Google Reportedly Making a Podcast App

I should have better phrased the title of a previous post, Why Has Google Decided To Not Build a Podcast App. By adding a “…yet”.

As Bill Irwin rightfully pointed out on Twitter:

As reported by 9to5Google, some translation strings have been found in the codebase for Android 8.7 that strongly suggest that they have a dedicated podcast app in the works.

Previously Google’s podcast strategy was to include podcasts along side music in the Google Play Music app so it will be interesting to see how well a stand alone app is received. I imagine Pandora and Spotify will be following the results closely.

Apple adds background audio support for watchOS apps

There wasn’t much podcast related news at WWDC this year. The headline figure is that Apple now has 555,000 active shows (of course it is still unclear how “active” is defined) which is up from 525,000 in April. I think they might have Anchor to thank for that boost in numbers. TechCrunch has a decent write up of the rest of the news.

There is one thing that doesn’t seem to have been widely reported that I think is the most interesting thing announced. With watchOS 5, third party developers can now play background audio on apps running on the Apple Watch. Which is a huge deal for podcast apps that aren’t made by Apple. Previously the APIs offered to third party developers were not enough to create even a half decent playback experience on the Watch (which is why you don’t see a Pandora or Spotify Watch app). For those who want to understand a little more, Marco Arment has detailed the reasons why building a podcast player on the phone was impossible with the previous versions. Now watchOS 5 addresses most of those concerns. It will be interesting to see if people want to use their watch for playing podcasts.

The video of the session “Creating Audio Apps for watchOS” from WWDC 2018 should be available soon.

RadioPublic Unbundles Episodes With New Feature: Stations

RadioPublic has continued the trend of episode unbundling with their latest feature: Stations. The idea is that you can provide a better discovery experience by grouping together episodes across a similar topic but from multiple podcasts. For example, one Station is called ‘Sports Discussion - reflect on recent games while at the gym’ which collects episodes from podcasts such as ‘Pardon My Take’, ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’ and ‘First Take’.

RadioPublic has offered a similar feature in the past called Podcast Playlists. With Playlists such as “New to podcasts?” that also grouped episodes into playlists based on similar topics (this feature now seems to have been removed from the iOS app at the time of writing). What makes Stations more exciting than Podcast Playlists is that while Podcast Playlists were a static collection of episodes, Stations will update automatically based on what you’ve listened to:

…we want to assure that when you press play on a station, you get content that’s right for you. By design, we’ll respect the show’s natural play order, if it’s a daily or an episodic show, we’ll play you the most recent (unless you’ve heard it, of course) or if it’s a serialized show, you’ll start at episode one (or pick up where you left off). The station will continue to cycle through all the shows on the station to always serve you fresh audio.

Podcasting hasn’t had a great ‘lean-back’ experience yet (that is, a listener can ‘just play something I like’ rather than choose, download, queue and play a specific episode) and my first impressions of Stations is that it is a great lean-back experience. And they have cleverly given a cue to listeners about when they might want to try each Station by giving them subtitles such as “Commute while catching up on current events” or “Eat lunch with a legend”.

Who is Stations for? I can think of three main use cases:

  1. A new listener who doesn’t know where to start but they know they like sports news

  2. A enthusiast listener who has listened to all their shows that week and is on the hunt for something new

  3. A social setting with more than one person. This one I’m particularly excited about; you often hear how podcasting ‘isn’t a social experience’ and I think that is true for two reasons: its difficult to just have audio as the only focus of a group situations and there is a lot of pressure on the person who plays the podcast to choose the right thing. Stations offers a way to play podcasts without the pressure of having to be the ‘DJ’ for the group.

Are there any problems though? I do wonder if podcast publishers have any concerns about Stations? Maybe it could be argued that episode unbundling is similar to what has happened to online publishing. Now it is no longer about the publication as a whole but about individual articles and who can make the most clickbait headlines for going viral on Facebook. But I don’t subscribe to that argument. With editorial curation this feels like a system for surfacing great content rather than just being about gaming an algorithm for short-term popularity.
But might there be other problems for publishers that I’m not considering?

The Kerfuffle About Podcast Charts

There has been a minor kerfuffle in the last few days about podcast charts. Podnews reported on a company that purportedly can get your podcast into the Apple podcast charts.

Charts are always going to be gamed. Anything that is essentially free publicity is going to attract those who want to exploit that for their own benefit. Publicists and journalists are often eager for any corroborating evidence to pad out their pitches and articles. Of course, for podcasts there is no central source for this kind of data. Apple has long been the dominant player and the Apple’s podcast charts have pretty much been the only stats in town that anyone can point to. (As an aside, I was pondering why they chose ‘hotness’ over just pure downloads for their chart? My guess is that they want to avoid the top of the chart being stale and to surface shows that have just launched but might not have huge download numbers yet. Keep things interesting y’know?)

Podtrac has tried to create its own charts but it also has its own problems. Firstly, remember that Podtrac have an ad sales business so they have their own agenda. They also lost much of their credibility when they were shown to be counting preloaded audio files as a download across all of iHeartMedia’a web properties. As Bill Simmons tweeted, Podtrac is an opt-in system that requires a publisher to alter how they deliver their content and many publishers, including The Ringer, don’t chose to do so.

It feels like there is an opportunity for someone to make a new chart based on downloads and then something like a ‘viral 50’ too. Spotify or Pandora or Google could provide an independent (-ish) chart easily. In fact, they could do it based on actual listening rather than downloads! But of course they don’t have very large podcast catalogs right now. And while being a part of the conversation around new shows and how they perform could be important, there might not be a clear correlation with making a podcast chart and increasing listeners that would warrant the expense of building out a chart system.

Something else I’ve been mulling over, what about episode-level charts? Forget podcasts, what are the most downloaded episodes this week? Would that be interesting for creators and listeners? What do you think the most downloaded episode of all time would be?

Why Has Google Decided To Not Build A Podcast App?

David Murphy, writing for Lifehacker, reports on his experience using the new Android experience for downloading and managing podcasts. Other descriptors used in the above article include ‘crude’ and ‘curious’. But I think that is doing a disservice to Google and shows how we expect everything to be an app nowadays and we get confused at things that blur that line.

One of the many clever things about the iPhone was the app-ification (yuck) of every function on the phone. To make a phone call, you used an app .This meant that making a phone call was just one function of the mini computer you were carrying. Nowadays we assume everything must be an app, which might explain why Mr Murphy felt Google’s podcast experience was ‘curious’. Google has opted to not make a podcasting app but instead extract its functions into the web browser and the operating system. The weakness of the app paradigm is that the user needs to know which app does what and where to find it. To listen to a podcast, the user needs to know what a podcast is, know where to find the app and know to open it and how to search for a podcast once there are there. If you move away from that, you might be able to provide more continuity of service if you can merge searching, playback, sharing and surface podcasts as an option when people are searching for specific information.

The other thing to consider is that as voice controls and smart speakers become more prevalent, we move away from an app-centric (yuck again) experience. If you ask your Google Home to play NPR, do you care if it comes from NPR One or Spotify or the Google podcast app? With voice I think we move away from the idea that there is a ‘podcast app’ and towards the idea that it is just ‘Google playing my podcast’ and seamlessly integrates and syncs with my computer, phone and smart speaker. And this is key if Google are going to ‘double the audience’ for podcasting (as they have stated). They aren’t going to hit that goal by explaining how to use an app. They are going to get there by offering the most convenient way to listen to people who aren’t already listening.

Pocket Casts Addresses Acquisition Concerns

Pocket Casts addressed some of their customer concerns over their recent acquisition by NPR, WNYC, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life. They included a paragraph from the new CEO, Owen Grover:

Our commitment to build an open platform stems directly from the mission-driven approach of our public radio partners — and we promise to ALWAYS respect your privacy. We also promise to take bold leaps with great new features that help you find your next favorite podcast, and most of all, have FUN!

The whole thing is worth a read, but the meat of it is this: the public radio consortium want to own a significant distribution channel so they can influence the podcast industry to keep it an open ecosystem and defend against the likes of Pandora, Stitcher, and Spotify.

In a previous post I took the position of devil’s advocate and tried to argue why the centralization of podcasting might be good. I still try and keep open mind about the open vs centralized debate. My main problem with the open side of the argument is that the most vocal proponents are those who are already successful in the industry so of course they don’t want it to change. What about the new talent and aspiring podcasters? How do they feel about the current state of affairs? Having spent so long listening to and thinking about podcasts I find it very easy to forget what the experience is like for the new-comer who wants to know how to listen to a podcast.

I think in the next few years we are going to see more innovation and attempts to win over listeners and creators from Apple, Pandora, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Spotify, and Anchor. And I’m pretty excited about it.

Why NPR Acquired Pocket Casts

Shifty Jelly, makers of Pocket Casts, today announced a ‘partnership’ with a consortium of public radio organizations including NPR, WNYC, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life. In a press release, NPR call it an outright ‘acquisition’:

Today, four of the top podcast producers – NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago, and This American Life – announced the acquisition of Pocket Casts, a leading podcast app. This unprecedented collaboration furthers public radio’s leading role as an innovator in audio discovery and distribution, while ensuring the continued support and growth of one of the most popular listening platforms on the market.

Why would a group of top tier pubic radio organizations want to buy a small podcast app? Let’s try and unpick this and figure out why this makes sense. Here is a grab bag of some theories I have:

First, we’ve seen a general move for companies in the podcast space to become ‘full stack’. That is, to expand to operate in each part of the value chain: creation, publishing, monetization and playback. Look at E.W. Scripps who own Midroll, Earwolf and Stitcher. Or Pandora who own Adswizz and Deezer. So keeping up with the competition to stay relevant seems wise. Also, they have seen print publishers squeezed by Google and Facebook because they didn’t own the means of distribution so this is a bet against that.

Second, being able to insert whatever data reporting they want into the player means they will have a much clearer picture of how ads are performing and can provide that data back to the larger advertisers who are more interested in brand awareness than direct response ads. NPR has an initiative called Remote Audio Data, which hasn’t had much written about it publicly and they’ve had trouble getting RAD adopted by any of the major podcast apps. It specifies how a player can send back notifications to the server when certain parts of an episode plays. This will surely be the first thing they implement in Pocket Casts.

Third, Android. Android is probably the biggest opportunity in podcasting right now. The audience is fragmented over many different apps and it has a huge install base. Along with Google not making really any moves to own podcasts on Android, this leaves the door open for someone to break out and have the ‘go to’ podcast app on Android. I’ve seen some stats that put Pocket Casts around 5-7% of Android listening and NPR One at 5%. So right off the bat they would have around 10-12% of Android listening combined.

Fourth, a nice complement to NPR One. I’ve seen some people questioning whether these two apps make sense together and whether Pocket Casts would become more like NPR One. My take is that they are different enough to exist together. NPR One is a focused, personalized experience for superfans of NPR. Pocket Casts is a general consumer app for everyone with the whole podcast catalogue available.

One thing that caught my eye from NPR press release is that the new CEO of Pocket Casts is from commercial, not public, radio:

Audio veteran Owen Grover will serve as CEO of Pocket Casts. Grover previously served as Executive Vice President and General Manager at iHeartRadio, and before that as Vice President of Programming and Marketing at Clear Channel Music & Radio

I expect that we’ll see a pretty aggressive expansion plans from Pocket Casts in future.

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