Serial is Podcasting’s Harry Potter

In New Podcasting:

And for the first time since Podcasts got included in iTunes something big is happening. Has happened. Of course, I’m talking about Serial, the documentary series produced by the “This American Life” team. Serial has become a phenomenon. It’s literally pop culture. Sesame Street, Saturday Night Life, The Colbert Report. Like always metrics are hard, but it certainly increased the audience of podcast listeners manifold just by itself.

So more people are listening to a radio show on the Internet. What’s the big deal? I think Serial is redefining what Podcast means to people…

I’m not so sure. Serial is like podcasting’s Harry Potter. Over ten years ago, Harry Potter books were so big that people assumed that they were going to carry readers from Harry Potter to other stories? Did they?

Adam Carolla won’t let it drop

If you’ve listened to any podcasts recently you may have heard the appeal from Adam Carolla asking for donations to defend against patent trolls. Ars Technica reports that Personal Audio, the company with the patents, has been trying to get out of the lawsuit:

According to Personal Audio, they’ve lost interest in suing podcasters because the podcasters—even one of Adam Carolla’s size—just don’t make enough money for it to care.

“[Personal Audio] was under the impression that Carolla, the self-proclaimed largest podcaster in the world, as well as certain other podcasters, were making significant money from infringing Personal Audio’s patents,” stated the company. “After the parties completed discovery, however, it became clear this was not the case.”

Then later:

The patent company is charging ahead with its patent case against the big three television networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Personal Audio is trying to wring a royalty from those companies for releasing video “episodic content” over the Internet.

Don’t worry, little guys. They only want money – and you don’t have any. Doesn’t that make you feel better?

Soundcloud doesn’t play well with others

The creators of Soundflake, a third-party Soundcloud app, write about the demise of their Soundcloud app at the hands of Soundcloud.

I’m starting to wonder how SoundCloud defines “best interest”? We wanted their service to be simple, beautiful and easy to use, we did everything to be in compliance with their TOS and we were willing to give it away for free— if that isn’t in the “best interest” for SoundCloud and their users, then I don’t know just what the fuck “best interest” means.

The only thing good out of this is that there’s hope that Soundcloud has a better player coming out.

Soundcloud has the richest community of music fans and music creators, but I’ve never been a fan of the web and iOS apps. You can’t listen to anything offline. You can’t huffduff anything from Soundcloud without downloading it and hosting it yourself. You can’t get an RSS feed out of it.

That’s really my main problem with Soundcloud. I have to constantly check their site and apps for anything new. The model for the past 10 years from RSS readers and podcasts has been that new content comes to YOU, not the other way around. It feels like Soundcloud has been trying to reverse that in order to get people going to their site – which is strange if true, because they make money by selling services to publishers, not listeners.

Soundcloud is making this big push to overtake podcasting, but that means changing the definition of podcasting from “you automatically get audio when there’s something new” to “go to our site and live on our site and listen to stuff with our players that aren’t as good as even Apple’s podcast app that everyone seems to hate.”

To their credit, publishers love Soundcloud for its ease of use. They upload an audio file and the hard part is done. Soundcloud even tracks unique downloads for them across web and RSS downloads, if they’ve set it up.1 But in its current state, Soundcloud isn’t for podcasting. It’s for making audio widgets that everybody can use.2

The ironic thing is Soundcloud COULD be the dominant platform for audio on the web. They have an advantage over Libsyn with the widgets and audio tracking, but publishers also need listeners. Widgets work ok for audio that’s 3 minutes long. But for an hour-long podcast? I don’t think it’s the right model.


  1. One of my friends claims he’s submitted a request to Soundcloud to get in on the experimental podcasting features that Soundcloud has been running for a few years. He says he didn’t hear anything back. If you search the internet a bit the advice is “try again.” 

  2. I’m of the belief that, despite all the advances in web technology, web browsers are still crappy media players. They don’t accept feedback from media keys. They don’t save your playback position. They don’t have (good) keyboard shortcuts. 

Digg’s “Why Audio Never Goes Viral”

A friend of mine and I have arguments about what a “podcast” actually is. I say it’s something I can get on my phone without me having to do anything. He says you don’t need a feed to have a podcast and it’s not a big deal to go to a web page and press a button.

This debate is one reason why audio doesn’t go viral on the web and why podcasts are pretty much the same as they were back in 2005.

This Digg original also discusses Soundcloud’s place in podcasting:

“Podcasting: It’s a fairly old school method of distribution,” says its co-founder and CTO Eric Wahlforss. “We are certainly of the opinion that SoundCloud is the superior way of broadcasting your show across the web.”

Podcasting, which brings audio automatically to your device without you having to do anything other than subscribe, is “fairly old school” compared to going to some page, pressing play on a widget, and keeping that browser tab open.

Maybe the modern web is pretty much the same as it was back in 2005 too.

Podcasts.app’s horrible show notes formatting

“Where can people go for show notes?” You often hear on podcasts.

You should just TAP for show notes. Where should people go for show notes? Just tap the screen or click the “Show Info” button in iTunes.

Rich show notes, poor formatting.

Problem is, Apple’s iOS Podcast app strips all formatting from this details screen. You can write richly detailed notes with headers, hyperlinks…you know, HTML, and it comes out looking like this.

Why would they do this? Is it a security thing? That doesn’t make sense – Safari shows you any HTML on the web. How is this any different?

It’s not much better in iTunes. Here’s the standard Show Info view. It isn’t the same show, but you can bet that you see a plain-text type view instead of properly rendered HTML.

iTunes Show Info

My bet is that extensive show notes are an anomaly. When iTunes podcasting support was originally added shows didn’t put much effort into extensive notes, so they didn’t bother with HTML formatting. But today it’s different – we have richly detailed, and HELPFUL, show notes, except Apple never updated the way they’re rendered.

Between stuff like this, and the poor syncing between iTunes and iOS (although iOS-to-iOS appears to be much more reliable), podcasts.app still has a ways to go.

It’s strange, because Apple was a pioneer here. They have the best way to discover podcasts and arguably the worst way to listen to them.

Podcasting Is Pretty Much The Same As It Was Back In 2005

Allen Pike writes about how podcasting is on the rise. I’m skeptical.

He uses This American Life as an example of non-geeks getting into podcasts. I’ve often used my sister as an example of how non-geeks listen to podcasts. She’s not a power user. I bought her Instacast years ago. Now I’m trying to get her onto Apple’s podcast app so she can sync with iTunes. She hasn’t budged.

Why not? Because it’s not really that important to her.

I think her, and many others, like the IDEA of podcasts. The IDEA of free talk-radio. But what I end up seeing is a people who spend some time in the iTunes Store1 going through podcasts, picking things out, and never listening to them.

Let’s look beyond the assumption that This American Life was always for geeks/nerds/dorks. If you even know what TAL is you’re not like most people. How many of This American Life’s new listeners actually listen to the show? How many of them just like to declare themselves to be TAL listeners without actually listening regularly?

Pike cites a 65% increase in podcasting growth from 2010 to 2012:

Surely this growth can’t all be from geeks. So the jig is up: podcasting is seriously growing, and it’s not just geeks.

While more people are listening, or at least subscribing to podcasts, I don’t think it’s because non-geeks are getting into podcasts. I think it’s because more people are becoming geeks the way we viewed them 10 years ago. This is why 5by5 has a ton of shows about…well, pretty much the same thing.2

Regarding tools, Pike writes:

As of this writing, a horde of developers are building podcast listening apps. Podcast recording apps, on the other hand?

Well, more about that soon.

I assume that he’ll write a followup about making tools for podcasters, or announce some new software he’s been working on. We need it.

My favorite, back in the early days, was Podcast Maker. It hasn’t been updated since 2011. I use Podcast Maker regularly for the private podcast I make for my friends.3 The most technical you need to get with it is give it an audio file and an FTP location to upload to, and then share the feed.

Most non-geeks don’t have FTP space.

Today, if you want to do podcasting right you need a CMS, maybe a podcasting plugin, and understand how all this stuff works. If you don’t get FTP then you’re already locked out.

Meanwhile, Marco Arment writes:

But I’m not a believer that everyone should podcast, or that podcasting should be as easy as blogging. There’s actually a pretty strong benefit to it requiring a lot of effort: fewer bad shows get made, and the work that goes into a good show is so clear and obvious that the effort is almost always rewarded.

I’m not sure if it’s worth keeping bad shows out, because usually good shows rise to the top and the bad ones go to the wayside. Besides, everyone would benefit from having simpler tools, even the pros.

If you want to see what happens when you make these sorts of tools for non-geeks all you need to do is go to Youtube. There are a HUGE amount of Youtube channels from wannabe makeup artists, guys creating a character obsessed with gaming, Horror Movie enthusiasts, video game criticism. Sure, there is a lot of garbage, and I’m demonstrating what bubble I’m in with what I link to, but some of these are GREAT!

Think of it this way. It’s easier, and more lucrative, for Jenna Marbles to turn on her webcam, hit record, and upload it to Youtube than it is for her to create an entire podcasting back-end. Youtube IS the back-end.

I’ve seen a few channels that are nothing more than a graphic for a video and a voiceover. These are Youtube videos that want to be podcasts.

But they are not podcasts.

I’ve always viewed podcasting as something specific. Podcasts are programs (usually audio) I can subscribe to and have available in one spot on my computer, phone, or tablet. I shouldn’t have to go to multiple places to find an MP3 file to listen to. I want to just open iTunes or podcasts.app and it’s all there the way I left it, plus whatever new stuff that’s been made since the last time I opened it.

If you agree with me that this is the definition of a podcast then you too may not be confident that the medium has gotten much different in the past few years. It’s still mostly nerds talking about nerd stuff.


  1. Here’s another thing to think about. How much of the success of podcasting is attached to iTunes and the iTunes Store? If/when iTunes is no longer the dominant media platform then what happens to podcasts? 

  2. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy and regularly listen to a few 5by5 shows. But there’s only so much time one can, or should, dedicate to listening to people talk about new Apple products. 

  3. The other close friends I have tried it a few non-geek ways. One guy uploads his to Soundcloud, where I have to download it, reupload it, and huffduff it to get it into my podcasts.app. The other two use Podomatic. This isn’t really much different than what blogs used to be: someone’s personal creative output meant for a small audience. 

“Dear iTunes”

I often think that iTunes has gotten so weird because of the way normal people use it. In the past my sister had tons of podcast subscriptions in iTunes, each with tons of unplayed episodes. HUNDREDS of episodes. I know she’ll never listen to them, but she doesn’t want to admit it to herself.

That must have been common; people subscribing to a large amount of podcasts, eating up bandwidth, and filling up their storage with episodes that they’ll never ever ever listen to. Now iTunes does this stuff and thinks it’s doing you a favor.

And for people like my sister, it probably is.

In Defense of Apple’s Podcast App

Yup. I’m defending Apple’s iOS Podcast app.

This past sunday I decided I would try using Apple’s Podcasts app instead of Instacast, my go-to client for years.1 Read the reviews. Or don’t. They aren’t favorable. All you really need to know is that Apple’s Podcasts app has been called “the worst app Apple ever made.”

I went one-by-one through subscriptions I had in Instacast and added them to Apple’s podcast app. I probably could have exported an XML file from Instacast, but I wanted to experience what a new user would go through.

I’m pleasantly surprised and very happy with Apple’s podcast app. HOW COULD THIS BE! The internet is full of bad reviews discussing poor performance. However, it’s a totally different story today. I wish those reviewers would take another look at this app, because nearly all their issues have been resolved.

Subscribing, Directories, and Discovery

If you were around during the beginning of podcasting, before Apple added it to iTunes, you might remember how much of a pain it was to find new shows to listen to. It’s been a while, but if I remember this right you’d have to find a podcast directory, look things up, hope a show was any good, and add a feed to a podcatcher which, if it was any good, added it to iTunes for you.

Isn’t it great that we don’t have to do that anymore?

Apple’s Podcast directory is the podcast directory of the internet. And why not? Apple brought podcasting to the big time. If your podcast isn’t in the iTunes store it may as well not exist.

Instacast has a great podcast directory, but it’s not for normals. It’s powered by us nerds. As of this writing, 8 of the top 10 podcasts in the Instacast directory are from 5by5, are by hosts on 5by5, or from hosts previously on 5by5. It can begin to feel as if the Instacast directory is one big commercial for 5by5.

Here’s the Instacast directory.

Instacaststop10

The iTunes directory has more diversity.

Itunespodcasts top10

For those of you who want podcasts that aren’t in iTunes, you can just paste the feed address into the Podcasts.app search bar and subscribe that way. This is a non-issue now.

Design

The skeuomorphic direction of some Apple apps has received a lot of criticism. iOS, and the latest OS X, contain leather-bound address books and calendars with teared paper. Apple’s Podcast app contains reel-to-reel tapes.

Reeltoreel

Although I usually agree with the criticism of this kind of design, I find this sort of thing cute and inviting in this setting, like I’m a guest on a talk radio show. It also serves a function by providing a clue on what the playback speed button does. As playback speed increases, so does the speed of the reels.

Also, watch those reels as your podcast progresses. Scrub through quickly and you can see the tape transfer from the left reel to the right reel.

But what about Apple’s HIG? Okay, sure, but…come on, is it really that obnoxious? The backlash against skeuomorphic designs, in my opinion, is overblown. Yeah, sometimes they feel weird. Other times they are warm and welcoming. There are two ways you can teach a user how to use your app.

  1. Train them over years to learn the standard interface elements of your OS and design around that.
  2. Make your app look a little like something in the physical world that your user is already comfortable with.

Sometimes it makes more sense to go with #2. Everyone liked it when Tape Deck did this. Why can’t Apple do it?

Skeuomorphs aren’t for you, nerd.2 They’re for most everyone else. You know what a podcast actually is – an XML file that points to audio files. Most people don’t think of them like that. Most people think “internet radio show.”

And the reel-to-reel encourages them to try it out.

From what I’ve read it appears that the iOS blogger/podcast darling is Downcast. It’s a good client. I own a copy, but it’s no beauty. Take a look.

Downcast op de iPad3

Downcast is dull and gray. It has a lot of buttons to tap. But because of skeuomorphisism, Apple’s Podcast app is fun. If you’re brand new to podcasts, like many millions of iOS users are, which would you rather use?

Syncing

Instacast released a new version that addressed syncing problems. I’m still having problems. In fact, that’s part of the reason I decided to try Apple’s podcast app again.

I’ve been using Apple’s app this entire week. Syncing is more reliable than it’s ever been in Instacast. I’m even talking about their latest update – the one powered by their own sync solution.

Downcast, however, was always pretty good about syncing.

What About Playlists, Favorites, and Bookmarks?

Both Instacast and Downcast have playlists features. In theory, these sound like wonderful additions to have, but in practice I found that I rarely used them. I don’t think I subscribe to enough podcasts to justify it.4

By the way, I subscribe to around 40-50 podcasts. That’s a lot, right?

Podcasts are often not timeless. I don’t feel the need to organize them into playlists, because once I listen to them they’re gone. I move on to the next podcast.

I don’t miss playlists. Apple’s app has the only playlist I ever need: Unplayed.

I did think I’d miss Favorites and Bookmarks. I used both in Instacast a lot. But the more I thought of this the more I realized that I got by for years without either of these things. Did I really find these features useful, or did I just use those features because they were present? I have a bunch of bookmarks in Instacast, but the only one I really care about is the one titled “We Can All Agree On Cheese.”

Also, why should I give Instacast all my favorites? I could put favorites anywhere, Pinboard, Delicious, my blog (which I often do). If an episode is particularly good, I can email a link to myself and have it outside the podcast app where I can do something about sharing it.

Because sharing from these apps is still a big bag of hurt.

Sharing

Sharing podcasts with people is weird in every podcast app I’ve tried. I haven’t seen it done well yet. I don’t mean the process: tap this button and send it off. I mean, “where is this link going to take the recipient and how will the recipient know what to do next?”

Apple’s Podcasts app isn’t good at this. It generates a link directly to the feed. What good is that going to do? Let someone subscribe to a whole podcast? What if I only want to share a single episode?

Sharinginpodcsastsapp

Instacast is better. It generates an HTML5 audio player for the recipient to listen to a show in their browser. This is actually the most user-friendly way, but it’s also a big plug for Instacast.

IMG 1687

Here’s a typical Instacast share URL: http://instaca.st/b/wr

Downcast appears to link directly to the audio source.

Sharingindowncast

I think the best thing to do here is to share a link to the podcast’s page on that specific episode. It provides attribution and branding of the podcast, and podcasters usually have embedded audio players on their pages, or at least a download link. But I have doubts about that, because I think Instacast’s method is more practical for most people.

Back To The Mac

People are looking forward to dedicated Instacast and Downcast Mac apps so that they can listen to their podcasts at their desks. This would be useful for me for those music podcasts, particularly at work where I’m most likely to listen to music podcasts and not talk-show podcasts.

I used to do this the analog way by connecting a line cable from my phone’s headphone output to my work Mac and using Rogue Amoeba’s Line-In software.

But I stopped doing this when I realized that I could plug my iPhone into a computer and listen to my podcasts directly through iTunes.

podcastsfromiphoneinitunes.png

I share John Gruber’s thoughts here:

Where I think Podcasts falls short…is in providing for a single iCloud-backed set of podcast subscriptions. If I subscribe to a podcast in iTunes on my Mac, it should show up as a subscription on Podcasts on my iPhone…I shouldn’t have to sync my devices with iTunes on my Mac just to sync podcast subscriptions. Podcasts seems like a perfect example of something where iCloud should be my digital hub — just like how iTunes Match works for music.

Until Instacast and Downcast come out with Mac apps Apple’s podcast app is the closest we have.

Accessories

This is the killer feature of Apple’s podcast app. It works with my stuff. Apple’s official apps index audio files so that accessories can use them. Car stereos, speaker docks, they can access content displayed in music.app and podcasts.app.

But third-party apps are on an island, at least as of this writing. There are some ways in which using anything other than the Apple software is like fighting the tide. This is one of them.

If you have an accessory like that, like a car with a dock connector, it’s a game changer to be able to listen to your podcasts through your in-dash player, with its fast-forward, pause, and other playback functions, without having to go through the analog hole.

I know that this is the last battle. We’re moving towards a future with Bluetooth and Airplay accessories. But if you have any of these things with dock connectors you can only play your podcasts with Apple’s podcast app.

Other thoughts

This whole experiment may be a fluke for me. I’m not even a full week into it yet. Still, I encourage you, if you wrote off Apple’s Podcasts app when it first came out, try it again. Podcasts.app is clean, uncomplicated, inviting, dare I say reliable, and works with your stuff.

Give it another shot.


  1. Ok, here’s the deal. I’m using version 1.1.2 of Apple’s Podcasts app on an iPhone 5 with iOS 6.1 and an iPad 3 with iOS 6.1. I do not sync podcasts through iTunes. 

  2. If this thing annoys you, you aren’t most people. I’ve been meaning to write about the times I volunteer at my library showing people how to use their iPads, because I’ve been learning a lot about how non-geeks, the people who are buying these millions of devices and making Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world, actually use them. When I showed this part of the podcasts app attendees were delighted. They wouldn’t have felt that way about a grid view. 

  3. Screen shot by Pierre Gorissen / used under a creative commons license 

  4. In Instacast I had the standard playlists: Unplayed, Downloaded, and Favorites. The only other playlist I could think to add was a Music playlist for music podcasts. 

Podcast apps are the new Twitter Clients

After trying the new Podcasts.app I’m sticking with Instacast. This post on Vemedio’s blog explains why.

I got a lot of feedback saying that Instacast is the better app and that a lot of people are disappointed with the feature set and the performance. For me, my disappointment wasn’t about the feature set or that Apple entered the marketplace for podcast apps. I was disappointed that with this app, Apple is not attempting to modernize its sight on Podcasts and adapt to recent trends in the podcast scene.

Apple’s app is nice, but doesn’t offer what I hoped it would: All my podcasts everywhere. I’m thinking iTunes Match for podcasts. I want everything on my work computer, on my home computer, on my phone, and on my iPad. I think they may get there, but until then I like Instacast.1

It’s beginning to feel like podcast apps are the new Twitter clients. Each of them can take a standard input, like data from the Twitter API or an OPML file of RSS feeds, and present them in new and different ways. Think of how many podcast apps there are now. Downcast. Instacast. Pocket Casts. And now there’s Apple’s podcast app.

If you can export and import OPML files you can easily bounce back and forth between clients, much like what people do with text editors and Google Reader clients. At about $2 for an app it’s tempting to buy a bunch of them and see which one fits you best.

Related: I never thought I’d use Instacast’s Pro features, but I wanted to bookmark one thing and now if I hear something I like it gets bookmarked. For example: Chewing The Fat Boys.


  1. The only things I dislike about Instacast is that it can feel slow on my iPhone 4 and the iCloud syncing can get broken on Instacast HD, but the alert messages say things like “We’re really trying hard to help you here, but iCloud is being a pain right now.”