What it Takes to Listen to a Podcast

Once again, something seems to be happening with podcasts. There were roughly 500 articles and blogposts written about Serial, so people seem more likely to know what podcasts are. It’s not quite a gold rush like I’ve heard it was around 2004, but it’s something.
Caused by this, there was more talk about the medium itself, and I found myself thinking more and more about all the ideas and observations that were brought up.

There’s a lot to say about the mechanisms of this medium, how it works, and more importantly how it does not – yet. Podcasting is so much rooted in tech geekdom that not all of the problems are easy to see or grasp for everyone involved. Actually, that could be the cause for many of them. Acknowledging that podcasting can’t retrospectively change its roots, let’s just take stock for now:

  • There’s the whole ‘white media’ thing (hello again, Serial).
  • There’s the (also white) ‘dudes talking about tech for (four) hours’ phenomenon, which has multiple layers (quality, topical and conceptual monoculture, as well as ‘white media’) as Dave Wiskus points out.
  • Discovery is a big problem. There are podcast directories, sure, and iTunes is fine for being the place where all the podcasts are. But you likely won’t find your new favorite podcast by browsing a genre list.
  • There is the underlying technology, both for consuming and for producing podcasts that has multiple intertwined problems

All of these are certainly important and/or interesting in itself. In this post, I am picking what I find to be the most fundamental, and if you look at it chronologically from a user’s perspective, literally the first problem: The onboarding experience: Somebody’s first podcast episode.

Nobody listens to a Podcast by Accident

But before I look at that specifically, I want to present my theory why podcasts are so different from everything else in today’s media landscape. This namely is why nobody finds himself on a podcast’s website, clicks ▶ and by that became an avid podcast listener.
One could rant about how it is 2015 and it is audio we’re talking about, how it is unbelievable that we haven’t solved this yet. But that would miss the point: The problem, when you think about it, is actually pretty complex and hard to solve. Spoken word audio cannot be handled like text or video, or even like music. It exists in a totally different space. In the average day of the average human in our modern world, it requires a very specific state of mind to be able to even begin listening to spoken word audio.

What about Text and Music?

We are reading, looking at our phones, skimming Facebook and Twitter all day. And yes, you might think, we are listening to music all the time! That is correct. But music just goes too well with skimming text and looking at pictures. And with working, depending on what you do.
Let’s be honest, few people commute or walk around town with their eyes closed, focusing on the music they’re listening to. Spoken word audio though requires you to pay attention and therefore doesn’t go well with everything just mentioned.

What about Video?

But what about YouTube? Video adds another dimension, requires much more attention from the user and a higher-bandwith connection than text or music. Much, much more so than a podcast, certainly! Still, people are watching videos on YouTube all day long! Why is it then, that videos are so shareable and go viral all the time, while podcasts aren’t at all?

Here, I think, duration is the key element. I have no data to back this up, but let’s just agree that the “watched all the way through”-rate of a YouTube video significantly drops with every minute or even second that it is longer (some statisticians may just have died. Also: Sorry, Dr. Drang). Podcast episodes rarely come in under 20 minutes, the attention span equivalent to about 200 funny YouTube videos and 1000 gifs.

Listen to it Later

I think that’s why the daily routine of most people is a very hostile environment for opportunities for ‘getting into podcasts’: When we’re most likely to stumble across a link or a reference to one, we’re the least likely to end up listening to it. That is why podcasts cannot and do not spread like articles or videos or gifs. They just die out there, man.

So, podcasts have to exist in a different space: Mobile. Hands-free. Commute. Dishes, laundry and the like. That is why podcasts, when they streak the user’s attention, need to be easily ‘saved for later’. That is hard to pull off.
The real sad part is how hard it is for somebody who even has made that intellectual leap and said “Yeah, on my way home, I’m gonna listen to that episode” to follow through and make the technological one as well.

Technology is supposed to connect people to content, but at the same time, and necessarily so, stands between people and content. In an almost literal and very sad sense, the latter is the case with technology and podcasting.

I alluded to this earlier already: I needed, and you, if you’re reading this, probably need to realize that we are nerds. Things we don’t even think about, things we at best subconsciously recognize are inconvenient, for others are either hurdles that are very annoying to overcome, or brick walls that are impossible to. In that state of mind, witnessing the following was just mind-boggling.

I recently recommended the How does a farmer work? episode of the Working podcast to my sister. She doesn’t really listen to podcasts, but she is a real foodie and I thought she might be intersted in how the interviewee grows certain kinds of apples.

Dead End Episode Website

So, I sent her the permalink to the episode on the slate website and she actually was willing to listen to it, albeit later (understandably, as I pointed out above). She was probably sitting in front of her Windows PC, received the link on her iPhone.
Okay. Piece of cake, right? Hoho hooo hoohohoh, noo no no. Inconceivable! The laughable options I could think of:

  • Mobile browser. For a 20 minutes episode that might be almost feasible, but listening to a longer audio track in a mobile browser, pre-loading the episode while on WiFi is at best an enormous hassle.
  • Dropping the episode mp3 file in Dropbox doesn’t work, either. I felt very clever and tried, but this kind of thing only seems to work with .pdf files on iOS (it also would be a hassle, and required the Dropbox app).
  • The Working podcast is hosted on SoundCloud. I suppose the SoundCoud app is a possibility. Still, this requires that donwload and doesn’t apply to all podcasts. People’s willingness to download one app per podcast might be the only thing lower than to download one dedicated podcast app.

So, we see the link to the episode at best helps in regard of letting my sister decide if she wants to listen to the episode or not. Like a frikkin program guide from the 80s! When it comes to listening through the episode, there’s just nothing. The options listed above all were duds. This battle is lost! We have to take a step back, regroup and take a look at the podcast as a whole.


The next best thing would be to grab the RSS link and subscribe to the podcast proper. Reality check: Just Imagine you had to subscribe to all the YouTube feeds you want to see one video of. ‘Subscribe’ is a big word! I don’t blame anybody who shys away from that kind of commitment. But for the sake of this post let’s say you feel crazy today and are fine with subscribing to this podcast you haven’t even heard a full episode of yet.
The process isn’t trivial at all. The user needs to a) find the RSS link on the website and then b) know just to copy the RSS link and then c) drop it into his podcast app of choice that d) needs to be installed or bought/downloaded beforehand.

If the user doesn’t copy the feed URL and instead just taps on the RSS feed address, they’re at the mercy of the OS: iOS 8 comes with Apple’s own podcast app, so in that case they’re kind of lucky.
Android’s Chrome browser just displays the raw RSS feed. Your average user just freaked out.

Quick aside: This is a thing the Podlove project’s Subscribe Button tries to fix. It sits on a podcast’s website and presents the appropriate options of subscribing to the podcast to the user. At first I was sceptical, but now I think it’s a great idea. Check it out on ungeheuerlich.org!

So, to be clear: I don’t think anybody makes it this far without really wanting to listen to the episode, or being really committed and still having somebody explain the whole thing to them. Meaning: Why it is so annoying and that it’s worth it.

App Good, All Good?

Anyway: I recommended a podcast app to my sister (Castro, for its slickness – I myself prefer Overcast), so she didn’t use Apple’s app but still was able to go ahead. Reminder: Interacting with a whole new kind of app is always a big hurdle for most users.

Should be easy now, right? Again, wrong. We wanted to get to a specific episode, remember?
Either by having grabbed the feed URL from the Working website, or by searching for the podcast name within the app (remembering the name and then manually typing it, like it’s 2007) my sister subscribed to the feed. Phew!

The average podcast app now would go and download only the most recent episode. While this is perfectly reasonable, this again isn’t what my sister wanted.
She had to go in, delete that most current one and then skim through the feed to find the episode we’re all doing this for. For shows with huge backlogs, finding an older episode is real hassle.

We’re done. Finally. Recommending podcasts almost seems offensive to me at this point.


Sorry, I don’t have the silver bullet. But maybe something to make the last 10% less painful: I’m thinking about URL schemes or something like that. Something that not just kicks the user over to the podcast feed, but a specific episode of it. Opened in-app, that would make it very easy for the user to download that specific episode (kudos to Marco here for allowing Overcast users to do so without ever subscribing to the feed).
Maybe a search function within a single podcast’s feed, to make huge backlogs more manageable, is feasible as well.
Of course, there’s the idea of chapter marks out there, and in some way there are time stamps in Overcast links. Both featuers add to discoverability and such, but chapter marks don’t spread that well and Overcast’s timestamps were broken for me when I tried them. Besides that, I don’t believe any of that alone would have a profound impact.

We also have to keep in mind that every bolted-on convention puts the single best (and only good one, one could argue) thing about the technology at risk: Its openness, it being decentralized and stupidly simple (from a technological point of view): Just an RSS feed with linked audio files and some descriptive text. So beautiful.

Anyway, I hope something happens in this regard. I hope this article helps to identify problems that keep podcasting back. There is so much great content out there, it would be a real bummer if we can’t figure out how to make it more accessible for everyone. Thank you.


Thanks a lot to Jason to so kindly mention my article, or rather my feedback email, on the latest episode of Upgrade. Interesting thoughts about how Apple might be in the best position to do some (more) ground work for podcasts.
Make sure to listen to (at least) that intersting bit, starting at minute 08:04! <– Overcast timestamp link!