2013: The Year of Podcasts

Podcasting has been around since the early 2000s, and it has undergone a massive amount of change since then. The mobile industry itself has seen change — gone are the iPods and Creative MP3 players, replaced by the dominance of smartphones. While the iPhone doesn’t hold the lion’s amount of market share that the iPod did, it has been enough to catapult both podcast clients and podcasts themselves to a completely new level. In 2013, we saw just how utterly successful that market has become.

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Background

There are podcast networks. Some — TWiT and 5by5 — are independent of any larger media conglomerate. These are the networks that typically are faster to move; they are faster to release apps, faster to add (and remove!) shows, and faster to simply adapt to a change in the market. As such, these networks have grown as a result of the high level of smartphone saturation, as they have begun to focus on either mobile technology itself, or the growing number of niches that are opened up by people with wider access to the shows.

5by5 is an excellent podcast network that includes shows on a variety of topics.

5by5 is an excellent podcast network that includes shows on a variety of topics.

Other networks are backed by larger corporations or conglomerates, and these do not seem as agile. They have still been immensely successful due to the high amount of exposure their shows receive, as well as the vast number of people using podcast clients.

Both of these approaches tend to rely on advertising to cover the cost of production and distribution, as well as to turn a profit. The only exceptions exist as a way to promote a website or brand, as is seen with The Vergecast.

What Changed with Apps?

On the iPhone — which is where I am focusing — the largest change came as a result of iOS 7. The new operating system brought a complete redesign, which forced literally every app that hoped to stay relevant to update its design. More importantly, at least for podcast clients, were the APIs that iOS 7 introduced. For the first time in the iPhone’s history, apps could be automatically refreshed, or even activated in the background to download a new episode.

The podcasts directory offers a far more pleasing browsing experience compared to the previous version.

Pocket Casts is an excellent example of how powerful an iOS 7 app can be.

This immediately shook up the playing field for podcast clients. As such, Pocket Casts — which was released as a completely new version and not just as an update — essentially became the de facto podcast app on iOS. It supports both the iPhone and the iPad, will stream and download audio and video podcasts, and does it all with a fantastic design. Pocket Casts is still, in my opinion, the most feature-rich option available. You can read our excellent review of it here.

What else changed? Apple’s presence in the podcast world seems to be shrinking. It removed podcast functionality from the stock music app, and instead offers its own podcast client that ties into the iTunes Store through the App Store. While millions still likely choose this option, it seems clear that Apple has decided to support podcasts, but from a distance.

Arment's Overcast is coming soon, and it promises to be a fantastic podcast client.

Arment’s Overcast is coming soon, and it promises to be a fantastic podcast client.

This single move has left a void for other developers to fill. Marco Arment, a notable iOS app developer most often remembered as the creator of Instapaper, announced in September that he was working on his own podcast client, named Overcast. Given his record as an excellent — if somewhat controversial — developer, many are looking to his app to become the best podcast client for iOS. Overcast, as of this writing, has not been released.

Castro's claim to fame is in its simplicity and ease-of-use.

Castro’s claim to fame is in its simplicity and ease-of-use.

Arment’s app isn’t the only one making an entrance into the podcast client game. Castro, an app I recently reviewed, is simply excellent. It sheds some of the more niche features found in Pocket Casts, and instead uses a simple design to allow users to get where they want faster.

Podcast clients are in a state of flux. The combination of iOS 7 being released and Apple moving out of the podcast space have created a much more vibrant market that, as we head in to 2014, seems likely to only expand.

What Changed with the Shows?

The podcast networks continued to put out high-quality content. 5by5 — one of my personal favorites — seemed to pull away from strictly personality-based podcasts, and find more niches that focus on a specific area or topic. This means that they have pulled away from technology in some cases.

TWiT has continued to push out shows based around technology topics and the personality of its founder, Leo Laporte. These have continued to be successful, and remain high-quality and among the best thanks to TWiT’s studio.

TWiT, as a network, covers the technology industry, with host Leo Laporte at the helm of most shows.

TWiT, as a network, covers the technology industry, with host Leo Laporte at the helm of most shows.

Both 5by5 and TWiT have ramped up their coverage of daily news. It will be interesting to see how this affects their respective business models, and how well they can use the iPhone to tap into a larger market with timely updates about the day’s news.

The larger trend has been in independent podcasts. While the majority of podcasts are still associated with a network or as an offshoot of a website, there has also been a trend towards “indie” podcasts produced by iOS or Mac developers, or other people that are prominent in the mobile industry.

These podcasts are supported by advertisements, and generally see a high amount of listener feedback and input (as seen by the inclusion of “feedback and updates” segments on many of these programs). The podcast gets popular by both the influence of their hosts or the support of the audience. Probably the best example of this is the Accidental Tech Podcast with John Siracusa, Marco Arment, and Casey Liss.

Looking Forward

With the amount of momentum the podcast space has — particularly in the technology sector — 2014 is going to be another big year. I hope to see more innovation within the apps themselves as the year progresses and the competition to have the best iOS app heats up. I also hope to see the shows mix things up: there seems to be a formula that some of the shows (particularly on TWiT’s network) follow. This formula works, but perhaps it doesn’t work as well for every subject or topic as it could.

Podcasting became one of my favorite forms of media in 2013. It’s easy to consume, and it’s easy to walk away from. You play it on your own schedule, and the news is usually very informative. As 2014 rolls around, I suggest anyone that is even remotely interested in podcasts to download a client, do some searches for the best podcasts out there, and to give the medium a shot.