Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Takedown Resistant, Unofficial Podcast Feed for "This American Life"

Update Sept 28, 2008:

I get a fair number of hits to this page from people looking for mp3 copies of This American Life episodes.

The short version, is that you can get each episode here:

The longer explanation can be found here: New location for This American Life Mp3s

The podcast feed that I created, as described in this blog post, was taken down due to a letter sent by This American Life. To read it, go here: An Emotional Blackmail Takedown: Remove The Podcast, Or We Shoot This Puppy

The vanilla feed, which lists the 15 most recent episodes as broadcast by TAL.

A feed of only new episodes, which does not include the reruns as broadcast by TAL.

Please note that this was not done with the permission or consent of NPR, PRI, or the fine folks at This American Life. Show your support, go to the TAL website, and donate 20 bucks.


I'm a big fan of the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life (TAL), which is broadcast on many US National Public Radio affiliates nationwide. For some reason, the public radio and TV business (in the US and elsewhere) has not yet figured out this whole Internet thing, and thus many of their online/podcast offerings are less than stellar.

Many young people do not listen to radio anymore. Even when I'm in the US - simply put - if This American Life, Democracy Now, Open Source, Radio Lab and other fantastic radio shows were not available as podcasts - there is no way I'd listen to them. I cannot concentrate on work while listening to an informative radio show, and thus for the most part, streaming them on my computer is just not practical. Instead, they are perfect for the tram ride/walk to work, airplane/bus trips, or walks in the park.

TAL's current business/podcasting model is as follows:

  • The latest episode can be downloaded through a podcast feed for free from their website.

  • Archived episodes can be streamed online (via a flash player) on their website but not downloaded.

  • Listeners wishing to podcast archived episodes must buy them online - from either Apple's iTunes store, or for 99 cents

This is sub-optimal for many reasons - the most important of which is that I have no desire to enrich Steve Jobs. When I give money to TAL, it is through a direct donation on their website. I do not wish for Apple, or any other middleman to take 30-50%.

TAL has clearly been struggling to find a business plan that works - and are probably contractually bound by their recently renegotiated contract with to not allow their back-catalog to be podcasted for free. As noted, "[t]he barrier to podcasting for years was the longstanding Audible deal. The vendor sold episodes of TAL for $3.95 a pop, barring the show from offering free downloads."

TAL has also recently had a podcasting fund-drive to pay for their yearly bandwidth bill of $108k. I've given them $20, but I can't figure out why they don't just put all of their content on (as Democracy Now has done), and thus do away with their bandwidth bill completely. Likewise, TAL is extremely popular amongst many tech geek circles - I am sure that a company or two would step up to the plate and give them free bandwidth if they asked.

I suspect that their unwillingness to let others host their media comes from their desire to somehow find a way to preserve their deal. If they are making more than $108k through paid downloads, then perhaps this is a wise choice. The nicer, and smarter approach (in my humble opinion) would be to ditch the paid podcasting model, allow other organizations to host the TAL podcasts, and thus do away with that nasty bandwidth bill. In three weeks of fundraising, they were able to raise over $110k - more than enough to cover the costs of their 300,000 podcast downloads per week. If bandwidth were provided by others for free, this money could instead go towards TAL's other operating costs - and thus make up for the loss of the iTunes/ revenue stream.

When This American Life first moved from Realaudio to MP3 storage of their show archive, the decision seems to be primarily due to issues with Realplayer - and not because they wished to enable listeners to save copies of shows to their machines. While many listeners petitioned TAL for a podcast feed, the show resisted.

Due to the fact that the episodes were being stored as MP3s, it was quite possible for users to download them to their own computers, and for others to create a podcast RSS feed.

In 2006, Jared Benedict and Jon Udell did just this, and made unofficial This American Life podcast feeds. Soon, links appeared in popular websites such as BoingBoing, and shortly after, the TAL webmaster sent a polite takedown request to both gentlemen. Jared sums it up by stating, "we received friendly emails from Ms. Meister, This American Life’s webmaster, making a request to take down the hyperlinks and RSS feeds, or she’d regrettably have to get lawyers involved. While Ms. Meister did miss the mark by accusing us of copyright infringement without a clear understanding of what we were actually doing, or what copyright law allows, she was trying to be polite and friendly which I appreciate."

Subsequently, both men took down their podcast feeds.

Last year, I discovered that TAL has all of their mp3s in one directory, amusingly located at Clearly, their webmaster has a sense of humor.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to give itunes/other podcast clients a directory to download mp3 files from, so a podcast RSS feed is necessary. TAL's official podcast feed only has the most current episode available for download - which doesn't help me when I miss a week, or if I want to load up my iPod for a long journey.

I've learned enough about Internet law at this point to know that website owners are within their rights to get angry if you scrape their website on a regular basis. This comes down to a tort claim of trespass to chattels.

While TAL does provide a podcast RSS feed that I could scrape, I thought it best to avoid downloading data from there, if just to provide a bit of legal distance, and avoid any claim that I was hammering their servers.

Yesterday, I announced and made available a script that pulls data from Google's cache of popular RSS feeds. By using that script, I can be sure that I am not directly accessing TAL's webservers, nor am I increasing the load on their servers (assuming of course, that at least a couple other people using Google Reader to keep up to date with TAL episodes).

Regarding copyright - The content of the episodes, show logos, etc are protected by copyright law. However, episode names, broadcast dates and other info are not. It is for this same reason that one cannot copyright tv schedule listings.

The issue of deep linking (i.e. providing a direct link to a mp3 file on TAL's website) is a legal grey area. The case law here is by no means solid. A few years back, A California judged ruled that, "hyperlinking does not itself involve a violation of the Copyright Act" because "no copying is involved." I am fairly confident that I am on firm ground - since, afterall, the content I am linking to is perfectly legal (thus the DeCSS decision shouldn't apply) and accessible by any user who visits the TAL website and uses their embedded flash mp3 player.

With those legal issues dealt with for the most part, I decided to roll my own.

I've setup two unofficial podcast feeds for This American Life.

The vanilla feed, which lists the 15 most recent episodes as broadcast by TAL.

A feed of only new episodes, which does not include the reruns as broadcast by TAL.

Please note that this was not done with the permission or consent of NPR, PRI, or the fine folks at This American Life. Show your support, go to the TAL website, and donate 20 bucks.


Anonymous said...

"Listeners wishing to podcast previous episodes must buy them online - from either Apple's iTunes store, or for 99 cents"

That is not correct. If you subscribe via iTunes - you always get the latest version for free. Which you can keep as long as you want. Its the archived episodes that cost money - which I believe is entirely reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Not cool. They're making the episodes available for free and selling the archive. That's their current revenue model, and I think that listeners can respect and understand it. Your feeds are clearly in opposition to that plan--just because it's "suboptimal" to you and potentially a legal grey area doesn't mean that you should build something that routes around their intent. If you're a fan, you should respect their--very solid and listener-friendly--distribution model here.

Anonymous said...

Before jumping to conclusions, let's take a moment to become aware of a few salient facts:

* TAL is paid by NPR/PRI to produce their radio show. Those funds come largely from listener dontions. However, a non-trivial portion of NPR's operating budget comes from governmental funding, which is to say "taxes". You and I (if you're American, anyhow) have already paid for a portion of that content.

* Ira and Co. are not exactly hurting financially. They've expanded into television and can easily afford to pay their bills. And if they couldn't, as pointed out above, it would be just as easy for them to reduce costs and host the archived content elsewhere at negligible expense.

* Audible provides their content in DRM-encumbered formats. That DRM is "bad" is no longer a matter of debate or personal opinion. There have already been a number of major instances of content being locked away from legitimate owners due to failures in policy or technology, the most recent (ca. Aug. 2007) being the Google Video fiasco.

I like TAL. I wish them many years of continued success. I support NPR. But these groups can do better, and supporting their failings does not encourage them to try harder.

Anonymous said...


Here's a way to get a bunch of episodes with one command. You need Linux or a Mac. Sorry windows. I downloaded 44 episodes like this today.

for i in {100..416};do wget$i.mp3;done

note: I don't know the numbering scheme below 100, try to figure it out. 416 is their latest episode. Get 'em before they change it up. Your welcome and enjoy.