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A tin of SPAM, a registered trademark of Hormel Foods Corporation, on a cushion

The podcast industry's biggest spammer

· By James Cridland · 4.5 minutes to read

SPAM® is a trademark of Hormel Foods to describe a tin of excellent-tasting luncheon meat, which so far has sold over nine billion cans. This article is not about the meat. We wish it was.

There is some debate as to whether it’s legal, or illegal, to use the email addresses in podcast RSS feeds to send cold email marketing. In 2020, we interviewed a number of marketers to discover why they did it, and what they believe the law is. To us, it doesn’t appear to be illegal in any country: the US, Canada, Australia, or - in most cases - Europe.

That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s the right thing to do. Podcasters list their email addresses in their RSS feeds because it’s a requirement for listing in some directories: not as an open invitation for people to send them unsolicited commercial email.

In May 2022, we amended Podnews’s podcast RSS feed to produce a near infinite amount of trackable email addresses as a kind of spamtrap. We wanted to discover who was scraping our RSS feed for emails; what user agent they were using, when they scraped it, what tag they scraped it from, and whether the messages were legal under the FCC’s rules (the so-called CAN-SPAM Act).

Since May, at the time of writing, we’ve had 240 unsolicited commercial emails to these addresses. This page details them all, and is constantly updated.

Before we unveil the industry’s biggest spammer, here are some others from the list:

OnPodium

OnPodium is a company that makes websites for podcasters, and has sent 11 emails: sending their messages from a variety of different domains to evade spam filters. They initially scraped Player FM’s website for our RSS feed, but they’ve also sent emails to the RSS feed we give iVoox. The company removes the user agent when they scrape the RSS feed so that it can’t be blocked. It sends three emails (one selling the service, one with a follow-up, and one with a further “one last time” follow-up).

The founder of OnPodium, Gintaras Vaitkus, claims that the emails use automation but aren’t spam. They say they don’t add unsubscribe links because “they are confusing” (making these messages illegal under point 5 of the CAN-SPAM Act); and did not respond to our questions about why there was no physical address in the email, which is also a legal requirement. The company did not acknowledge further emails.

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GoodPods

GoodPods, a podcast app, sent six separate emails containing chart positions for Podnews for the company’s top charts. The emails are well-intentioned and contain data to help the podcaster rather than a sales pitch; the user agent is clear, there is an unsubscribe link in both the email header and body, and a postal address is also given.

While technically still a piece of unsolicited commercial email, it is compliant with the CAN-SPAM Act requirements, and no attempt has been made to hide or obfuscate. We also trust that we would be able to unsubscribe if we wanted to.

Podvine

Podvine, a podcast app, sent three emails containing weekly statistics from the app. We have 23 subscribers on their app and 4 comments, we learn. While the user agent was not hidden, these emails do not contain any method of unsubscribing, in spite of being marked as a “weekly” report - they just contain the advice to 'simply ignore’ the emails if you do not wish to join their platform. They contain no physical address, either.

Update: Within 12 hours of publication, Podvine added an unsubscribe facility to their emails.

The podcast industry’s biggest spammer is: Backtracks

Backtracks is a podcast technology company. It has sent a breathtaking 216 emails to us in just three months. Emails are not personalised beyond category, and just contain “trending podcasts in the News charts”, and other podcast categories that Podnews is in.

The user agent that Backtracks uses to scrape our RSS feed is disguised as a MacBook, running software last updated in December 2016. We believe this is a deliberate attempt to look like a computer and hide from blocking software.

The company uses Mailgun to send their emails, from a specific bktrksmail.com domain so as to not damage the reputation of their corporate email domain at backtracks.io.

None of the emails contain a physical postal address, thus are against the terms of the CAN-SPAM Act. They do contain an unsubscribe link in the body of the email, but don’t contain a mail-header for unsubscribing.

Backtracks uses a variety of RSS addresses. They appear to use any email address they discover in the feed: both the standard itunes:email tag, but also the ManagingEditor tag. They appear to scrape the RSS repeatedly, sometimes as much as two weeks before their next email.

We have repeatedly contacted Jonathan Gill, the founder of the company, and copied his PR company Astrsk PR. We’ve asked whether he believes these emails are legal under privacy rules; and why his company is deliberately spoofing a six year-old computer. The company did not respond to our questions.

Update: After we published this story, we noticed that Backtracks had cancelled its monthly support of our newsletter.

What next?

We believe that the new podcast namespace should define a better system for allowing podcasters to claim their shows on third-party services, like Apple Podcasts, Spotify or others.

We believe it would be in podcast hosting company’s interests to work on an open standard to enable the removal of email addresses from podcast RSS feeds. We have seen examples in the past six months where bad actors have directly tried to poach customers from different podcast hosting companies. Removing email addresses from podcast RSS feeds would make this kind of behaviour impossible.

Removing email addresses from RSS feeds could also help with potential breaches of privacy law.

The new podcast namespace has outlined one potential way that this could work. We’d love to hear from those that wish to move this standard forward, and help make podcasting better and less spammy.

James CridlandJames Cridland is the Editor of Podnews, a keynote speaker and consultant. He wrote his first podcast RSS feed in January 2005; and also launched the first live radio streaming app for mobile phones in the same year. He's worked in the audio industry since 1989.

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