The Podcast App We All Want

Sep 04th, 2018

Welcome to another super opinionated blog article, this one is all about podcast apps and the absolute confusion as to why we cannot seem to get this right. So I’m not a guru of podcasts, I’ve been in some, I’ve listened to many, and like TED talks there are some I can listen to multiple times and always find them fascinating. However, I have a serious problem with the world of podcast apps and the utterly pathetic attempts of doing this the right way. There are some that come so close and yet fail to deliver a user control based solution that fundamentally gets out of the way. I have reviewed these apps in no particular order, it was just as I happened to stumble on and test them.

The best tools are the ones we have to fuss with the least. This is a fundamental element of application design. If you have to fuss and manage the app and its settings and constantly adjust things then as I see it the app is a failure. So lets start with my biggest disappointment: Apple. Here we have arguably one if not the wealthiest company in the world, and what they have done to podcasts is an abomination. First, playlists are only available on iTunes (WTF) that literally doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. The so called intelligent Stations are a terrible concept from the ground up. First off, stations force you to (like nearly all of these apps) listen to every damn episode of a podcast. Apple treats this like they’re automating the process but they simply create a way for me to get bored and no longer pay attention to my podcast subscriptions. The one thing they do right, is sync between devices, but thats assuming you don’t pause an episode of one podcast to listen to another, cause goodbye any sense of order at that point.

I tested Overcast before writing this, and gave up on that immediately, its attempt a simple UI just gets in the way of me browsing, reading, or any form of selecting a podcast. Castbox promised to sync across all devices which excited me - obviously. However, sign up on my laptop with Chrome using my Google account and same thing on my iOS device with the same Google account, and subscriptions are not syncing between ‘devices’. The one component I do like here is a playlist setup, where I can set up the next podcast episodes I want to listen to. Pocket Casts does this as well with their ‘Up Next’ queue. Though its unable to sync between devices as well, which leaves me having to only use my phone, which means wasting tons of time ‘browsing’ through podcast listings on a tiny screen (though to be honest they said that was a beta issue - so I have hope). I have a 32” monitor hooked up to my laptop I’d like to use please. I then got curious about trying some of the newer podcast apps, including Plex’s support for podcasts thinking this could be awesome. However, if I try to add any episode to their queue instead I add all episodes of a podcast to the queue, when single episodes do work if I leave the queue, or stop listening the queue disappears making all the work of designing a queue or playlist useless. Now, I’m not a fan of Spotify, never have been, I like Apple Music, it gives me all the control I need, I don’t need other people to design playlists for me. But I thought let’s try out their podcast component. Logged in via Chrome, could not find anywhere to add a custom feed for a podcast, and the search could not locate it, so Spotify is out.

Supertop’s Castro, on the other hand has a brilliant idea in the form of an inbox. Add what sounds interesting to the queue, and archive the rest, you can even browse around and pick out episodes and set them up in the queue. This is the ONLY app I found that has the right idea of how podcasts really work. Most podcasts aim to have all their episodes be interesting, but the reality is that some episodes just sound boring, or are sometimes not at interesting at the time of their publication. What about 2 part episodes, wouldn’t it be nice to wait, and then line them up back to back. The reality is that all too often you will lose that episode since all apps are aiming at having you get the latest stuff assuming you have infinite time to listen to podcasts all day. The catch with Castro, its mobile only, so though its the most promising with what I believe to be the best possible way to handle podcasts it falls short since I cannot do anything with it on my laptop where I spend most of my time.

So I’d like to end this with a bit of blunt truth. I get it, I’m a developer, I spend all day on my laptop etc, and most people use their phones for everything. I also understand that I’m being picky as hell, and that if I feel I can do better I should write my own podcast apps, I’m a developer after all. I hear ya, I get it, but honestly I have no desire to build a podcast app. I simply fail to see how only one app out there matches 90% of what I perceive to be the primary manner of how people listen to podcasts. I’d also like to stat that though I am being a hard critic of these teams and their products, I understand how much work goes into developing products and frankly all of the apps above go well beyond anything I’ve ever done with podcasts, so I hope they all continue to work on their apps and improve them and hopefully Castro or Pocket Casts will in the future deliver the features I and I’m sure many others would love.

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