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Podcast Survivor July 23, 2014

Podcasting News: Anticipated Overcast App Drops

In this week’s podcasting news: Connecticut’s WNPR-FM dedicates an hour to “the culture and design of podcasts”; the anticipated Overcast app is released.

WNPR-FM Explores the “Culture and Design of Podcasts.”

Public station WNPR-FM dedicated the Tuesday edition of its morning talk show Where We Live to the topic of podcasts this week. Host John Dankosky was joined by 99% Invisible producer Sam Greenspan, former NPR correspondent and current Slate podcast host Mike Pesca and Connecticut-area podcaster Julia Pistell, co-host of the Literary Disco podcast.

The show mercifully spends a minimum amount of time introducing listeners to podcasts, then Dankovsky dives into some of the meaningful differences between broadcast radio and podcasting. He asked Pistell and Greenspan how podcasters deal with the lack of time constraints that are so elemental to broadcast. Pistell acknowledged that it is a challenge for podcasters to know “when to stop talking,” but that the close relationship with the audience means that the listeners don’t hesitate to let them know when they’re going on too long. Greenspan responded with the question about how long should a song or novel be?

Pesca–who only recently migrated from radio–said he thinks of a podcast as an “on demand radio show,” but without the restrictions of radio. For instance, he said they can be very niche, citing a recent guest on his show who produces an Archie comics podcast.

Dankovsky asked Pesca what it’s like to be freer to give his opinion on The Gist than on mainstream NPR shows. Pesca responded that at NPR he had more freedom as a sports correspondent than a Middle East correspondent might have, and that a listener to The Gist is likely also an NPR listener. He said that his listeners don’t want a FOX News level of commentary, or even something like MSNBC. But at the same time they want to know the host, and that when you get to know a host, you also learn how they think about things.

The show is an entertaining and informative listen for someone relatively new to podcasts as well as the hardcore podcast addict.

Overcast Podcast App Is Released

There are many smartphone podcast apps out there, but one much anticipated app finally hit the store last week. Podcaster and developer Marco Arment announced his Overcast app at last year’s XOXO Festival in September.

The reason for the anticipation is because of Arment’s reputation for success as the lead developer for Tumblr and for building the popular Instapaper app and service, which pretty much defined the “read later” category. He’s also the guy who recently opined that “podcast networks are the wrong model,” to which I responded a few weeks ago.

At this point I must admit that I’ve tried out very few podcast apps. So far I’ve used Stitcher, Swell and Apple’s own Podcasts app for iOS. Swell and Stitcher are fine apps that are oriented towards discovery. However, as nice as that can be, I generally have more podcasts in my queue than I can keep up with. I’m finding new shows every day that I want to listen to; discover isn’t so important to me. Therefore, as just a plain old podcast apps, neither Stitcher nor Swell quite does it for me.

So, iOS Podcasts has been my primary podcast listening app, though I actually really don’t like it. It crashes more than it ought to, and it’s overall functionality feels clunky and unfinished. Sometimes shows don’t download or start playing, and I just don’t know why. It’s only virtue is integration with iTunes, which is truly faint praise.

But, then, for no good reason except laziness, I haven’t migrated to any other podcast app.

I have now tried out Overcast, and I’m pretty convinced. Fundamentally, it’s pretty intuitive, and lets me control the basic settings, like how many shows to download and keep, right in the app. Searching for podcasts and subscribing to them works more quickly than iOS Podcasts. Browsing through your podcast subscriptions and playing shows is quick and painless. By and large the app doesn’t get in your way and just works.

The basic Overcast app is free, and it works as fine replacement for (if not upgrade from) Apple’s Podcasts app. For $4.99 you can unlock additional features. The big one for me is the ability to download podcasts using cellular data; the free app only downloads over wifi. This may not be as desirable for others, but I have an unlimited data plan, and it’s when I’m away from home and off wifi that often I want to find and download new shows.

The other paid feature that attracted me is the sleep timer. iOS 7 does have a sleep timer built in that is supposed to shut off the Podcasts app, but I’ve had that feature inexplicably fail on me. Overcast has yet to fail to shut off properly.

The most interesting paid feature is one that Arment put a lot of development into: Smart Speed. As he tells TechCrunch, he thought, “‘What if we could do this dynamic shifting of the speed based on silence, and speed up the silence more than the rest of it,’ because I wanted to pick up extra speed, but I didn’t want to distort the sound too badly.”

I know that many hardcore podcast and audiobook listeners like to speed up programs since we can often comprehend speech at a rate faster than people actually talk, though it’s rarely had much appeal for me. I tried out Overcast’s Smart Speed, and I must say that it works very well.

You have the option on activate Smart Speed on its own, which basically abbreviates the silence without speeding up any of the speech. For most podcasts where there isn’t much background noise or a music bed it’s nearly undetectable, while speeding things up anywhere from 5% to 20%.

You can use a slider to speed things up more, which abbreviates the speech as well. This, of course, is audible, but introduces a bare minimum of distortion–less than other apps.

There is also a Voice Boost feature that equalizes the audio to enhance speech, along with doing some compression to keep the sound level even. It works as advertised, and can be good for noisy environments, like the car, or when listening on a smartphone’s tiny built-in speakers. I don’t like it so much when using headphones, since it does also boost some background noise, too, which becomes more noticeable. It is a nice feature for podcasts where not all the speakers are at the same level, as sometimes happens with shows recorded outside of a studio.

One feature I haven’t really taken for a ride yet is playlists, which is good for commuting, road trips, or any time that you want podcasts to queue up without having to mess with your phone. With the free version of Overcast you get one playlist, and the paid version is unlimited. You can add individual episodes or add a whole ’cast, with episodes added as they’re released. A priority feature puts designated shows to the top of the queue.

A final thing I want to commend is that Overcast lets you export your podcast subscriptions in a standard OPML format so that if you may migrate to another app if you like.

While I haven’t tried out most of Overcast’s other iOS competitors, I also don’t see much of a need to. I didn’t move from Apple’s Podcasts app because it worked well enough most of the time, and Overcast works that much better. I want a podcast app that just works and doesn’t get in my way. It’s not faint praise to say Overcast does that and convinced me to part with five clams for the paid version without complaint.

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