Podcast Listening App Manifesto

I’m on record as saying most podcast listening apps suck. In this short manifesto, I’m putting forth clear and implementable “must-haves” that could (finally) allow for a podcast listening app to truly stand out from the crowd and create an unparalleled user experience worthy of 2021 and beyond.

Listen everywhere

Podcast Listening Apps 2.0?

There’s a new wave of excitement among podcast app developers, and I’m thrilled at the activity! It feels a little like the early days of podcasting circa 2004, when lots of devs were putting their spin on what podcasting apps should do with the RSS feeds they were ingesting. Most of that excitement was curtailed in the latter half of 2005, right after Apple integrated podcasts into the iTunes 4.9 library. Most of these apps folded. A few hung on, and some are still running strong with dedicated user bases today.

Fast-toward 16 years and we’re once again seeing a surge in development activities, spurred on largely by the optimism of and excitement around the Podcast Index and the new crowd-sourced namespace values. Existing app makers have been slow to move, seemingly waiting for Apple, Spotify, or some other behemoth to make the first move. But a slate of hungry new developers are forging ahead, coming up with all sorts of new features and functionalities many of us who’ve been in the podcasting game for more than a decade didn’t even know we wanted.

Today, podcast listening apps are becoming more than just a way to subscribe and listen to podcasts. These new podcast listening apps are making it dead simple to do things like clip and share snippets. They’re handling RSS feed-based chapters that actually work. They’ve a working solution for micropayments. And they’re working on cross-app commenting and a host of other features that will extend podcasting’s functionality and adoptability among listeners, not just podcasters.

And that’s all great. But there are some immediate missed opportunities these eager app developers haven’t addressed. Yes, I understand the pull of the bragging rights of being the first to implement a podcast namespace tag that hasn’t yet been finalized. It shows you’re forward-thinking! But if you really want to make an app that listeners actually want to use, there are some less less-sexy but low-hanging fruits you need to incorporate to propel your app ahead of the rest.

Just these four things, to be exact.

1. Create show-level queues.

For anyone subscribed to more than a handful of podcasts, the utility of a general queue for all episodes of all subscribed to shows quickly evaporates. Listeners need different, customized queues depending on what type of content they want to consume at any given moment.

If I’m on a 5-hour road trip, it may be the perfect time to catch up on some deep, weighty episodes about science, philosophy, and economic theory. While my brain is deeply engaged, I don’t want to be taken out of the flow by hearing comedy or a daily news episode during that experience.

If I’m out for a run, I need high-energy or motivational episodes to accompany me. If an episode from a cooking or drinking show plays next, even though I’ve intentionally subscribed to those shows, I’m taken out of the zone as I scramble for my phone to skip or find something more appropriate to listen to as I try to keep my heart rate up.

To solve this problem, I want an app that lets me create multiple queues and assign entire shows to one or more of those queues, keeping all of the episodes of all of the shows in that queue nicely isolated and quickly available to me.

While I’m at it, I want to be able to put special rules on each of those queues, like keep episodes grouped by podcast, or whether or not the app should remove episodes from that queue after I’ve consumed more than 90% of the episode, for example.

Enabling custom show-level queues signals that your app acknowledges the fact that podcast listeners have a wide range of tastes and multiple listening habits.  

2. Allow for Most Recent Only grouping.

The number of daily podcasts has skyrocketed in the last few years. From news and information to healthy living tips, daily podcasts are a key part of many podcast listeners’ lives.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any more hours in the day, and trying to stay current on daily podcasts is a challenge. Worse, a single daily show that goes unlistened to for a week will often dominate the “all episodes” queue, pushing episodes from podcasts released less frequently further down the queue.

To help, I want to create a queue that only displays the most recent episode of chosen podcasts. The end result, for me at least, would be a queue that only showed the most recent episode of Post Reports, Tech Meme Ride Home, Podnews, and Podcast Pontifications; all shows I opted to put in the list. In that example, my queue would only ever have a maximum of four episodes in it, assuming I only added those four daily shows to that special queue.

Of course, I could add podcasts to this queue that have irregular update frequencies, or ones where I don’t care to scroll through the back catalog. Perhaps shows about foreign affairs, fashion trends, or sports commentary. Shows that I may want to listen to when time permits, but have no need to have the other eight older episodes shaming me for not listening more often.

And if I do feel like jamming all the episodes I missed, I can always click through to the show’s listing in the app to gain access to all available episodes from the feed.

The fact is that not all podcast episodes are listened to. This special queue recognizes that and streamlines the podcast listening experience for those who wish.

3. Respect RSS feeds tagged as SERIAL.

You didn’t read Michelle Obama’s book backwards, starting from the last chapter and finishing on the first. You didn’t watch the 10th episode of Ted Lasso unless you previously watched episodes 1 through 9. And you don’t want to see the “most recent” episode of any serialized podcast presented to you first when you subscribe.

Instead, every reasonable person wants to see the first episode listed first for serialized podcasts.

Right now, over 42,000 podcast feeds are already designated as SERIAL, marked by their creators to be listened to sequentially starting with the first episode. And more would do so once they understand the massive improvement to the listener experience. Your app can help encourage better feed management!

And while yes, most apps give listeners the option to flip the feed order of a particular show… why force that extra step? Your app already knows the show is marked as SERIAL. There’s never—and I really mean never—a reason to present the last episode of a serialized podcast first. Literally never! Worse, many users who subscribe to serialized shows don’t know that the show is serialized. They may sit and wait for new episodes, which may or may not be forthcoming, while the first part of the story told remains unlistened to—and possibly not even displayed in your app.

Apple, Spotify, and Amazon all properly support serialized podcasts. Your app should too.

4. Display Transcripts As Subtitles In Your App

I know what you’re thinking: No one looks at their phone when playing a podcast. And I agree up to a point. But for people with hearing loss (historically a large portion of the podcast listening audience) displaying in-line subtitles—you know, the way that YouTube and other video providers display subtitles—in your app while an episode plays would be an immediate differentiator.

And here’s the best part: thousands of podcasters have already done the hard work for you. Not kidding. Thousands of podcasters already take the time to include an .srt file along with their audio files in their RSS feed. An .srt file is simply a transcript with timestamps included. The format is literally designed for that purpose, and the .srt files are sitting in the RSS feed right next to the enclosed media file. All your system has to do is read the .srt file, interpret the time codes, and display them on-screen while the episode is playing.

Yes, it would be ideal if you interfaced with Google’s Speech-To-Text service (or some other provider) to generate and display subtitles on the fly to capture the majority of shows not yet using the new <podcast:transcript> tag. But that’s for a future phase. Why not display the work already being done by the podcaster and enabled by their hosting provider?

If you started displaying transcripts in a subtitle form, your app could be the most accessible app for listeners with hearing loss, making it the default choice for 1 out of every 7 listeners. That’s a huge addressable market ripe for the picking!

That’s it. Just those four things. Along with, of course, all the other things that make a podcast listening app work, like having a complete catalog, a search system that doesn’t suck horribly, variable listening speeds, intelligent sound boost, cross-platform availability… you know. The usual. :)

A tall order, I know. But doable and reflective of the missed opportunities most mid-level and smaller extant podcast apps could capitalize on and become a dominant player by being the most robust, full-featured podcast listening app on the market.

Get me an app that hits on all these cylinders, and I’ll be your biggest cheerleader. Let’s make a splash and make podcast listening better!

- Evo

Podcast Pontifications Is No More

But Evo does have a new weekly newsletter called The End shines a light back on audio fiction shows when they've reached the—or at least a—conclusion. Check it out!