How to listen to podcasts: a 101 primer

I first started podcasting in 2011, which feels ages ago now, and it was because I was asked to. Someone had pitched me an idea for a podcast network, and I liked the people involved.

The idea had long intrigued me, but I had no idea how to dive in, so the idea of someone else handling all the editing, producing, posting on iTunes? Sign me up. So I did.

Back then, podcasts were still a new concept, listened to by a fringe of the internet. No longer.

1 out of every 5 Americans listens to a particular podcast at least every month. People who consider themselves podcast devotees average about five episodes per week.

So, it’s gotten much more popular. But—this means 4 out of 5 Americans still don’t listen to podcasts. And I still frequently hear questions and comments like, “What is a podcast, anyway?”, “I feel silly, but I don’t honestly know how to listen to them?”, and “I don’t know where to start?”

the simple show on phone

All fair, good questions. Here, I thought I’d do a little 101 on podcasts, so that if you’ve long wondered but weren’t sure to start, perhaps your questions will be answered. Or if you already know, you can point to here when someone asks you.

Here goes.

Q: What’s a podcast?

A: A podcast is an audio show, much like a radio show, except that you listen via the internet. In some ways, it’s the audio version of a blog. Anyone can make one—from major news outlets, like NPR, to individuals, like me.

Q: Are they free?

A: Yes, almost always. A few podcasters charge for extras, like bonus episodes or access to their archives, and some podcasts are are part of something else, like a monthly membership service you pay for. But 99% of the time, podcasts are free for you as a listener.

They’re not free to make, which is why many (including mine) take on sponsors.

Q: How do I find different podcasts?

A: It’s admittedly tricky. One logical place is the iTunes store—open the store, toggle the Podcasts category on the righthand side, and go from there.

itunes podcast search

But there are a LOT of podcasts in the world, and most of them aren’t easily found via iTunes (quick note: Apple’s algorithm favors well-reviewed podcasts, making them more visible—which is why it’s good practice to leave a quick review on iTunes for your favorite shows).

You can also Google for show recommendations, as many people have written lists of their favorite shows (like I did last fall, here).

But honestly? The honest-to-goodness best way to find a good show you like is to get a recommendation from a podcast-listening friend. People frequently talk about their favorite shows on social media, and you can start there, asking, “I want to give listening to podcasts a try. I like these topics: X, Y, and Z. Any recommendations on where to begin?”

Most podcasts (but not all) have dedicated websites, where you can also listen to episodes directly on their site. At minimum, they’ll have a link for where to go to subscribe in iTunes.

Q: Okay, what does that mean—“subscribe” to a podcast?

A: When you subscribe to a particular podcast, you’re asking for any future new episodes to be automatically sent to your listening device, so that you don’t have to remember to manually check if they’ve published a new episode.

It simply makes life easier for you, as a listener.

Q: How do I subscribe?

A: You can subscribe directly in your iTunes account, which means you can listen on your desktop/laptop or your mobile device.

In the native Podcasts app on iPhones, tap the Search button on the lower right, then search for a podcast—you can search for a direct name, or you can search for a topic. Either way, it’s finicky (see: Apple’s algorithm).

podcast app search subscribe

Once you find the one you’re after, tap on its show art, under Podcasts, then click the purple Subscribe button. It will then show up in your feed—the main My Podcasts section.

However—I don’t really use the native Podcasts app that comes on my phone, largely because of its sneaky search feature. It’s simply hard to find podcasts there.

For awhile, I used the Downcast app, but recently I started using Overcast because of all the good reviews. I won’t get into an app review here, but Overcast sold me on two features I hadn’t found elsewhere: Smart Speed and Voice Boost (deep dive here, if that’s your thing).

If you’d like to give it a try, download the Overcast app on your mobile device, then create an account (it’s free). It’ll first ask you if you want help finding podcasts, but the rest of the time, here’s how it works:

overcast app search subscribe

• Tap the plus sign in the top right corner. Use the search bar to find a podcast (I find their search much better; it’ll find shows based on show name, host name, or category).

• Tap on the show, then tap the giant orange Subscribe button. That’s it!

Q: How do I listen to an episode?

In most apps, you simply tap on the ‘play’ triangle symbol and it’ll start auto-playing for you (it might have to download an episode first, or it might ask you if you’d rather stream it).

podcast app play

In Overcast, tap on the episode name and it’ll reveal a dropdown menu with the play button.

On the native Podcasts app, you just tap on an episode, and it starts auto-playing.

Or, if you don’t yet want to subscribe to a show, you can often play an episode directly on the podcast’s site. Here, you can play any Simple Show episode by clicking on the Podcast tab in the top navbar, choosing an episode, then finding the area under “Listen in here”—it looks like this:

Listening to podcasts is ultimately one of those things that make more sense once you just try—more easily understood by doing than by reading about it. If this feels overwhelming, walk through the above, step by step, and listen to a few shows to get a feel for what you like.

The inspiration for this post has come from this month’s #Trypod movement, started last year by a few bigger podcast groups like NPR. They’ve seen the statistic of 1 out of 5 Americans listening to podcasts, and they thought—Let’s make that number higher. I’m down with that.

podcasts

Since the best way to find new shows is word of mouth, here’s a few I listen to, if you don’t want to start from zero.

• For book chat, try What Should I Read Next?, Literary Disco, Audio Book Club, or Longform.

• For political talk, try NPR Politics or Pantsuit Politics.

• For pop culture, try The Popcast or Pop Culture Happy Hour.

• For business stuff, try Online Marketing Made Easy, Fizzle, Being Boss, or Courage + Clarity.

• For life inspiration, try On Being, The Road Back to You, or The Slow Home.

• For travel, try Extra Pack of Peanuts, Zero to Travel, or Travel with Rick Steves.

• For good storytelling, try Invisibilia, Lore, Stuff You Missed in History Class, or Missing Richard Simmons (really).

• For parenting, try Inspired to Action, The Longest Shortest Time, or Read-Aloud Revival.

• For plain ol’ interesting chat about all sorts of things, try Sorta Awesome, The Lively Show, Happy Hour, Smartest Person in the Room, or Raise Your Hand Say Yes.

The Simple Show with Tsh Oxenreider

And of course, at The Simple Show, I talk books, travel, and life at home with my three co-hosts on rotation, and I honestly love creating it. We switched to this new format last fall, and my energy for podcasting increased tenfold. And according to feedback from y’all, you’re liking it, too. So… thank you. So much.

In honor of #Trypod, it’s now your turn! In the comments, share some of your favorite podcasts! Or if you have more questions about how to listen to them, add them and we’ll try to get them answered.

32 Comments

  1. Emily

    I recently started my own podcast, Churches Doing Cool Things, and, well, it is about what you would think, given the title. 🙂

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Fun, very descriptive name, Emily! 🙂

  2. Sheila

    What about Android phone users?

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I’m honestly not sure, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a native podcast app as well. Did one come on your phone by default?

      However—I’ve heard great things about Pocket Casts, so you might want to check it out! And if any Android user here has experience, maybe they can toss in some more $.02 in the comments. 🙂

      • Lisa

        I use DoggCatcher on my Android phone. I like to categorize my podcasts and also build and listen to multiple playlists.

      • Kate

        I use Podbean on my android phone and I love it. You can search by category or name and it gives recommendations based on what you have listened to.

  3. Susan

    Happier w/Gretchen Rubin and Elisabeth Craft is one of my faves.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      That’s a good one, too!

    • Marcia (OrganisingQueen)

      It’s my absolute favourite podcast – I’ve not missed a single show…ever and it truly does make me happier 🙂

  4. Eve

    Great list! I really enjoy: 99% invisible about alle kinds of design, history and other cool subjects. Also Thema West Wing Weekly about the great tv show. I never followed the show, but love hearing Josh Malina (also from Scandal) and Hrishikesh Hirway talk about it. Isn’t that werd 🙂 they have great Voicemail! Lastly The Mininalists about living a meaningfull live without less. Enjoy!

    • Eve

      Ahhhh Dutch autocorrect is the best ??

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I love 99% Invisible! Thanks for reminding me, Eve.

    • JH

      Thanks for the West Wing tip. I’m such a fan of the show but didn’t know about the podcast! Queuing it up now!

  5. Sarah M

    I am a podcast junkie. A couple of these (including yours) are some of my favorites, like On Being, Read Aloud Revival, Invisibilia, NPR Politics, and What Should I Read Next? but some of my other favorites are Radiolab and More Perfect, Fresh Air (I just choose by topic), Brains On! (science for kids), At Home, Hidden Brain, Hopewriters, Spilled Milk, Death Sex & Money, and although it’s not going on right now, Elise Gets Crafty. And those are just my favorites. HAH! Anytime I’m alone in the car…a podcast is on.

  6. Katheryn

    I love podcasts! I started listening in 2005. My favorites at the time were Manic Mommies (still miss this one), and Hamish and Andy (a hilarious Australian Duo that I still listen to). Now my favorites include The Popcast, The Simple Show, Smartest Person in the Room, Sorta Awesome, Presidential, What Should I Read Next, Serial, The Great Debates, and sometimes Another Mother Runner.

  7. Laura

    Just realised listening to podcasts is something I was ahead of the game on! (That rarely, if ever happens). I can’t remember how I found them but got hooked quickly! I used to get together with a friend to listen to the latest episode of our favourite podcast (the no longer in existence Joy the Baker podcast).

  8. Katie

    My current podcast line-up is: My Favorite Murder, Pop Rocket, One Bad Mother, Getting Curious, Slate Culture Gabfest, the Cracked Podcast, and Pop Culture Happy Hour!

  9. Katie

    I’m curious, are there any podcasts your kids enjoy?

    • Beth

      My kids have been loving The Sugar Crash Kids podcast! They have entertaining stories and fun songs. Haven’t found many for kids, anyone else have more recommendations??

      • Sara

        My kids enjoy Sugar Crash Kids. Some others they love are Brains On, Tumble Science, Short & Curly (philosophy for kids), The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian. That’s probably their top 5.

  10. Jane

    Oh gosh, you could have written this post just for me 😀 Sometimes I feel a bit out-of-it because I’ve never listened to a podcast. I love these sort of ‘assume I know nothing’ explanations. Thank you! I guess I need to invest in some headphones now.

  11. Corey

    This is a great post Tsh – I will be linking to it right away to help inform my readers as well about the ease and usefulness of getting in to Podcasts. And I’ll add a shameless plug here for Sexy Marriage Radio.

  12. Holly

    Still feeling a little inept… when you subscribe to a podcast, does it automatically download in your listening app, or does it download as you listen? I don’t care at home, but when driving I would care at least a little.

    • Laura

      I use the native iPhone app and it downloads new episodes of subscribed podcasts automatically. I have it set that podcasts can’t access data, only wifi, so I download at home and listen on the road!

  13. Holly

    Also, I’m totally in. I’ve never been a podcast listener (something about the word ‘podcast’ turns me off) but having recently added up the number of hours per week I spend driving my crew around, it seems like it’s time. Thanks for the 101.

  14. Preeti

    Thanks for this. I’ve recently started listening to podcasts & use Overcast as well after struggling with the Podcasts app on the iPhone. Currently on my list are Call Your Girlfriend, Gretchen Rubin, Young House Love, This American Life. All over the place 🙂 Added The Art of Simple now.

  15. Lori

    I love to find new podcasts! Thanks for the suggestions 🙂

  16. Kimberly Knowle-Zeller

    Thanks for this! For some reason I never understood how to subscribe to a podcast (or thought it was too difficult) but now I just subscribed and am ready to never miss a new episode! Thanks!

  17. Yasar

    Thank you so much for sharing these nice ideas & tips.
    Much appreciate it.

  18. Marcia (OrganisingQueen)

    There are two Irish podcasts I love – Roisin Meets…. and The Irish Times Women’s Podcast which have all sorts of interesting topics – politics, feminism, working women, relevant female topics……

    Susan Cain has 9 episodes of Quiet: the power of introverts which is AWESOME (and I’m not even an introvert)

    Myers Briggs fans? I recomment Personality Hacker

    Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar and of course, Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the thing…

  19. Brian

    Thank you so much for these podcasting tips tricks & questions.
    I love listening to podcasts.

  20. stickman

    Thank you for your sharing. Thanks to this article I can learn more things. Expand your knowledge and abilities. Actually the article is very practical. Thank you!

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