By
Evo Terra
-
Curator of The End
May 12, 2024

Last month, I dropped a bomb on the podcast app developer community with my article entitled Unlocking the Potential of Fiction Podcasts: A Call to Podcast App Developers, where I spent some 5,000+ words illustrating what key features fiction podcast listeners need from app developers to improve the listening experience, especially for people new to podcasting who start off listening to a fiction podcast and not a standard episodic podcast.

I expected a lot of pushback, but I instead received several compliments on my in-depth research. And three different developers reached out to me directly, all vowing to take my suggestions to heart an include them in a future build. Hooray!

This month, I’m again taking pen to paper (read: fingers to keyboard) on the same topic, but with a different target audience: You, the fiction podcast listener. And more specifically—you, the fiction podcast listener who is very new to podcasting. My intent with this article is to tell you, very clearly, which podcast listening app is best for you as of right now, May 2024.

Disclaimers, or Please Don’t Send Me Hate Mail

Because this article is for listeners more than it is for developers, I’m focusing just on the key attributes that matter the most to the overall listening experience. Yes, many apps do some amazing things. But this article isn’t about bells, whistles, or new features—it’s only about the fiction podcast listening experience. As such, my rubric is slightly different this time, as I’m keying on the following:

  • Does the app respect the serial tag, and does it group episodes by Season number? This is the cost of entry to be in this consideration set. Present episodes in sequential order, and if Season number tags are present, group them by seasons. I’ve included every app that does so—all seven of them—in my list. And I’ve ignored the rest.
  • Does the app sort by Episode number? Apps should do this. Most do not.
  • Does the app display the Season numbers and Episode numbers? These visual cues are very helpful, especially when considering the preceding bullet.
  • Does the app move “extra” episodes out of the way? Trailer and Bonus episodes are great, but when mainlining a show, they’re speedbumps that negatively impact the listening experience.

Also, a note to listeners who are already in love with their chosen listening app, who perhaps hundreds of shows in their library, who have spent a lot of time tweaking the settings of their preferred app to get it fined-tuned just the way they want—this article is not for you. You’re fine using what you have. Though, if you want to see how much of that you didn’t need to do (at least for fiction podcast listening), read on.

One final nota bene before I get started—I do not own an Android phone. I only own an iPhone, so you will only see apps on this list for iOS. If that causes you strife, 🤷‍♂️.

The Graphs

Here’s a full view of just the apps mentioned in this article, with all attributes displayed:

A very wide chart that isn't necessary to read because I go into detail in the text. You're good!
Fig 1 - Seven podcast listening apps compared

Yes, that’s quite small. But you need not focus on it, because in the sections below, I’ll go into detail on each app, highlighting which of those attributes it does well and where it falls short. Again, viewed from the perspective of a person quite new to fiction podcast listening.

Here’s a view zoomed in on just the most important stuff:

A simpler chart that shows the rankings and high-level attributes for each. Again, I go into this in detail in the text below.
Fig 2 - Focusing in just on what's important

Oh, that’s better. As you can see, I’ve sorted the attributes by importance scale, moving from left to right. If an app nails a listed attribute, it gets a score of zero and a green background. Total misses get a score of 2 and a red background. And the ones that kinda-sorta get it right have a score of 1 and have a yellow background. I do some math, then come up with the overall score as a percentage, and then sort the seven apps with the best on top.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

Certified Fiction Podcast Friendly Listening Apps

I struggled for way too long trying to come up with clever names for these groupings. In the end (heh), I settled on clarity over cleverness and went with the classic Good, Better, and Best. Or Best, Better, and Good in this case. But you know what I mean.

Best App for Listening to Fiction Podcasts

The best podcast-listening app for fiction podcasts is Apple Podcasts.

Surprise! This free iOS-only podcast-listening app nails the most important things for fiction podcast listening: Episodes are grouped and sorted by Season and Episode numbers, Bonus and Trailer episodes are moved out of the story flow for uninterrupted listening, and the app assures the listener they are, in fact, listening in the correct order, because it displays that (those?) metadata unambiguously. Hate on Apple all you want, but you won’t find another app on this list—at least not yet—that hits all the required marks for a fantastic listening-to-fiction-podcasts experience.

But while Apple Podcasts gets all green marks in the zoomed graph above, the longer graph shows some additional opportunities to make the app even better. Like allowing for one-click downloads of entire seasons or the entire show. Yes, there are device storage issues to consider when trying to download all seasons of We’re Alive. I understand. Yes, wifi and wireless networks are almost everywhere. But drops happen. Airplanes without wifi happen. Enabling a one-click download of an entire fiction podcast on my device means I can keep listening regardless of connectivity. Hint, hint, Ted.

Better Apps for Listening to Fiction Podcasts

I’m stoked that a Podcasting 2.0-enabled app is so high on the list! That app is Podverse, a free iOS, Android, and web app that groups and sorts episodes by Season and Episode numbers, and moves Bonus and Trailer episodes out of the listening-next flow. But it doesn’t display Season/Episode number data to users, which impacts confidence that the listener is actually listening to the correct episode. Creators aren’t infallible, and visual cues can help the listener understand when something is amiss.

Beyond that, I’d like to see Podverse do a better job of formatting the show description. This shouldn’t be too hard for them, as they do an excellent job of preserving the formatting of episode descriptions (aka “show notes”). The app also fails to link to the show’s website, doesn’t tend to recommend other fiction podcasts, and lacks one-click download options.

Next up is an app that only includes fiction podcasts: Apollo. This free iOS and Android app relies heavily on their own human curation to group and sort episodes by Season/Episode number, and to move Bonus and Trailer episodes out of the story flow. While it doesn’t display the Season or Episode numbers, Apollo’s reliance on human curation and manual sorting/filtering is a good proxy—but only if it’s been applied to the show you want to listen to. But it does an excellent job of recommending other fiction podcasts simply because only fiction podcasts are in the app!

Some other attributes not in my main consideration set are worth mentioning. Apollo doesn’t do a good job of preserving the formatting of the show description or episode details. Nor does it provide out-of-app links, either to the show website or a webpage for any episode. Apollo doesn’t allow for one-click downloads, and it doesn’t display episode-level artwork if it’s available.

Good Apps for Listening to Fiction Podcasts

In fourth place from my rubric is Pocket Casts, a free iOS and Android app that groups episodes by Season number, but fails to override the in-feed order by using the included Episode Numbers. It leaves Bonus and Trailer episodes where they appear in the feed, which interrupts binge-listening, as the app presents all episodes in historical feed order. So the “Sorry for our delay” episode published in 2019 still appears between episodes 9 and 10 five years later for no good reason. Pocket Casts does, however, show the Season and Episode numbers, which helps assure the listener they are, in fact, listening to the story itself in the correct order.

Additionally, Pocket Casts preserves the formatting of both show descriptions and episode details, which is quite nice to see. And best of all, a single click is all it takes to download all the episodes of a fiction podcast. No worry about dropped coverage! However, there isn’t an off-app link to the podcast website or the webpage for a single episode, episode-level artwork isn’t shown, and it doesn’t do a great job of recommending more fiction podcasts.

Another Podcasting 2.0-enabled app is in fifth place—Podfriend. It’s a free web app that groups episodes by Season number and moves Trailer episodes out of the story flow, but listeners will still find Bonus episodes interrupting their listening, as the app presents all episodes in feed order. It does not display either the Season or Episode numbers either.

Additionally, while Podfriend does preserve the formatting of episode details, it doesn’t do that for the show description, which is odd. Conversely, it does provide an off-app link to the show website but not to the episode webpage. It doesn’t offer one-click downloads, and it’s not that great at recommending other fiction podcasts.

Listening Apps That Group By Season… But Not Much Else Fiction Podcast Listeners Need

Lastly, in a tie for sixth place are Goodpods and Amazon Music. Both are free iOS and Android apps that do group episodes by Season numbers… but that’s the only reason they made my list at all. Again, that was the table stakes (stake?). With either app, listeners will still find Trailer and Bonus episodes interrupting their listening, as the app presents all episodes in feed order. Neither display Season or Episode numbers to listeners.

However, both will display episode-level artwork if it’s present, and Amazon Music does a good job of recommending other fiction podcasts. But formatting, off-app links, and one-click download options aren’t available on either.

Reality Check: The App Space is Dynamic

Recall at the top of this article when I said a few developers have reached out to me. Respecting that, I’ll revisit this article as I learn of—and verify—upgrades that make these apps and the ones I didn’t mention much better for fiction podcasters.

But I’m not waiting. In fact, I’ve just re-formatted the show pages on The End to suggest these apps to my readers, with this nifty little design for the Certified Fiction Podcast Friendly badge: 

I’m no designer, but I kinda like it. At least well enough until a real designer offers up their services. 😉 

I’ll continue to make it easy to find a show in every app I can, but I’m done carrying water for apps that just don’t do a great job at presenting fiction podcasts to their users. 

As with all things in life, your mileage may vary.

Happy listening! 

- Evo

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A Note to App Developers

This stuff is not easy. I get it. And I’m no developer. But I do know a lot about what fiction podcast listeners want and how elements in the RSS feed can be applied. If you need help, I have very reasonable consulting rates and have sat on the Board of Advisors for podcast apps and other services previously. Let’s talk.

A Note to Fiction Podcasters

Apps that do a great job with fiction podcasts can only do a great job on your podcasting if you get the data right. And, without naming names, many of y’all are lazy when it comes to the technical and boring stuff like properly tagging the episodes in your feed with Season numbers, Episode numbers, episode Type, and a whole lot more. An incorrectly tagged episode or janky feed is going to have unpredictable results. Packaging is important, as I wrote in this article, and you can likely do the cleanup yourself. But if you need help, I have special rates for indie fiction podcasters and fiction podcast networks, so get in touch!