Listen to This! Why It’s So Hard to Share Podcasts Across Platforms

by Shindo N. Strzelczyk, software engineer at Pop Up Archive

Image via Flickr: In Her World by Nana B Agyei (CC BY 2.0)

If you’ve ever tried to share a podcast with a friend, you know that it’s not only hard to figure out how to do it, but also nearly impossible to get anyone to click on whatever link you end up sharing.

Even if you know your one friend will absolutely love this episode and it will change their life and make them laugh, dance, and cry all at the same time—good luck getting them to listen to it.

People share TV show and movie recommendations all the time. Why is it so much harder with podcasts? There are a few reasons.

One primary reason is behavioral. People listen to podcasts while they are otherwise visually occupied (e.g. driving), a fact that has been oft-credited with the recent growth of the industry. So, when your friend sees your podcast link, you’re essentially asking her to focus on a completely different medium for an extended period of time. With most people still glued to their screens most of the time, it’s hard to catch someone at just the right moment.

Image via Podcast Apps | iMore

Listening to a podcast requires a new behavior: finding something on the (for now, mostly visual) web and tucking it away for non-screen time. So why can’t your friend just listen later? There is another issue with the podcasting ecosystem that hinders shareability. The fact is: podcasts are all over the place.

You might be thinking, “Well, TV shows and movies are all over the place, too, but people talk about and share them all the time.” And they do — but those industries are much larger and more prevalent in popular discourse, with YouTube clips and ads all over social media and web sites. There are multiple streaming services for those mediums, but people are already accustomed to watching stuff on screens, and in fact are often so motivated to seek that content out that they’ll download it illegally if necessary! Podcasts are in a different situation; the latest research shows that only 21% of Americans listened to a podcast in the past month.

The Infinite Dial 2016

In order for that number to continue to grow, we need more people talking about the podcasts they love. And if this is a fight for new listeners—a fight to change behaviors — the industry as a whole would benefit from making it easier to start listening in the first place.

Historically, producers generally uploaded their content to a hosting platforms like Libsyn or SoundCloud, then linked to it in their RSS feed. The RSS feed contained all the other information about the episode, which certain podcast apps read from directly and imported. However, some platforms — like Acast, Art19, Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, Spotify, Stitcher, and soon Google Play Music — import content to their own servers, so that listening behavior can be more closely tracked, and advertisements can be dynamically inserted and changed out. Add to the mix Pandora, which is now streaming Serial, and Audible, which is building an entire original content department to deliver audio through their own proprietary technology, and you’ve got a messy smorgasbord of listening options.

Most of the time, these services are only concerned with their own assets and have no connection to any others. So, time for a pop quiz! If you’re listening to something amazing in the iTunes Podcasts app and you want to get your friend to listen to it, but they have an Android phone, which link do you send them:

  1. The one iTunes gives you, which will only open the iTunes website in a browser tab on your friend’s phone.
  2. The link to the original audio file, which you find by searching for the relevant RSS feed, scrolling to the appropriate episode, and copying and pasting the link which would then be downloaded by your friend and stored somewhere on their phone that they can hopefully find later.
  3. The show’s website which might have a page for that particular episode, which will still open in your friend’s browser and still probably not link them to the podcast app they normally use.
  4. Ask your friend which podcast app they use and if it is also available for iOS, download it, search for the show, find the episode, and send them that link.
  5. Just tell your friend the name of the show and episode and make them do all the work. (You might have to try this many, many times. People have enough content coming at them all the time — why should they go out of their way to listen to your podcast recommendation?)
SoundCloud and iTunes links collected for 99% Invisible on

As Pop Up Archive builds out, our search and intelligence engine for podcasts and radio, we are forced to come up with solutions to problems like these. A while back, we started generating “universal identifiers” for the podcasts and episodes in our database, with associated links to their various digital locations on different platforms and apps. As the podcast industry grows and we learn more about how people consume audio, we are starting to use these identifiers to connect disparate silos of content to make them easier to find and share — and make it easier for developers to build cool apps and tools for all sorts of audio content, regardless of distribution platform.

Imagine if all you needed was to share one link from one app, and your friend would automatically receive the proper link to their favorite podcast app. One potential use for the API is to take the original link and the name of the app you want to use to listen and, like an old-fashioned telephone operator, route you through to that content’s location.

With the data we’re collecting, we could even provide a universal link button that could live on any website or in any app, and clicking it would open all the locations available so people can listen to the episode any way they prefer.

We don’t expect these various content providers to miraculously start adhering to some universally identifying, ISBN-like system for podcasts. But that’s where we can help. Reducing the immense friction people experience in finding and sharing podcasts can facilitate new behaviors and benefit platforms and producers alike.