The podcast industry is booming, with $314M in ad revenues in 2017 and projected ad revenues of $659M by 2020. It still has a long way to go to catch up to the $18B radio ad market, but as anybody who listens to podcasts understands, the listening experience is infinitely greater. The biggest improvement is the freedom in what to listen; you get to choose what to listen to, whenever you feel like it. There are less ads on podcasts, and if you’re diligent, you can even skip them. You can adjust the speed of the podcast, or rewind if you missed a key point. Radio ad revenue is stagnating while podcast ad revenue is skyrocketing, and given the superior experience of podcasts, it is safe to say that podcasts are the future.
Podcast listeners quickly become podcast evangelists. I personally recommend podcasts more than anything else to my friends, and I do so fervently. Almost everybody who listens to podcasts on a consistent basis will rave about what an intimate experience it is. FDR famously utilized the power of the radio, JFK the TV, and Obama and Trump social media. I’m not saying podcasts will reach the same heights as those other mediums, and in fact, I’m skeptical it ever will, but listening to podcasts is certainly a unique experience. After listening to podcasts long enough, you develop a certain connection with podcast hosts. Even though you don’t personally know them, they start to feel like your friends. You hear them casually chat with other people and sometimes, they talk about intimate things, in the same way that you would with a friend. Bill Simmons, Joe Rogan, and Tim Ferriss, to name a few, have all mentioned this phenomenon, where listeners would come up to them and talk to them as if they were long-time friends. Of course, the podcast host has no idea who the fuck you are, but the stranger approaching the host forgets that. The stranger has been listening to that same host over the course of hundreds of episodes and sometimes, they know the host even better than many of their friends. Many other podcast hosts have noted how great podcasts are at communicating empathy (a loaded term at this point, but I can’t think of any other, maybe compassion, but that doesn’t sound right either). This American Life is probably the best podcast out there for doing so. Maybe this will change as the podcast industry grows larger, but right now, podcasts foster a connection in a way that only the best movies and TV shows do. Perhaps it comes from the fact that you can listen to podcasts wherever you are; you can listen to it while washing the dishes, while walking around a park, or on your monotonous commute to work. Regardless of why podcasts are so effective, the key point is that it is. Celebrities have recognized that and either started their own, or started going on other people’s, Bernie Sanders being the most prominent politician to start his own.
That was all just a long preamble to describe the explosive growth in the podcast industry and the importance of podcasts to its listeners, which brings me to my question: why doesn’t Apple improve their podcasts app? I’m honestly confused. Apple as an organization prizes design above all else. Its superiority in design and recognizing things consumers didn’t even know they wanted is what led to the advent of the iPhone. This is the same company that got rid of earphone jacks. Yet, when it comes to podcasts, an industry that Apple created by the way, its design is anachronistic. Compare the difference between Apple’s podcast app (left) and Overcast (right), the podcast that I use.
Apple’s podcast player has much less functionality. People who regularly listen to podcasts generally prize one thing above all others: the ability to listen to as many podcast episodes as possible. In Overcast, the user is given a sliding scale to adjust the speed of the episode to find a speed that is most comfortable. Apple’s app, comparatively only has 4 options: 0.5x, 1x, 1.5x, or 2x. This is extremely frustrating for me because for many of the podcasts I listen to, 1.5x is too slow and 2x is a little too fast. I’d prefer something in between. I’m sure many others have the same complaints or similar ones between 1x and 1.5x. Overcast also gives you the option of Smart Speed, which reduces the length of silences and Voice Boost, which tries to equilibrate volume. And, Overcast lets you change the time of the skip forward and skip back buttons, which is really useful in skipping ads. There are many more nitpicky features that I won’t get into such as Smart Resume, Smart Playlists, and on and on.
I’m not saying Apple should bring all of those features to its app, but a company that prizes design above all else should recognize that consumers would at least want a sliding scale of playing speed. Smart Speed, Voice Boost, and changing the length of the skip forward and skip back buttons would also be nice-to-have features. Apple’s market share of the podcast market is probably around 50% at this point. Its market share has steadily decline throughout the years, though that’s driven mostly by the Android market. Nevertheless, the inferiority of its podcast player certainly can’t help. Apple is able to maintain such a large share simply because it is the default player on iPhones; the power of defaults is strong indeed. But, as the podcast industry grows, people, especially the heaviest consumers, are going to look for a better listening experience. Podcast consumers are generally highly-prized consumers too. They’re younger and richer than the generally population, which means many are rich, highly-educated millennials, the crown jewel of the advertising industry. Their data is very valuable and given the intimate experience of podcasts, as mentioned earlier, I’d argue that the data is very accurate. Now, I’m not well-versed in whether Apple collects general data from its podcast app, so correct me if I’m wrong, but given the importance of artificial intelligence in the coming years, and its ravenous data needs, podcast data should be very valuable to Apple.
Even if the data point is moot, there are still other ways for Apple to monetize its app. At least part of Patreon’s revenue comes from podcasts. Apple has a very large consumer base and its podcast hosts are always looking for ways to monetize. Apple could create a membership option for podcasts that would give creators another revenue stream and the option to create premium content for subscribers. Apple would of course get a cut, like Patreon currently does. Having that option built into the Apple podcast app would result in higher rates of adoption, since users wouldn’t have to go onto another app. The additional revenue would further spur the podcast industry, which would further incentivize larger players, both advertisers and hosts, to come into the space.
So, back to the question in the title: why doesn’t Apple improve its podcast app? I’m not really sure. At the very least, there are some bare-bones improvements that it could easily make to reduce the amount of users leaving the app. There are also improvements that it could make that might increase the already explosive growth of the industry, which would also create a new revenue stream for Apple. Maybe it views that stream as a tiny brook, but a company that prizes design above all else should at least strive to live up to its reputation.