Software Tools for Listening to Spoken Audio

I love podcasts and audio books.  They’re an educational and entertaining way to fill background time – unless work is involved, then Bob Dylan is best.  Getting that spoken word content in a repeatable, hassle-free way is another challenge.  There are several software tools involved, none of which is very easy to deal with.

iTunes / Desktop.  This program revolutionized the category, is a huge business, and the leader in its category, but it is a mess.  Finding audio programs, evaluating if you want them and ensuring they are downloading is very complex.  Going to iTunes is like going to a very large shopping center – it is likely what you want is there, but finding it will take some patience.

Audible.com / Website.  Audible’s website is a stark contrast to the desktop experience one gets from iTunes.  Searching the audio books is easy, listening to samples is straight forward, the wish list is a great way to save things for later and the purchasing process is very clear.  This is like most of Amazon’s sites.

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Audible’s quick-swipe screen is very handy. They’ve thought about multiple use cases.

Audible.com / iOS App.  Unfortunately, the major challenge to Audible.com’s iOS app is that it doesn’t let you purchase.  Provided I’m on a good wi-fi network, getting content from an Audible purchase from the server to my device is very straightforward.  Once I’ve got the content downloaded, I’ve got all of the features one would want for listening to content.

  • Library Management.  I can see all the books I’ve purchased.  I can quickly and easily tell what parts of my library are on my device and which ones need to be downloaded (this is really rare in podcast apps).
  • Listening Options.  I can configure the app to rewind 30s, fast forward 30s (or change the times).  I can also modify the speed of playback.  Audible not only gives you the right buttons, it lets you modify the settings of the buttons.
  • Quick Gestures.  There are quick gestures if I’m driving to allow me to pause.
  • Notes.  Audible will let you bookmark and then notes can be taken on the bookmark.  These functions are somewhat like what you experience with the Kindle.  There isn’t a way to easily share these notes, although they stay with the recording even if you delete it off of the device on which it was originally played.
  • WhisperSync.  I’ve not used it yet, but Amazon allows cross-device syncing between a Kindle and the Audible app.  Listen to a point, stop and then the Kindle will be ready from you to read from that point onward.  I regular use sync across various Kindle readers, but haven’t used the audio-written sync function yet.
  • Badges & Data.  Audible lets me have badges for accomplishments.  This is nice, but as a user, what I want is data.  I’d like to know more about my listening habits – how many listening sessions did it take to get through an 8 hour book?  What books led me to listen to multiple books at once?
  • Reviews.  What authors did I like best?  There are good review capabilities on the Audible site, but none are integrated with the iOS site.
  • Sharing.  Again, I take a lot of notes when I listen to a book – I do the same with written books.  I remember more when I am an active listener.  It would be very interesting to be able to share those notes, much like you can do on a Kindle.
  • Discover-ability.  Between the Audible website and the app functions, all of the pieces are there for me to easily figure out what things I should listen to.  It is still tough to find good things and it requires a lot more time than it feels like it should.

Apple Music Player / iOS App.  I just bought several of the older issues of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and the downloads automatically went to Apple Music Player, instead of the Podcast App.  It is terrible!  If I stop listening to the episode, it loses my place.  Maybe that’s okay with a 3 minute Ke$ha song, but if I’ve got a 90 minute long episode on the Punic Wars, losing my place is very frustrating.

This issue really highlights some of the challenges for this form of content.  Dan Carlin wants to make money off of his podcasts.  There is clearly money in podcasting, either through charging for episodes or through advertising.  He is unable to charge for episodes in the Apple infrastructure without using a method that hurts his users.  No one wins.

Apple Podcast Player.  Podcasts were once just a special set of audio files in the traditional music player.  Before that, I remember having to physically connect my iOS device to my Mac to download new episodes, as you couldn’t do this automatically via wifi (This was one of the key drivers for our first iPhone purchase).  I played with the dedicated player when it was first released, but struggled to get it to download regularly and the subscription rules were confusing.

RSSRadio7 is my favorite way to listen to podcasts.

RSSRadio7.  I used this same audio player prior to iOS 7.  I’d also looked at a number of bigger name players, such as Stitcher.  RSSRadio7 has the features I like and an easy to use UI:

  • Finding shows.  RSS uses a simple keyword search for episodes.  It isn’t fancy, but it works.
  • Downloads & Subscriptions.  I want to subscribe to a podcast and get those episodes when they are released.  I like to be able to avoid episodes with hosts or keywords that I’m not interested.  Space on my audio player is at a premium, so using that space on episodes I’ll never listen to is frustrating.
  • Trial-a-bility.  RSS requires me to subscribe to a podcast, even if I just want to get a single episode.  That requires a few more clicks than I’d like, plus it puts the onus on me to unsubscribe.
  • Library.  I have a hard time telling on RSS if an episode is on my device or if it has simply been seen by my device in the past.  I can’t tell real easily if I’ve listened to a podcast.
  • Past usage.  I don’t have any kind of rudimentary statistics.  There isn’t any ability to go out and see what podcasts I’ve subscribed to over time, when I unsubscribed, etc.  Audible covers this well in the way they treat purchases of audio books on their website.  They don’t try and cram this into an app experience.
  • Statistics.  Just like with Audible, it would be nice to have some actual user statistics.  At least RSS doesn’t have the patronizing badges that Audible uses.
  • Owner vs User.  At Audible I feel like a user with a dedicated back end that allows me to collect and do some basic sharing of information.  With RSS, I’m an owner of an app on a device.  It is like owning a hammer – I can do with it what I please but there isn’t much of an instruction manual.

[2014.03.12 – EDIT]

I just checked out Stitcher, as it shows up as a top app and I had used it a few years ago.  Back then I stopped after a few attempts at use, and after 30 minutes I’ve decided it still isn’t for me.  Fundamentally, this App starts by saying the user has wifi access.  My main use case for listening to podcasts is while in transit, so this just does not work for me at all.

It took a while to figure this out, and the app even has a guide for “click here, do this, do that,” and it will work in that scenario.  But that misses the point.  With these inexpensive or free apps, the cost is not in the purchase, but in the time investment required to make full use of the tool.  With a production like this, if it has a primary use scenario that is in conflict with my goals, that is a reason to stop all engagement.

Lastly, I was driven to re-evaluate Stitcher due to a problem I’d mentioned before.  I’ve got a few episodes of ‘Hardcore History’ that are under the regular Apple iOS music app.  Every time I pause it and turn away it goes back to the beginning!  I’ve now got a yellow sticky pad to write down the ‘time remaining’ if I pause it.  I’d been hoping for a software / technology solution – but perhaps the 3M sticky note is all I can do now.  I’ve been unable to move the episdoes into either RSSRadio, Sticher or the iOS Podcast app.  [Full disclaimer – that could be entirely due to user error!]

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About flybrand1976

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  1. Pingback: Improving PodCast Episode Discovery | Fred Lybrand

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