Podcast startup Luminary’s launch week keeps getting worse

By Ashley Carman

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Major creators are continuing to remove their shows from Luminary, the $100 million subscription podcast startup, over its business model, and even more are leaving after the company was exposed for using a proxy server that hides listener data from creators.

Joe Rogan’s popular show was pulled from the platform yesterday, and Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini said her network’s shows would be pulled, too. The New York Times was already withholding its blockbuster hit The Daily, and Gimlet Media, Anchor, and Parcast — which are all Spotify-owned companies — also didn’t make their shows available at launch.

Now, smaller creators, including Ben Thompson, Owen Williams, and Federico Viticci, are pulling their podcasts, too. Their withdrawal comes after podcasters noticed that Luminary was serving shows to listeners through a complicated linking system, depriving them of important listener data. The platform also stripped their shows notes, which can be used to share sponsored links or other relevant information.

When a podcast player serves a show, listeners’ requests are usually sent directly to the server that hosts it. Luminary said today that it’s added an extra step to that process. Instead of directing listeners to the original podcast server, it’s routing the requests through its own servers first.

The company says it’s doing this to streamline the listening process and make it faster for users, but doing so means that podcasters don’t get accurate data on where their listeners are coming from and how many people are actually listening — which is vital information for understanding their audience and selling ads. The podcasters also didn’t give Luminary permission to do this, which could have copyright implications.

The Verge confirmed with podcast hosting platform Simplecast today that hosting providers, and thereby the podcasters themselves, aren’t receiving listeners’ IP addresses. This data is important to creators because it tells them where their listeners are located and how they’re accessing the show.

“If I go in and click play on a show on Luminary, we as a platform do not get real data back,” Simplecast CEO Brad Smith says. “We get the IP address and location of a proxy server around the globe.”

Smith says that the team looked at the “thousands” of plays coming from Luminary and saw only a grouping of IP addresses, all of which are Luminary’s proxy servers. This prevents creators from getting useful information about their show, he says, and it could hurt their ability to connect with advertisers. Under the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s podcasting standards, the type of proxy traffic Luminary is sending has to be thrown out because it’s classified as bot traffic. “Creators and podcasters are completely blind to what traffic their RSS feeds are getting on Luminary,” Smith tells The Verge.

Overcast CEO Marco Arment echoed Smith on Twitter, saying Luminary’s method “breaks any modern podcast stats.”

The podcasting industry is moving toward smarter, more dynamic ads that can be geo-targeted based on where a listener is located. Without accurate location data, the entire premise of these ads falls apart.

This is an unusual approach for a podcast player. Spotify is the only other major platform that doesn’t rely on RSS feeds and instead hosts most podcasts on its own servers. But in those cases, creators upload their RSS feeds by choice and agree to allow Spotify to ingest their feed. In return, podcasters have a large reach around the world and access to Spotify’s analytics platform.

In Luminary’s case, it doesn’t ingest the RSS feeds completely, but it still comes between the creators and their audience, which isn’t a great look for an industry newcomer. We’ve reached out to Luminary for comment. “Transparency around why and how this was done would have solved everything,” Smith says.