Evo Terra
Curator of The End
April 14, 2024

It wasn’t always the case, but the first-time listener experience for audiobooks today is quite good. Install the Audible app—or substitute any audiobook app of your liking—on your mobile device, choose a book, and start listening from chapter one. Yes, I’m glossing over the “sign up for an account and pay” necessary steps, but that’s all integrated into the onboarding. If you don’t listen much to audiobooks, you’ll have to take me at my word—it is dead simple to do so.

Compare that to the first-time listener experience for fiction podcasts, which is quite bad, if I’m being brutally honest. Install a podcast-listening app—or choose the one that is already on your phone, possibly one you play music with or maybe watch videos in?—and choose a fiction podcast. No, not just any podcast. A fiction podcast. Yeah. You gotta hunt for those. That’s OK. I’ll wait. Found one? Cool! Follow it, or subscribe to it, whatever the app calls it, as the terms are synonymous in podcasting. Why do you have to follow or subscribe instead of “start listening?”  Because that’s how podcasts work. Don’t fret. You’ve followed one? Excellent. Now start listening to the show. No, wait! Not that episode. That’s the most recent episode that was posted for the show. Or it’s the first episode of the third season, and you haven’t listened to seasons one or two yet. Confused? Fixing it is easy. Go into your settings and change the sort order. Again, don’t fret. That’s just how podcasts work! You’ll get used to it. What’s that? You say you’re hearing an episode of a completely different show now? Ah. We call those episode drops. It’s from 2017, you say? Yeah, well… you can always skip it. And now you’re hearing the creators talking to themselves? That’s a filler episode the creators put out in 2018 when they were taking an unforeseen short break and they wanted to let their listeners know of the delay. No, it’s not relevant to you now. Yes, it’s a speed bump. Just skip it. What’s happening now? Episode four of the second season is playing next instead of the second episode of the first season? Oh, that’s because the app isn’t sorting episodes properly, partly because the creator tagged it wrong, but also because the app doesn’t key on the correct tags. So what you need to do now is—Wait! Where are you going?

Fiction podcasts may be free to listen to, but getting there isn’t worth the cost for many, and all fiction podcast creators pay the price. Which leads me to this bold statement:

Fiction podcasts are fundamentally incompatible with most podcast-listening apps

That headline is going to spark a lot of anger amongst my fellow fiction podcast listeners. After all, we clearly have no trouble finding and consuming fiction podcasts to our heart’s content, so I must be being hyperbolic, right?


We, the extant fiction podcast listeners, have figured out ways to make our preferred podcast-listening apps function well enough. We’re not new, so we’re OK—or we’ve become OK—if not adept at tweaking the settings buried inside our chosen apps to make them functional, removing a good portion of the horror expressed in the second paragraph of this article. We’ve even convinced ourselves that the status quo is fine and perhaps is a rite of passage other potential fiction podcast listeners must go through to join our ranks.


We need our apps to work as well for fiction podcasts as they do “normal” podcasts. And even if we, the experienced fiction podcast listeners, don’t think we need it, I assure you that regular people can’t be bothered with the bullshit we put up with, keeping fiction podcasts at arm's length because they’re too hard to listen to. Which, considering some of the amazing fiction podcasts available to potential listeners, is a damned shame. 

Which is the best fiction podcast-listening app?

Apple Podcasts. There. I said it. Which is also pissing off a lot of readers right now. I beg your patience as I lay out my position.

Let me start with this, a comparison chart of the fiction-podcast-specific capabilities of 21 podcast-listening apps. I’ll break down those capabilities and explain why each is important—if not critical—to first-time users listening (or trying to listen) to fiction podcasts on each of those apps. 

Chart with 21 apps on the y-axis and 13 attributes on the x-axis, complete with ranking and scores for each. All in the details of this article.
Fig 1: 21 podcast-listening apps compared

The apps have been “scored,” with elements weighted by an increasing importance scale of 1, 2, or 3 (I’ll explain shortly), and then sorted by descending score. Apple Podcasts is #1, followed by Podverse, a relatively new app with Podcasting 2.0 features, then Pocket Casts, a long-running podcast app, then another newer app called Podfriend that’s also built with Podcasting 2.0 services, and then Spotify to round out the top five.

You probably think it’s weird that Spotify didn’t rank higher. Given how popular Spotify is among fiction podcast listeners, I understand why it seems weird. Looking at app popularity by share of downloads will show a very different story. But I’m not looking at current usage by seasoned podcast listeners. I’m solely interested in the experience for new listeners of fiction podcasts, a demographic not captured by current usage trends.

The attributes in the far left column and how well an app adheres to said attributes are what determine the score given to each app. Let me explain in more detail.

What are the characteristics of an excellent fiction podcast-listening app?

If you’re an app developer, this is the part you came for. As you read this, please keep in mind that your app is probably amazing at certain things. You very likely have a dedicated user base who loves what you are doing. Keep on keepin’ on. If it works in your tech stack to make some of these modifications without negatively impacting your core, outstanding. If not… well, I will concede that the audience for fiction podcasts is smaller than “normal” podcasts. Bear that in mind as you evaluate your priorities.

I’m going to start with the attributes I’ve marked as the highest priority. I am my own measuring stick here and you can disagree if you like. But I’m coming at this exclusively from the position of a listener. Not a fiction podcast creator. Not a podcast-listening app developer. And not someone who’s deeply committed to a single app and cringes at the thought of moving my follows/subscriptions from one app to another. That’s not an issue for me, and I love change! 

Respect the >serial< tag

The most important thing a podcast-listening app can do with it encounters a fiction podcast—or any podcast, really—is look for and respect the <itunes:type>serial</itunes:type> tag.  “Normal” podcasts are typically episodic, meaning each episode is more or less stand-alone, and there’s no need for a brand new listener of Geek News Central, for instance, to start listening to the first episode of that long-running show, posted back in 2004. Starting to listen to that show from the most recent episode is fine, so that’s what podcast-listening apps present first. And, if the listener loves what Todd has to say, they can rifle through his back catalog of 1,700+ episodes at their leisure to learn about Zune, the demise of Google Reader, or whatever cool tech Todd was talking about at any point in time over the last 20 years. GNC is a great technology time capsule!

But a new listener who just discovered The White Vault is not going to have a good time starting with the most recent episode of that fiction podcast. As of this writing, the most recent episode is an episode drop for a different fiction podcast. But if the listening app used by that new listener respects the <itunes:type>serial</itunes:type> tag, it knows to “flip the feed”, presenting the episodes from oldest to newest, not the other way around.

But, as you can see, less than half of the compared apps do this by default: Apple Podcasts, Podverse, Pocket Casts, Podfriend, Spotify, Podbean, Amazon Music, Podcast Guru, Goodpods, and iHeart. More than half do not, either not at all or hiding the ability to change the default sort order behavior by digging around inside the app’s settings just to get the episodes to sort properly. And while I’m a huge fan of giving users extreme flexibility, not respecting the creator-set feed type by default is reducing flexibility, not enhancing it.

Group episodes by Season Number

If “flipping” the feed so the first episode appears in the app first is a no-brainer, then using the <itunes:season> or <podcast:season> tag to group episodes of a season together is the next obvious great idea. Using The White Vault again as our example, the six seasons (currently) of that show can be collected together inside the podcast-listening app, allowing listeners to easily “jump ahead” to skip the seasons they’ve already listened to. (Or, sadly, as it’s most often implemented today, “jump back” to previous seasons if the entire show is brand new to them.)

Without that season-level grouping, navigating multiple seasons is significantly more challenging. And given that many fiction podcasters often make drastically different content from season to season, often with a new description and even artwork, those groupings will become more important. 

Nota bene: There is no current support for things like season-specific show titles, descriptions, or artwork within the RSS spec. But I’m optimistic that won’t always be the case.

Six of the compared podcast-listening apps group episodes by Season Number: Apple Podcasts, Podverse, Pocket Casts, Podfriend, Amazon Music, and Goodpods. The others simply list out every episode in the order it appears in the feed, with no grouping at all.

Sort episodes by Episode Number

Going hand-in-hand with Season Number is the <itunes:episode> or <podcast:episode> tag. Rather than relying on publish date, feed order, or other inferred ways to sort episodes, this tag is an explicit sort order set by the creators for the main—or “Full”, in podcast parlance—episodes of a fiction podcast. 

Consider this common reality: a fiction podcast starts with a “teaser” episode published well ahead of the first episode of the show. They then do that two more times, building up some pre-launch buzz for the show. Then the actual, “for-reals” Trailer episode drops, followed next week by the first full episode of the show. Only that first Full episode would have a declared Episode Number, and that number would be 1. However, if you were to count the total number of episodes in the feed at that point in time, you’d find five. That’s correct. Only one of them—the Full episode—is numbered.

The creator keeps publishing full episodes until after the sixth episode is posted, when the sound designer is laid up in the hospital after a motorcycle crash, forcing the creator to release a special “we’re on an unscheduled break” episode while the sound designer convalesces for a few weeks. That’s a Bonus episode, meaning it’s not really part of the main story itself. So it gets no number. The RSS feed now has eleven episodes in it—the four trailers and this Bonus episode, all unnumbered, and the six Full episodes, numbered sequentially 1–6.

The sound designer is much better a few weeks later, and production is once again underway. But after the tenth episode of the story, the creator opts to run an “episode drop”, where they are plugging another show that they like—or are paid to plug and say that they like. That episode is also not part of the story flow, so it’s another unnumbered Bonus episode. Our growing RSS feed now has sixteen episodes, but only ten of them are numbered.

After that, the final five Full episodes publish over the next few weeks. And, as a literal bonus, the creator decides to do a Q&A episode. Nifty, but also not part of the main story, so that one is also unnumbered. Our RSS feed—at least for this first season—now has four Trailers, three Bonus files, and fifteen Full episodes, for a total of twenty-two episodes. 

Now, those who were listening “live” as the episodes of the show were being released week-to-week would have been presented with each of those twenty-two episodes as they were released. Regardless of how the episodes were tagged as they were released—Full, Bonus, Trailer, numbered or unnumbered—listeners who were “caught up” would get each and every one of those. As it should be for those listening to episodes at the same cadence the creator is releasing episodes. 

But what about the listener who discovers the show months or years after the season finale or series conclusion was posted? Should they also have to listen to the three teasers, the official Trailer, six Full episodes, then the unscheduled break announcement, then the remaining five, and also the Q/A episodes? In a word; no.

A better experience is to present the Full episodes to the listener, and get those non-story files—those Trailers and Bonus episodes—out of the way. They should still be associated with the show and the season, but they don’t need to be listened to in the order in which they were originally published. Below is a simple table of what I mean, comparing both ways.

The left side shows the feed order. The right side shows using episode number, which would first play the trailer, then all 15 Full episodes, then the other trailers and bonus content below.
Fig 2: Listening by feed order vs Episode Number order

Clearly, the experience on the right is the best experience for the brand-new listener. 

(In the interest of fairness, there’s a bit of hand-waving after Episode 15 on the right side, as we podcasting doesn’t have a good system to sort un-numbered episodes. Chances are, those will actually be listed by publish date. But from the point of view of the new listener, those are all optional—and very likely skippable—episodes anyhow.)

Only two podcast-listening apps from the comparison chart do a good job of this and actually help the new listener stay focused on the main story content by moving unnumbered Trailer and Bonus episodes out of the way: Apple Podcasts and Podverse. The rest rely on the order episodes appear in the feed, resulting in an unoptimized listening experience as demonstrated on the left side of the table above.

Displays Season and Episode number tags

Not only are Season Numbers and Episode Numbers helpful for app developers to better organize the episodes of fiction podcasts in their apps, but they’re quite helpful as visual cues for listeners, letting them feel comfortable that the episode they are listening to is the correct episode they should be listening to!

Fiction podcast creators are… creative, let’s say, when it comes to how they title their episodes. And that’s not from laziness. Some fiction podcast episodes have distinct titles for the episodes of their shows. Some are repurposing book content and wind up splitting up the contents of a “chapter” across multiple episodes. Or even combining a small chapter with a longer one to make a single episode. Creative choice, for the win!

In a perfect world, the listening sequence of an episode would be completely divorced from the title of the episode. We do not live in a perfect world. In the case of The White Vault, the creators use titles like “Episode 5.08 :: Old Friends”. But they also include Season Number and Episode Number tags, so their episodes are presented to listeners in Apple Podcasts thusly:

Screen shot of an episode in Apple Podcast showing repetitive Season 5 and Episode 8 on top of the title, which is Episode 5.08 :: Old Friends
Fig 3: Duplicate season/episode numbers are possible

Now, maybe you don’t think that looks all that bad. While I don’t disagree, it can look a lot better. Here’s one from a friend of mine—and client—Scott Sigler, that shows how a properly titled and tagged episode will appear in Apple Podcasts:

Screen shot of episode in Apple Podcasts. Season 3 and Episode 41 are displayed by Apple Podcasts, and the correct title just says "A Tasty Burger." No dupes!
Fig 4: No dupes!

Nice and clean! Just the title of the episode, with the Season/Episode metadata where it belongs—out of the way!

Only three of the apps in our comparison chart do this: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Podcast Republic. The rest don’t bother.

Skips Trailers once following

This is the last of my highest-importance criteria, and it’s one that is hard to appreciate unless you, like me, prefer to binge a show starting with Season 1 and going until the series conclusion, if possible. Yes, that sometimes means dozens of hours of listening to the same show—though spread out over a week or so. I still gotta do real-world things!

Trailers serve a singular purpose—to entice a new person to listen to a show. Once a person has followed the show in their preferred podcast listening apps, trailers are no longer helpful to that listener. They’re in. They’re following. They’re listening. The hook has been set.

Forcing them to listen to or skip trailers for subsequent seasons isn’t helping anyone. It’s a speed bump in their listening pleasure, and no one likes driving over speed bumps. So the right thing to do is to not push trailers after someone has subscribed. Easy, right?

If only. As you can see in the comparison chart, only three apps do this today: Apple Podcasts, Podverse, and Podfriend. The rest leave those speed bumps right where they are, impeding what could be a more seamless listening experience.

We now turn to the medium-important attributes I feel a great fiction podcast-listening app should have. These are elements that don’t severely impact the listening experience but, when missing, present challenges for enjoying more of the show than just the audio. That fact causes a lot of developers to care a lot less about these things, and can’t fault them for caring more about the actual experience of listening in their apps than anything else. But I care about the overall listener experience, and these help with that. Let’s dive in.

Description of show well formatted

Fiction podcasters are, by definition, creative people. With few exceptions, they’re also creative writers who are capable of writing excellent descriptions of their shows. Compete with line breaks, links, and occasionally some simple formatting, like bold or italic. The RSS spec allows for these little flairs and flourishes. 

But far too many podcast-listening apps ignore special formatting of descriptions altogether, causing what would have been a new paragraph to be shoved right next to the previous sentence, with no space. Links are mangled. Text is truncated. It’s… bad. It makes the creators look like they struggle with basic sentence structure and formatting. Which is quite maddening, I assure you.

The apps that get this right—if leaving well enough alone can be considered “right”—are Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Podcast Guru, and Castbox. Spotify gets close but fails to add spacing after each paragraph, which looks weird. Though not as weird as YouTube Music—recently-killed Google Podcast’s replacement—which oddly chooses to center align the show description. That’s really weird. 

Episode details well formatted

Everything I wrote about the show description holds true for Episode details. Or, as they are called in podcast parlance, show notes. I hate that term. But I know how to pick my battles.

Only, this attribute is even more important for apps to get right. Because in-app episode details are the first place a listener turns to when they want to get more information about the episode. Or, quite likely, the podcaster themselves told the listener to “get more information in the episode details right here in your app!”

The good news is that all but five of the apps in this comparison do an excellent job of preserving the formatting of the episode details. Which ones don’t? Amazon Music, Goodpods, Player FM, Fountain, and YouTube Music.

Link to show website

Every fiction podcast has a website. Not always (or even often) a good website, but there is a website. For every single show. And on those websites is often—though, again, not always—more information than what exists for the show in the podcast listening apps. Things like a complete list of credits and bios. Contact information. Live tour dates. Fan artwork. Videos of the recording process. And so much more. Best of all: that link to the website is embedded in the RSS feed that the listening apps are already using.

All the app developers have to do is make it available in their app. Listeners will click through. Certainly not most, but some. If they are given that option. 

But in most of the apps in this comparison study, listeners are not given that option. Only Apple Podcasts, Podfriend, Overcast, and Player FM allow for this. Which is a shame.

Links to episode pages on show website

Again, everything I wrote in the above section holds true for the apps linking back to episode-specific pages on the show’s website. And is, perhaps, even more important than linking to the overall show website. 

There’s a limit to how much quality information a creator can put inside of in-app episode details—”show notes.” But there is virtually no limit on the amount of information that can be added to a webpage, article, or blog post about the episode. For fiction podcasters, that might be the performance script of the episode. Or some episode-specific artwork. A detailed cast list for just that episode. And a lot more.

Apple Podcasts, Podverse, and Spotify all facilitate an off-app click at the episode level. But only those three. The rest? Nope.

One-click download: entire show

This has become less important as internet connectivity becomes more ubiquitous. For many of us, it’s rare when we’re not connected to the internet, either by wifi or our phone’s mobile network.

But take it from this binge listener: dead spots happen, especially when traveling. And traveling is one of the best times to binge fiction podcasts! “Sorry, this episode can’t be accessed right now” means my plans to listen to an 18-hour complete series are hosed. Boo!

The developers of Pocket Casts, Podbean, Podcast Republic, and Overcast all know that making a one-click-to-download-it-all makes users who travel very, very happy because they’ll never have to rely on their network connectivity to keep binge-listening. Sadly, the rest don’t, assuming their user will just click download on 50 podcast episode listings in the app, I guess? I’ve done that. It’s rife with problems.

One-click download: entire season

As an extension to the section above, it’s quite nice to have the option to download just the episodes of a particular season. If I only need the last two seasons of a six-season show, there’s no need for me to fill up my phone’s storage with a few extra gigs of full seasons' worth of episodes I’ve already heard. 

Yeah… not a single app from the comparison list does this. Boo. First-mover opportunity right here, devs.

And while I’m on the topic of things that are nice to have but not mission-critical in a fiction podcast listening app, here are two more:

Displays Episode artwork during playback

As mentioned previously, fiction podcasters are creative people, and many of them either have or have access to creative design skills as well. I’m blown away by the amazing episode-level artwork created for shows like Midst and The Love Talker

Fortunately, the app I use to listen to fiction podcasts lets me see that episode-level artwork as I’m listening. In fact, most of the apps in this comparison study do. But not Pocket Casts, Overcast, or Castro.

Recommends other fiction podcasts

The final item on my wish list would greatly benefit all fiction podcast listeners, but I know it’s probably among the hardest for developers to implement. But it would be really, really nice if the apps recommended fiction podcasts to people who use their app to listen to fiction podcasts.

Proving my point as to the likely complexity of this: it’s mostly the big media company apps that support this, namely Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music. Though Podbean and Player FM have figured it out, so maybe it’s not as difficult as I’m imagining it to be. Or their suggestions to me when I tested this just happened to be fiction podcasts. Regardless, this would be nice.

Of note: There’s a new-ish RSS tag making the rounds, <podcast:podroll>, which could help here. If not completely change how recommendations are made. It’s how creators add their own recommendations directly in their shows’ RSS feeds. More podcast hosting companies are supporting this Very Good Idea, and it’s my hope that more podcast apps will start supporting them.

So… which app is the best for listening to fiction podcasts?

Again, it’s Apple Podcasts. Which doesn’t help Android users, I know. And it may not be the app you currently use and love. I know you have plenty of reasons you’re just begging to tell me about that demonstrate why your particular favorite app is the best. Those are great reasons for you. I won’t argue against them. Nor will I ever suggest that you change listening apps. The fact that we listeners are not locked into a single app experience is one of the many things I love about podcasting. 

This article, all 4,153 words, was written with the brand-new fiction podcast listener in mind, helping them make the right choice for them. (And sure, to give all the app developers who read it a different perspective on an underserviced audience. It’s a smaller audience, but a fiercely loyal one.)

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share this article with your favorite app developer if you wish your preferred app would do better for your fiction podcast listing. I’m rooting for you!

- Evo

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More about my methodology

To keep the playing field nice and level, I tested all of these using a single fiction podcast from one of my clients, following (or subscribing) to that show across all of the apps on my iPhone. I used the latest app builds as of the time of my data collection, which took place on or about April 10, 2024. At that time, the feed was properly tagged as serial and had a mix of numbered and unnumbered episodes across two current seasons.

The apps chosen for this test were based largely on popularity. I wanted to get the Big, the smaller-but-been-around-a-while, and some of the new podcast apps. No, I didn’t cover them all. But you too can do the same tests.

I also didn’t choose Apollo, the only podcast-listening app specifically designed for fiction podcasts. Apollo takes a more bespoke approach, relying on a lot of human curation to get episodes listed better and the overall listening experience more optimized. Because of this advantage, I opted not to include them in the comparison list. 

As to the numbers/colors in the grid, a 0 means no problems found with the apps adherence to the attribute. 1 is used (only twice) to indicate partial adherence, and a 2 is used when the app fails to adhere to the attribute. It’s weird, but it’s a working model I’ve used for comparison charts for a couple decades now.