Why is it hard to discover good podcasts?

Podcasts are a thing right now. We know that, because since the success of Serial and more recently S-Town, everyone has told us so. Which is a good thing for podcasts and the people who make them, right? 

Well, not necessarily. iTunes, the way most people get their audio pod hit, delivers around 60% of all podcasts. It’s also the biggest podcast directory, the one which most other podcast apps use to stock their virtual shelves. Because ‘Apple Podcasts’, the recently rebranded iTunes Podcast Directory, along with other podcast delivery apps, doesn’t actually host the audio files that you listen to. It merely uses the .rss feed supplied by the podcast producer to point your device at the file, which usually resides on an audio hosting site such as Soundcloud, Libsyn or audioBoom

The problem with finding a podcast which talks about the stuff you like is that podcasts contain some of the most hidden content on the internet. Unlike text articles, search engines haven’t yet devised a way of scraping the data from podcasts to serve it up as search results. And since Google et al can’t serve ads into the articles as they do with all other content, they don’t have any major incentive to figure out how to do so. 

Also, the Apple Podcast store has a famously lousy search facility. It’s fine if you know the name of the podcast you want to listen to, but not so good if you want to discover shows about a topic you’re interested in. Our show, Remaniacs, hosted by audioBoom, is about the repercussions around Brexit, but despite launching it a couple of weeks before the General Election it didn’t show up in any searches on iTunes. It wasn’t until we added ‘Brexit’ to the title that listeners could find us. 

So, one of the major barriers to podcast discovery is search. So much so that lots of people have had a crack at devising their own podcast recommendation services, some more interesting than others. RadioPublic has a curation option and playlists put together by their experts, Breaker does something similar, and NPR One is a combination of top NPR stories and interesting stuff from outside the organisation. And most interestingly, the people at audiosear.ch are working on an audio scraping search facility that can tell what’s being said in the podcast alongside a curation facility. However, these apps and startups are US based with a US focus, which, for the British listener, freezes out a lot of interesting homegrown content. 

How can a UK-focused podcast get the word out there, and conversely how can a Brit listener find shows that pronounce ‘tomato’ properly? The best way is by word of mouth, either from your friends, or people you trust – by which I mean other podcasts. I produce the Backlisted podcast, a show about old books presented by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller from crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. Our audience was growing steadily and by November 2015, a year after we launched, we had a respectable five thousand plays a month (according to stats provided by Soundcloud, which hosts the podcast audio). It then got a glowing mention on the New York Times Book Review podcast, and immediately shot up to over twelve thousand plays a month. Listeners obviously like it, since rather than falling back the figures have increased month on month, but the NYT mention gave it that extra boost and in May we posted our highest ever numbers of over twenty thousand plays across the month. 

This success has been helped by an ever increasing number of back editions – old books, as long as they’re in print, are perhaps the most ‘long tail’ subject ever.  Nevertheless it shows that if your show is recommended by a trusted voice, it’s still one of the best ways to grow an audience.

However, there might be good news on the horizon. Apple recently announced the release of audience data for podcasts in the next iOS rollout – a move which many in the industry have been calling for repeatedly over the last decade.  The podcast world is excited about what this might mean for revenue streams – more accurate data being something that the advertising industry constantly asks for every time a podcast producer tries to get them to place an ad in a show. Apple’s own data is likely to be finer-grained and more trusted than the data we can get from the less well-known audio hosts.

And, as Melody Kramer has pointed out, if the data is also made available to third parties, such as podcast apps, it will revolutionise the way people can discover podcasts. If, as Kramer suggests, you want to find the latest podcast discussing a certain news topic, you can search on ‘show me podcasts in this category that came out within the past week’. If on the other hand you want to find podcasts that people really enjoy, you can search on ‘Show me podcast episodes that at least 80% of people have listened to all the way through.’

This kind of search facility would be a major step change in the industry. Until then, have you listened to any good podcasts recently?

Matt is a podcast producer and founder of Anmama Ltd. He makes, thinks about, and speaks on podcasting.

Image courtesy of Patrick Breitenbach, made available under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

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