How to start listening to podcasts

Tune in to a brave new world.

Pocket Casts
Podcasts might just change your life.Pocket Casts

Your friends keep bringing up fun facts they learned from the latest episode of Radiolab, or discussing a crazy potential future described on Flash Forward. If you want to start listening to podcasts like these, but haven't dived in yet, then this guide is for you. We'll cover everything from the history of the audio format to the apps you can use to find and listen to the best podcasts for you.

A brief history of podcasts

Essentially, a podcast is a pre-recorded audio show of any description. Think of it like a radio show whose episodes you can download and listen to at your leisure. (A few podcasts are available only in video form, and you can sometimes find audio-only and video-only versions of the same podcast, but most are audio-focused.) Named after the iPod players that dominated the portable audio scene when podcasts first came to prominence, the term has stuck even as the influence of the iPod has waned. Today, these audio clips will play on phones, computers, and within your web browser.

Recorded sound is nothing new, of course, but in the early 2000s, people first started to experiment with episodic audio shows, pushing out new installments to their subscribers on a set schedule. This trend was related not only to the rise of the iPod, but also to the emergence of the MP3 format a few years earlier. MP3 was the first file type to compress high-quality audio into a size small enough to work with the era's limited internet speeds. Nowadays, we don't think anything of downloading huge 4K movies over the web, but at the start of the 2000s, internet connections were a lot slower. So the small file sizes of MP3s let you download podcasts in this format in minutes rather than hours.

Apple first added podcasting as an iTunes feature in 2005, and the rest is history: With a big name like Apple behind the fledgling podcast scene, more and more people began creating their own independent audio shows. The popularity of podcasting has risen and fallen and risen again since then—right now, the scene is more vibrant than ever. From standalone shows funded by Patreon to self-supporting podcast networks to recordings from major radio stations, the range of available podcast styles and topics has never been bigger.

How to find shows

You can listen to podcasts on every topic under the sun. And when it comes to popular categories like history, science, tech, and news, you've got dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds, of top-quality options. In fact, odds are that you'll find too many podcasts to choose from, rather than too few.

When you begin searching, start with your favorite radio show or news website. Although many podcasts function as standalone creations, others are produced by teams at existing media outlets. So visit your favorite radio show or website online, and search for their audio offerings—chances are that they produce one or more podcasts already.

Another option is simple word of mouth. Take Serial: Its first season—which examined the details of a single real-life murder case, with new evidence and revelations appearing each successive week—appeared in 2014. True-crime fans would chat about each week's episode in the workplace, and convert their friends, helping Serial reach more than 68 million downloads. So if you trust your friends' tastes, go ahead and ask about their podcast recommendations.

Google will also play a part in your search. As mentioned above, podcasts can come in the form of documentaries, comedy panel shows, in-depth interviews, historical research, fictional stories, and so on. Choose your favorite format and an area of interest, then search for those keywords plus "podcasts." This should turn up a wealth of options.

Perhaps the best way to find new ear-fillers is through the apps you use to listen to them. Once you've picked an app (see the next section), check out its search and discovery features. Many apps now trumpet their discovery tools as key features, allowing you to browse through popular shows in various categories and find the best that podcasting has to offer. And iTunes is no exception: When you've found podcasts you like on this platform, check out the "Listeners Also Subscribed To" box.

Finally, you can search through podcast directories. Plenty of options are available online, and one of our favorites is Audiosear.ch. However, most people find podcasts through their app of choice. For those, we'll introduce you to some of the best candidates in the section below.

How to listen

From the Podcasts app that comes as part of iOS to specialist third-party tools like Overcast, you have plenty of podcast-listening options at your fingertips. Beyond apps, you can download episodes and listen to them on any audio player on your computer or phone. However, only dedicated podcast apps will have features like podcast discovery and the ability to automatically download new episodes. Here, we recommend a few leading podcast apps.

Overcast (free for iOS and online): The only downside of Overcast is its lack of availability on Android. It features a wealth of useful features, like smart speed for shortening silences, voice boost for improving the volume of dialog, and smart playlists for queueing up episodes from your library. It's free, but supported by ads, which you can remove with a one-time payment of $9.99.

Pocket Casts ($3.99 for Android, iOS, and an online web player): Why would you pay for a podcast player with so many free options out there? From an intuitive and comprehensive discovery section to smart features for cutting out intros and speeding up playback, Pocket Casts earns its keep. Plus, it uses a neat interface that you can easily customize. And if you install Pocket Casts on several devices, you can sync playback across all of them.

TuneIn Radio (free for Android, iOS, and online): This combination player lets you live stream more than 100,000 radio stations across the world, as well as offering podcast support. It's a great all-in-one solution if you want live radio alongside your podcasts. The app features a simple podcast discovery and subscription section, as well as a favorites page for keeping your most-loved stations and podcasts close to hand. You can use the app for free with ads, or pay a fee of $4.99 and up (depending on the length of your subscription) for a premium experience that removes ads and adds support for audiobooks and live sports programming.

Stitcher (free for Android, iOS, and online): This complete solution can go wherever you go, and it combines news, online radio, and podcasts into one coherent whole. Its discovery and organization tools are particularly well done—if you don't really know what you're looking for, Stitcher's categories and trending sections will help you find podcasts of interest. With a premium account (which costs $4.99 and up), you can remove the ads from the app and enjoy some original Stitcher shows too.

Castro ($3.99 for iOS): This app treats incoming podcasts like emails: They get lined up in your inbox, and from there you can decide whether to add them to a playlist or archive them for later listening. It works well if you want to browse a wide selection of podcasts without necessarily listening to every episode of each one. That said, you can add certain shows to your favorites list, so episodes will automatically end up on your playlist. The app also lets you search for individual podcasts or see the top-ranking shows in specific genres.

DoggCatcher ($2.99 for Android): For non-iPhone podcast listeners, this app offers just about everything you could want: A vast directory of categorized shows, automatic downloading and queueing, variable speed playback, a sleep timer, and more. It's fully invested in the Android ecosystem, so it also works with Android Auto in the car and the Chromecast hooked up to your big screen television set.

Beyond these dedicated options, podcasts are also available through most well-known music apps, including Spotify, Google Play Music, and Deezer. So go ahead and give podcasts a try. Chances are, they can fit quite neatly into whatever listening habits you already have.