It’s Still Not So Easy to Listen to a Podcast

At several of the Tuesday sessions at Podcast Movement in Philadelphia, there was much discussion about how to increase the number of people listening to podcasts.  The word "podcasts" is well known, but the latest Edison Research data shows only 17% of Americans are listening to podcasts.  Or, to put it another way, 83% of Americans are not listening to podcasts.

Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX said, it is incumbent to "reduce friction between the content and the listener."  

Edison's Tom Webster showed focus group video illustrating the gap between knowing the word "podcasts" and finding and choosing to listen. Webster warned that growth is slow and suggested that it is not easy to get people started with podcasting.  The learning curve can be challenging. In addition to finding an app ("I have an app on my phone?"), and discovering content, there are questions about how mainstream most podcast content offerings are. Webster suggested producers focus on the mainstream content that moves the needle in other media including TV and video.  He is right. 

The theme is unmistakable.  It is still not so easy to listen to podcasts.

Recently I posted about the many real world challenges that impede the growth of podcasting.  I post it here again as Podcast Movement is underway. It is a cautionary reminder that the two great motivators - ease of use and magnetic content - remain elusive for millions of potential podcast listeners. 


Originally posted 5/29/18

As podcasting grows, there is a false narrative that the ease and usability of listening to podcasts has been addressed and solved.

Indeed there have been improvements in various apps, and the advent of smart speakers is exciting, but many "average consumers" are still baffled with how to find and listen to podcasts.


I was at a party recently when the subject of podcasts came up and here are some things heard from people of all ages:

“My podcast app doesn’t work” 

Several people told me their Apple Podcasts app wasn't working. They were right.  The cellular data default is "off," rendering the app essentially useless unless it is in a WIFI zone. 

I can’t tell when the podcasts have downloaded on the Apple Podcasts app

True.  Neither can we.  Sometimes the cloud icon appears, other times the “+” icon.  Podcasts download automatically at times, and other times, mysteriously do not.  I’m sure someone knows why, but it really doesn’t matter. If the podcast isn't downloaded and ready at the moment an individual chooses to listen, the opportunity may pass. We expect our apps to work with little fuss and friction. The Apple app still needs work on reliability and navigability.  

“If I hit ‘subscribe,’ does it mean I am paying?” 

“Subscribe” has always been a confusing word for a free podcast.  I subscribe and pay for Netflix, magazines (fewer …), and Sirius/XM. Indeed, I "subscribe" to some free newsletters. Maybe it’s just the act of downloading something and not paying that causes confusion and caution. Regardless, commitment to a show is an issue, and we are seeing fewer people actually subscribe vs. stream.

There are already more podcasts than there have ever-been movies

“How do I know which podcasts are worth my time?”

Probably the most asked question.  No easy solution here. Discoverability for people with busy lives is still one of podcasting’s most vexing issues for listeners and producers.  There are 467,000 movies in the IMDB database, and at last count, more than 525,000 podcasts in iTunes. Which means, there are already more podcasts than there have ever-been movies. Garnering attention and matching an audience with a podcast is challenging.  A lot of mediocre content has a megaphone which draws attention, while some great content remains in obscurity.  Many people don't have the inclination to be that involved in thinking about and selecting podcasts.

“Does this thing hook up to my car?”

In-car listening is still not easy for most.  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in new cars is a tremendous improvement.  Alexa and Google integration into vehicles is on the horizon and will likely make all audio choice more simple - or overhelming.  Many people are not technically inclined; some have been burned by ridiculously difficult car interfaces, or just don’t care enough to struggle with connectivity. The arc to ease of use in the car is a long process given that the average car is 11 years old.  

“No, I don’t have a podcasts app on my phone” – said with certainty

 This one is my favorite. I ask for their phone and show it to them.  "Oh!"



In 2015, the great tech columnist Walter Mossberg said “podcasts are just too hard to listen to, and it isn’t your fault."  That still feels right today.

This video was recorded right around the time Serial was released.

"This American Life's" Ira Glass released a clever video a few years ago, which still resonates today, in which his friend Mary describes how easy it is to listen to a podcast.

To grow, not only does podcast content need to be compelling, but the friction of discovery and usability need to be improved.  While there are many bold initiatives, the graveyard is loaded with apps and ideas that never gained traction. It's still an Apple world, and hopefully Google is on the horizon.

If you think finding and playing podcasts is easy, think about friends and family who have smart phones and no idea how to change the ring (or mute the phone), or they watch Netflix on devices because they can't figure how to get it on their TV.

Ease of use counts.  It most certainly has played a large role in the rapid ascention of smart speakers.  Voice is simple.  

"The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife" - David Ogilvy, 1955

Ad legend David Ogilvy

Ad legend David Ogilvy

Your friends, family and acquaintances are not idiots - mostly. To paraphrase the great ad man David Ogilvy in 1955, "The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife."

While today that may sound a bit sexist, his next sentence offers prescient advise for a digital world: 

"You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

"Convenience decides everything" - Ev Williams, Co-founder; Twitter

Podcasting is not past the "ease-of-use" phase.  Podcasters must teach, educate, and illustrate to bring more people into the tent.  

In the latest Jacobs Media Techsurvey, the top reason people listen to AM/FM radio is "easiest to listen to in the car." That's a dangerous "ice cube melt" for radio, but a reminder that people gravitate to simple and easy.  Hit a button and it works.  

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams reminds us "convenience decides everything." 

I wouldn't bet against that.