clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Google Brings Podcasting to Play Music, Swinging at Apple's Dominance

Team Adnan, meet team Android.


From their earliest days, podcasts were linked closely to Apple. Their very name came from an Apple product: iPod. Apple included podcasts in its music app before spinning out a separate iPhone app in 2012, then made it un-deletable last year, just in time for a boom in the format thanks to the wildly popular “Serial” series from This American Life.

It’s Google’s turn now. The Alphabet company is getting ready to open a dedicated home for podcasts on its Google Play hub. Today the company is letting podcast creators upload shows to Google Play Music, its streaming service; it says listeners will be able to listen to those shows “in the coming months.” It will be, remarkably, the first native app for podcast listening* on Android in the content market where Apple carries disproportionate weight.

But Google isn’t just trying to create more Serial fanatics on Android. No, it wants to reach people that have never listened to podcasts. And it wants to broaden its media offerings in the fight with Apple, the frequent go-to platform for media producers.

In so doing, Google plans to use radio shows to bolster its plan to deliver media tailored for the listener’s interests, activities, even moods. That directive is evident in the product’s lead: Elias Roman, co-founder of the streaming service Songza, whose main schtick was building these contextual playlists before Google acquired it last year.

Roman, now a product manager for Play Music, told Re/code that podcasting was always in Songza’s roadmap. Google accelerated it. “Our goal is to serve content that makes what you do every day better,” he said.

With music, they hit certain quotidian tasks — songs for a morning, a workout, a nap. What about content for the inquisitive listener? Or the depressed one in need of a pick-me-up? This is where podcasts fit in, in Google’s vision. In the same way it curates a playlist, Play Music will suggest radio shows based on factors like the time of day and user inputs, like common activities and moods.

“Podcasts allow us to do everything for our users,” Roman added. “It makes us a more complete concierge.”

For many in podcasting production, it has been a long time coming. The medium took off with mobile, but it was a lopsided rise. Most podcasters tune in on Apple devices. A survey from Edison research, in May, reported that around seventeen percent of respondents had listened to podcasts in the past month. Some 55 percent owned iPhones, while 40 percent had Androids, roughly the inverse of the U.S. smartphone market. Other podcast producers say their audience comes from iOS at even higher rates.

In part, that’s because Android lacked a dominant podcast app. (One of the more popular ones, Stitcher, was acquired by French streaming service Deezer last year.) Once the Play Music service opens up to listeners, podcast producers will have a new stage on every Android device.

“It’s like going from playing nightclubs to playing stadium shows,” said Matt Lieber, president of Gimlet Media, which produces the great podcast Startup and two others. Gimlet is one of eighteen partners Google has been working with before the launch, including networks like Nerdist and HowStuffWorks, as well as Public Radio International and HBO.

Play Music will run the podcasting service on both its subscription offering and free tier, which launched in June. The subscription service, which strips out ads between songs, won’t strip out the ads in podcasts that (remember ‘Mail Kimp’?) tend to be woven into the production.

Roman stressed that the goal is to expose podcasting to newcomers — the 83 percent, per Edison, who don’t listen. That’s why Google baked it into its streaming service, which can reach iOS users, rather than with a new Android app. (An unsaid reason could be that the Android hardware makers may balk at another pre-installed Google app.)

The service is also retaining Songza’s human touch, coupling editors with Google’s algorithm to find shows. “The future of content is a lot less about how people find things and it’s much more about how things find people,” offered Roman.

If Google can crack that problem, it will please the podcasting world. Despite Apple’s sizable imprint in podcasting, its first stab at a standalone app was fairly buggy.

“In many ways, it’s what the industry has wanted to happen,” said Adam Symson, chief digital officer of Scripps, a Google partner. “About the best way to discover new content is through word of mouth or the top charts on the iTunes podcast list.”

Sorting podcasts algorithmically is not as easy as sorting music — shows don’t fit into such neat genre boxes. Yet the podcast producers I spoke to were optimistic about Google’s odds, noting, in essence, if anyone can do it, Google can. Others have tried personalized podcasts, without much breakaway success. The app Swell did before being shut down, in July of last year, after Apple bought it.

Update: An earlier version of this article said the consumer launch will arrive in the “coming weeks” rather than “months.” It’s months.

*Several readers have pointed out that Google once produced a podcasting app called Listen, which shut down in 2012 since, in Google’s explanation, it was made redundant by the Play Store. The app synched with Google Reader, another defunct product, but it was not pre-installed on Android devices like Play Music.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.