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?”
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.
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.
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).
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:
• 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).
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.
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.
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.
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