Podcasts have taken over the world, and if you haven’t been listening to, say, The Peak TV Avalanche or our pro-wrestling podcast McMahonsplaining, or Celebration Rock, where rock stars and music critics talk about the artistic direction rock is heading in, you’re missing out. And once you run through every one of those podcasts, you should find others. But which app should you use?
Well, it turns out, that’s a complicated question. There’s no one podcast app that’s really gotten it right, that mixes great controls, easy search, excellent discovery tools, and playing podcasts the way you want to rather than the way the company that owns the app wants you to. Or, rather, there is one, but we’re nervous about its future.
SoundCloud is the haven for most podcasters and in some ways the perfect site for podcasts. The streaming is fast, the search and discovery tools are wonderful, and it has, by far, the best controls of any podcast app. Especially handy is that you can see the waveform when you’re rewinding with your finger, so it’s easier to find the exact spot you want to go back to.
Unfortunately, as we all know, SoundCloud is struggling to stay afloat, even if Chance the Rapper has saved it for now. So it may not be a reliable app for long, although hopefully if it does succumb to its financial troubles, somebody will pick up the banner.
Stitcher is an interesting entry in the podcast world. It’s an attempt to organize podcasts along the lines of radio, with a focus on news and informative podcasts. It also has an interesting discovery feature, not unlike that of NPR One’s ongoing stream of content from its archives and various new items, that puts together content without syncing it, so you get a constant stream of stuff you’re interested in. As a result, it’s got a surprisingly broad collection of podcasts to listen to, albeit it’s going to ding your data plan, as you can’t download, although it does offer an “offline” mode with a generous buffer.
That said, finding podcasts can be a bit of a chore; Stitcher’s user interface could be more friendly. And the controls aren’t quite up to SoundCloud standards; you only get a play/pause button, a thirty-second rewind or fast forward, and the ability to scrub forward or backward.
On the surface, Google Play seems to have it all. It comes preloaded on your Android phone, there’s an entire podcast section, and everybody uploads to Google, right? And it is fairly effective, with a broad selection and decent download and streaming speeds, although Apple just had to throw a wrench in the works and prevent podcasts being played on iPhone or iPad.
That said, actually finding podcasts is much harder than it needs to be. Google’s brilliant search is crippled in order to try and sell you things; even when you’re in the podcast section of the app, it will keep trying to redirect you to music, and when you get your search term entered, you’ll have to scroll through radio stations and musicians that vaguely match your term before you find the podcast you were looking for… amid a pile of other podcasts with vaguely similar titles. It could also stand to have better controls; you just get the basic buttons and nothing else.
As the company that created the “pod” in “podcasting” you’d think Apple would be ahead of the curve here. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Much like Google Play, part of the problem is that iTunes is driven by what Apple wants, not what the user wants. Apple is far more interested in getting you to sign up for Apple Music and watch Planet of the Apps than serving up podcasts, and it shows, especially with its shockingly bad streaming and frustrating process for adding a “third party” podcast, which literally has not changed in more than a decade. You will still be entering podcast feed URLs, syncing your device, and all the stuff other apps have left behind.
That said, the sound quality is excellent and at least the downloads are quick, and having iTunes’ organizational tools handy is nice to keep your podcasts orderly. But little has changed since podcasting first took off, in iTunes, and Apple needs to step up its game.
Audible would seem to have it all: The backing of Amazon, apps across the ecosystem, and even a whole bunch of unique podcasts they insist on calling “Audible Originals.” But in order to stream them, you need to be a member of Amazon Prime or subscribe to Audible, and they don’t feature podcasts outside their little walled garden. So if you have Prime for other reasons, it’s well worth seeing what Audible has, but if you don’t, it’s well behind the pack.
What’s your favorite podcast app? Let us know in the comments!