practice, all these platforms are just following the lead of Apple – which basically invented this industry and is the only platform with somewhat defined policies around explicit content. Join in and get to know everything you need to know about these policies and avoid getting your podcast delisted for something completely avoidable.
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Understanding Apple’s Explicit Content Guidelines To Better Categorize Your Show
In this episode, I want to talk about a subject that I bet many of you seasoned podcasters would think, “I don’t need to hear that. Why do we need to talk about that again?” I understand it. You might, but I’m willing to bet the vast majority of you experienced podcasters and new podcasters alike have a common misunderstanding of Apple’s explicit content guidelines.
What I want to talk about is understanding Apple’s explicit content guidelines to better categorize your show and make sure your show is achieving what you want it to in terms of messaging but also don’t end up in the crosshairs of Apple saying, “We’re going to delist your show until you fix this.” Let me get to it here. I want to start by sharing that there’s no official legal controlling authority over podcasts as a whole, like broadcast, television, and radio. It’s broadcasting in general, and I’m talking old-school over the traditional airwaves.
Most of us still listen at times to broadcast radio in our cars especially. It’s probably the time most of us would do it. Whether that’s satellite radio, it’s governed by the same rules, or over the airwaves, FM/AM radio. The FCC does strictly govern content that’s broadcast live because anybody with the right device can have a battery-operated device or plugin, put up an antenna, and receive broadcast content. The same thing with television. Although hardly anybody is using an antenna anymore, but you could. It’s usually cable or satellite. The FCC does govern those things. There are actual rules, and if stations or broadcasters do not work within those rules, they can get fined and lose their license with the FCC. There are a lot more specific consequences.
Most people, when you think of explicit content or clean content, think of having a show that doesn’t have any profanity in it, which is an unreasonable thought and assumption to have. In the FCC, there are some hard and fast rules, and there is an official list of the seven so-called dirty words you are not allowed to say on any broadcast radio or television. In fact, I’m going to date myself a little bit, but any of you that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and while originally in New York or Washington DC, but even across the country, whoever listened to Howard Stern. Maybe you might have seen the movie that came out about the early part of his career called Howard Stern’s Private Parts.
There’s a very good scene in this movie where the legal department at WMC in New York has a sit down with Howard about these rules, what they are, what those dirty words are, and what he’s allowed to do and not allowed to do according to the station. Howard, immediately after that, he and his crew bend those rules, stretch them as much as they can, and try to use some of those dirty words in a way that, in context, is allowed. It’s a hilarious scene. If you haven’t seen that movie, I’d recommend you do it. In the world of podcasting, as I said, there’s no legal controlling authority. There is no list of words you cannot say.
If you have a podcast that’s being produced by a big corporation, you may be governed by a whole different set of rules, but the vast majority of you working with Podetize and reading this episode are independent podcasters. You have the right to say whatever you want. Podcasting is a safe haven for free speech. I love podcasting specifically for that, but there are important guidelines. While there’s no broad controlling authority over all podcasts, there are individual listening apps. As independent podcasters, we could publish things on our own websites. You don’t have to censor or mark anything as explicit or whatever you want.
You could publish whatever you want on the internet or your own website. There are more than two dozen listening apps out there and growing. There are always new ones. In fact, we got some information. It was announced that TikTok has a new podcast app or their app, and you can now register your podcast distributed over TikTok.
I’m going to tell you that news is so new, I don’t have a lot to tell you about that, but that’s going to be an upcoming episode as we dig into it and find it out. My point is each different listening app makes its own rules and guidelines, some better than others. The most important one is Apple. Apple invented this industry. Apple, in our experience as a podcast company and a hosting platform, anywhere between 50% to 90% of podcast shows plays on our platform are still coming from Apple. We distribute people to every listening app possible in any listening app they want to be on. Even if it’s not one of the standard ones, we will put it on.
Your show can be on any and all listening apps, but Apple, by far, makes the guidelines for the industry that everybody else follows. In fact, in researching for this episode to find out what the current guidelines are, I found that very much to be the case. Apple’s the only one that defines content guidelines somewhat specifically. I was about to say very specifically, but I stopped myself because there are no absolute rules.
There are a lot of gray areas, and here’s where all of us podcasters need to be aware of this. We may think, “I don’t use profanity in my show, so I don’t have to mark my podcast as explicit.” I’m here to tell you, certainly, if you have profanity in your episodes, you should mark your shows as explicit. It’s not about swear words. It’s not about profanity. It’s about much more than that. It would be a judgment call at the end of the day on the part of Apple if they were to shut you down if you don’t mark your shows explicit as they think they should be. Also, it’s on the part of the listener because the only way Apple’s going to know about it or hear about it is if somebody complains that your episode or your show should have been marked explicit, but it was not.
There are consequences for that. For those of you reading, you’re not going to see this, but you can go to the blog post at Podetize.com. You will see an image and a link to this. What I’m sharing is Apple Podcasts’ content guidelines. They talk about what’s allowed and not allowed. I’m going to go right to section 1.2. This is very short. This is one sentence, but there’s a lot packed in it. It says, “Explicit Content: Creators must flag individual episodes with the explicit tag if they contain explicit content.” It hasn’t defined explicit content yet, but it’s about to. In parentheses here, it says, “For example, profanity or content that may not be suitable for children.” That’s pretty clear. It’s that last part that is the kicker that we all need to be aware of.
It is not further defined intentionally so that Apple could go ahead and define that however they want. They reserve the right to change these guidelines at any time. It’s their app and their platform. Even if they want to change it and make decisions in a different way tomorrow, they can do it. They can update that policy. In fact, that policy has so much wiggle room in it. What is a word that is profanity, and what is one that’s not? I bet they have a list of words, and it grows.
In another context, it’s more about whether it is suitable for children. That’s certainly a judgment call, but I’m going to give you an example. The reason I decided to do this is we have a customer who we produce episodes for that has a clean show or wants it to be a clean show. That means no profanity, but more importantly, it’s not marked as explicit. It is marked as clean.
My expectation as a parent is that I could play that episode on the speakers in the car, and I’m not going to have any content not suitable for children, so when I’m listening to it, I don’t have my eight-year-old asking me a question about what this means, and I have to explain it. That’s an adult subject or topic. I’m going to give you a very direct example and share with you what happens. We have this podcast we produce. It’s called How to Buy a Home with David Sidoni. A wonderful show.
It is targeting first-time home buyers, especially Millennials, and helps them move away from paying rent to owning their own home and building equity and assets in their life, making them more financially healthy. It’s a wonderful and incredibly popular show. It does very well nationwide. It’s a fantastic show and a model for a local business person creating a podcast and blowing up their revenue and business using podcasting. It’s a great example.
David’s goal is to have a clean show. He doesn’t want it marked explicit. As a policy, we had some guidelines when we were editing his show. If there’s profanity, we will bleep it out, but David had an episode where he felt like too much was bleeped out. Part of what he was doing is he’s very talented in how he communicates. He’s fun to listen to, and he injects humor into his show. There was some humor that got lost because we bleeped out some content. There are words, especially in modern vernacular, slang, or whatever you want to call it. Something’s cool, someone would call it bitching. We hear that a lot. That is something that David would say, “No, we’re speaking freely. It’s good content. I don’t want that bleeped out,” and that’s fair.
There was some other language that was used, and David said to me in an email, “For example, the word pimp is not profanity. I don’t want that bleeped out.” Here’s what I’m going to share with all of you and what I shared with David. As podcast producers and even as a publishing platform, we’re not going to censor you. We’re not going to make requirements. We’re not going to be your conscience as to even whether you mark your shows explicit or not. That decision is yours.
We’re not going to get in the way of that, but I am going to provide you with all the information necessary, so you can make your own decision. Ultimately, here’s the risk, and I’m going to give an example. I’ve got everywhere from an adult child down to a child still in grade school. If I’m listening to David’s show in my car and the word pimp comes up, and my eight-year-old is in the backseat, along with her friend, who’s often in our car, who’s also eight years old.
If one of them says to me, “Daddy, what’s a pimp?” Do I want to have to explain that to an eight-year-old? I don’t. If your show were marked explicit, I would’ve not listened to that show while I was driving these two eight-year-olds to their cheerleading practice. They are on a cheer team. I’m not going to listen to it while they’re in the car. I’ll wait till they’re out of the car. That’s what the explicit rating is for.
It’s meant to give me, the listener, often a parent, the option or the warning to say, “If you’ve got children, some of this content may not be appropriate for them. You don’t want to listen to it when they can hear it.” If I don’t have that warning, if the show is marked as clean and I feel it’s inappropriate, as a listener, I can reach out to Apple and say, “This show should be marked explicit. I had to explain this to my child.”Podcasting is a safe haven or free speech, but there are important guidelines. While there's no broad controlling authority over all podcasts, there are individual listening apps that have these guidelines. Click To Tweet
Who knows what someone would write in their complaint? Apple has the absolute authority to take your show down until you either mark it explicit or bring your show into compliance with their guidelines from their perspective. They have to think, “Now this show is within compliance,” and then they can put your show back. Each different listening app will make its own decision on that. It’s not like they talk to each other. They don’t. This would take a person, a listener who is unhappy that you didn’t mark the show explicit to reach out to that listening app and say, “You’ve got a problem with your content here. You need to fix it.” That’s the risk.
For your show, you might think, “Chances that happen are very slim.” They may be, but I sure would hate to see a podcast or have their show taken down or something like this because they didn’t mark their shows explicit or they want to have a clean show, but they left some things in there that are borderline which one person’s perspective could be deemed to be inappropriate for children, and another person’s perspective might say, “No, it’s perfectly appropriate. I don’t care if a child hears that.”
That’s a big difference. Interestingly, as I researched this, it’s something that even though I’ve been podcasting for many years and understood the explicit rating for a long time, it’s what I believed it to mean is pretty much in line with what it is now as I researched it. I went to look at other apps, and I was shocked by how other apps are not addressing this issue. They’re leaving it up to Apple in many ways. There are a lot of listening apps that are Apple clones that you don’t even register your show on once you’re on Apple. There are 8 or 10 other apps that pick up your show and make it available on their app. When we syndicate shows, we don’t have to register it on all those apps. We do it on 14 or 15 then a whole bunch more pick it up. Everybody ends up on maybe two dozen-ish apps.
There are others I looked at, like Spotify, which is a very popular one. Spotify doesn’t even address explicit content for podcast creators. They only address it to the listeners. Their entire mention of it in writing is less about providing guidance to those publishing content. It’s all about covering their rear ends to try to tell the listeners that, “We’re doing our best to stay on top of this but don’t hold us responsible for the content. We’re trying to allow artists and creators to express themselves.”
You need to beware of whether something is explicit or not as a listener. They’re basically saying, “Don’t complain to me. We’re doing the best we can as a platform. We’re trying to provide you with guidelines to know whether you want to listen to something privately or semi-publicly in your car or other environment or not.”
They’re taking a different approach, which to me, is more of a defensive position in trying to avoid liability or complaints with people. Google is a huge company. What I realized is even though Google Podcast has its own listening app, they showed me in my research how little podcasts matter to them. They’re this huge company dealing with search content of the entire world’s cumulated knowledge, and podcast is one small drop in that bucket for them. Maybe one small drop in an ocean for them.
They talk about their policies, but it’s all built around search. They mention podcasts, but they have all sorts of recommended policies for podcasts which is what they say. Google Podcasts has recommended policies, but they don’t define explicit content at all. They’re leaving that up to Apple, the big guys who invented podcasting. I believe the whole industry is still following Apple.
My recommendation for all of you podcasters out there, whether you’re starting a new one or you already have one out, is to use your own common sense and make a decision that you can live with. It depends on the level of risk you’re willing to take and how likely you think it is someone’s going to be listening to your podcast in an environment where there may be children that would hear it or hear parts of it.Apple has the absolute authority to take your show down until you either market explicit or bring your show into compliance with their guidelines from their perspective. Click To Tweet
Is the content of your show truly clean? Meaning it’s appropriate for children. Not only does it not contain profanity, but it doesn’t contain mature subjects that parents would not want children to be hearing. If it passes that test, mark your whole show as clean or, to put it another way, not explicit. However, if your show on a regular basis does contain mature subjects or profanity, all you got to do is mark it explicit, and that’s it.
As long as your market is explicit, you’re fine. In our research, marketing shows explicit does not reduce the number of people that are going to listen to your show. It has no impact on that statistically from our experience. Let’s say, in general, you have a clean show, but you’ve got an episode once a year, once a quarter, that has a mature subject.
In case you didn’t know, with most posting platforms, certainly on Podetize, you can mark a single episode as explicit within otherwise a clean show. All of the different vast majority of your episodes can be clean. You’ve got a mature subject, marked that episode as explicit, and that’s enough. That’s in compliance. If somebody complains to Apple about it, they’re going to say, “This episode is marked as explicit. You should not have played this on your car. That’s on you, listener. It’s not on us, nor is it on the content creator.”
That’s the mechanism that’s in place to do this. For good or bad, like it or don’t like it, you can argue that it’s not a great standard. That’s a fair criticism because there’s a lot of wiggle room in it. That’s why I say use your common sense, make a decision about your own show, then decide to mark it as explicit or not and as appropriate as you think it should be. Live with that decision. I’m sure most of you will make a decision that is in alignment with what Apple would think if they were to get a complaint or look at your show and evaluate it. Not that they evaluate shows for this specifically, but that’s it.
Make your own decision and make sure you can live with it. We are not going to be your conscience. When it comes to production, we’re going to follow the guidelines of our client and how they want those shows to be edited, whether they want us to remove profanity, like cut it out in the editing process or leave it in and bleep it out or make it silent. There are several different ways we handle that when we produce episodes.
If you’re editing your own episodes, you can make your own decision on what works for you there. Remember, bleeping out words doesn’t necessarily sanitize an episode from a discussion that’s not appropriate for children. That’s the biggest message I want to share with you. It says less about a discussion of words, good and bad, appropriate or not. It’s more than words are a part of it, but it’s a broader evaluation that happens whether a show is appropriate for children to listen to it or not. That’s it. That’s what I want to share with you. I hope you find it valuable. Thanks for reading, everybody. Be back next time with another great episode. I hope you enjoy it. Until then, this is Tom signing off.