James Cridland

Pocket Casts for Sale: Where Did It Go Wrong?

Podcast app Pocket Casts is looking for a buyer. NPR, which owns 34.6% of the company, reports their share of the company’s loss was $812,000 (p15): which could put the company’s net loss at more than $2m, though the company denies this.

I’ve used Pocket Casts for a long time. To me, it has two unbeatable features:

1. A really, really good audio player - the skip-silence and the voice-boost is light-years ahead of anything that anyone else has produced (with the possible exception of Overcast, but I don’t use it enough to know)

2. The full Apple Podcasts catalogue (since BBC content is blocked from Google Podcasts). This isn’t unique to PocketCasts, but is one reason why I came back to it.

Sadly, those two selling points haven’t helped it in recent years. Purchased by a set of US public media companies in May 2018, and subsequently also invested-in by BBC Studios Americas, Pocket Casts has seen its market share shrink.

In April 2018, Libsyn reported that Pocket Casts was the 7th biggest mobile app, with 1.58% of all mobile downloads. By August 2019, it had shrunk to 1.14%; the app went free in September 2019, increasing its share to 1.3%; but by September 2020, its share had dropped below 1%. Buzzsprout’s data seems to tell a similar story.

Perhaps part of that reason is that Pocket Casts doesn’t appear to have innovated much - no WebSub, no episode images, no payment options. They could have taken a punt on Adam Curry’s Podcast Index work and made themselves the defacto app for that work. I can’t see any evidence that they have even investigated it.

The competition is now stronger. Google Podcasts is now at a point where it’s the #3 podcast app in more than a few pieces of data from hosts. For many, it’s now the default “decently capable” podcast app on Android: the platform that Pocket Casts started on. Pocket Casts will be losing significantly from Google getting into the game, since new users will just use the Google option.

On the other hand, the Android power users will use PodcastAddict, which (unlike Pocket Casts) has continued to innovate and has incorporated plenty of Podcast Index stuff. I find it unintuitive and not that pretty, though that’s a personal view (and I’m no design genius); but Xavier is keen to improve it all the time, and it’s notable that he is very visible wherever podcast devs hang out.

Pocket Casts is polished, and has a decent UX. But it’s now squeezed between Google and PodcastAddict: neither advanced enough nor different enough to succeed. As it continues to slip below 1% market share, it’ll quickly become invisible to podcasters. That’s a crying shame - and I wish it stood for something.

Moving forward - I’d like the audio player code to be bought by Spotify or Google, both of whom could significantly benefit from it. I’m genuinely not sure how to make a business out of “Yet Another Player Of Free Stuff Even If It’s Quite Capable At Playing The Free Stuff”. But I do hope, as a long-time user, that someone proves me wrong. It’s too good to lose.

Russell Ivanovic, the company’s CTO, gave a comment to an initial version of this article saying it was “way off base”, adding that it was merely a reposting of the Current article I linked to without any extra journalism or research. He declined to describe this article’s shortcomings further. (I have since clarified the company’s reported losses are based on NPR’s share; and further documented its market share.)