The changing podcast experience: podcast tech for listeners

You’d think that the podcast scene was new, with all of the amazing innovation that’s going on in the space. Well, it’s not really, podcasts have been around since the early 00’s. The thing is, back then they were very, very niche, and clunky. Digital distribution, production technology and the viral effect has pushed podcasts (and podcasting) into the mainstream, sort of, which in turn sets off a chain reaction in innovative startups and services that hope to make the medium even more efficient and accessible.

While there’s plenty going on behind the microphone, so to speak, today I want to look at innovation on the user’s side. Production is key: the easier podcasts are to make and distribute, the greater the quality and selection available. The greater the quality and selection available, the broader the appeal. And the broader the appeal, the more funding for the production. But, digging deeper, the impact of a broad appeal is coming up against some obstacles. Or rather, new distribution and production technologies have made podcasting one of the most exciting mediums available. But there are still some important barriers that impede an even wider fan base, barriers that get in the way of the user experience and discovery. If we can solve those, podcast growth will accelerate.

Enter: a few new startups and services that hope to do just that.

Let’s look at the problems one by one, and at their potential solutions.

  • Podcasts are very platform-centric.

Apple’s podcast app, which comes bundled into all recent versions of IOS, dominates podcast reproduction, with about 70% of the market. But it’s unlikely that they’ll hold onto that market dominance for long. Rumours abound that Google is about to launch its own native podcast player which will be included in newer versions of Android. Meanwhile, apps such as Stitcher, Pocket Casts and Podcast Addict help Android users to find, store and reproduce episodes. Spotify now includes podcasts in its (relatively) new “Shows” section which went live this January, and Pandora is moving into podcasts with the streaming of Serial’s second season. Easier access will spread mobile podcast listening to other devices and platforms.

podcast tech

screenshot from Pocket Casts

  • Podcasts are very mobile-centric.

Edison Research’s recent report on podcast consumption points out that 64% of respondents listened to podcasts on their mobile devices in the first two months of this year, up from 55% for the same period last year. While the growth is impressive, the figure still looks low to me. One of the most attractive things about podcasts, in my opinion, is the ability to listen to them while on the move: heading to meetings, doing the grocery shopping, walking the dog. Audio is one of the few mediums you can enjoy while “on the move”, so mobile devices are the perfect hardware for transmission.

Those who don’t listen on the mobile get their audio from the desktop, a legacy habit which may sound strange until you realise that iTunes Podcast player has only been around for 10 years (and has only been bundled in the operating system since IOS8). Of course, when cars get in-built podcast platforms, with easy access and selection (so far listening in your car involves flaffing about with BlueTooth connections, or quite a lot of search-and-click-and-repeat), “mobile-centric” will take on a new meaning.

  • Podcast content is not searchable.

Type a search term in Google, and you get access to articles, websites and even research papers about your chosen topic. Given that podcasts offer such an increasing breadth and depth of interesting information, wouldn’t it be great to be able to search their content as well? Chapters lets podcasters add content identifiers, sort of like an index, to their podcast, which makes it so much easier to find the bit that you’re interested in. Smab, a startup (still in beta) based in my home country of Spain, transcribes podcasts into searchable text. If the podcast and text files are hosted on Smab’s platform, a user can click on a word in the transcribed text, and be taken directly to that point in the podcast.

podcast tech smab

screenshot of smab.audio

Pop Up Archive will convert any uploaded podcast into time-stamped text, tag it, and allow editing. The texts can be embedded alongside the podcast itself, and easily shared on Twitter. The company has created Audiosearch to archive text versions of audio content, and to bundle that with iTunes charts and download figures to create a comprehensive data source of podcast content and reach. DeepGram’s audio search completely bypasses the need to transcribe (although it can do that, too) and uses artificial intelligence to recognize speech, pulling out from video and audio the spoken word that you’re looking for.

podcast tech transcripts

screenshot of Pop Up Archive

  • Podcast content is not shareable.

Back in the day, YouTube content was available on YouTube. Now, most video viewing is done through embeds, with users accessing YouTube’s platform without leaving the social media/chat/blog post that they happen to be on. When we have a similar function for podcasts, the potential spread of the medium will extend to all web users. Right now it’s relatively simple to share an entire podcast, but not snippets. Clammr hopes to change that, with its record function which lets users share clips of up to 24 seconds long on social media, via email or embedding into webs and posts. Soundclouds’ embed feature makes podcasts more shareable, and has recently been extended to include audio clips. The platform goes further by including its commenting feature, through which podcast listeners can comment at any point in the audio they wish.

Some podcast producers are experimenting with tweeting clips or embedding podcasts on Facebook (as a shareable static video). But the clips are not user-generated, the sharing is orchestrated by the network. WYNC has been experimenting with “audiograms”, which turn podcast clips into a video file with a static image. These can then be easily shared on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

  • Podcasts are not interactive.

True, most shows are on-demand, and audio-only, which makes interaction impossible (or at best, impractical). As with all things media, however, innovative ideas are running with the notion that we need to interact and giving us the tools to do so.

ZCast is the first example I’ve seen that allows live listener interaction. The platform allows you to stream your podcast as you’re recording it, and listeners can chime in via chat. Direct, live interaction.

Anchor, which launched just over a month ago, takes the interaction a step further, by inviting listeners to chime in with their voice. Anyone with a smartphone can record a 2-minute clip, and start a debate that other users can continue with their own audio clips. Almost like a Twitter for audio? Not really, more like a public conversation. Here’s an engrossing example, on the resurgence of vinyl LPs:

Podcast tech Anchor

screenshot from Anchor

Remarks (also released a few weeks ago) lets users comment and interact around any podcast, via messages, links or even gifs, and gives the host a forum to chat directly with listeners.

  • Podcasts and multimedia don’t mix.

Do you know the concept of the “second screen”, where fans of a TV series can interact on a website with each other as well as with the series’ stars and producers, and have access to additional info? Something similar is being played with in the podcast space. The ultra-famous podcast Serial has gone as far to commission special artwork for each episode in its currently-running second season, and posts these, along with relevant texts, photos and other audio files, on the show’s website. An iconic podcast becomes a full-immersion media experience.

podcast tech multimedia Serial

artwork from Serial

TapeWrite, still in beta, not only hosts your podcast, but allows you to add visuals and text at certain points along the track. These appear as a type of “card”, adding multimedia context.

podcast tech

screenshot of TapeWrite

— x —

I’m sure that there are even more problems that I haven’t thought of, and solutions that deserve a mention. I’ll come back to this topic as I learn more, but for now I leave you with a glimmer of awe for the potential usefulness, enjoyment and creativity surrounding the audio sector. And hopefully with a sense of excitement at having been there when podcasts took off.

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