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Screen shot of Apple's Podcasts app for iOS

Apple: Tune in to podcast “stations” on an iPhone “radio dial”

Podcasts get promoted/demoted on iOS devices, getting their own app but losing the exposure of iTunes.

Screen shot of Apple's Podcasts app for iOS

Radio stations worry about relevance in a digital age. The cachet of a spot on the FM dial can disappear in the seemingly infinite number of audio streams on the Internet.

Today transmission-tower owners can take some comfort that the most valuable company in the world considers the radio dial worth sustaining, at least metaphorically.

Apple spun off its long-neglected iTunes category today into a full-blown app for iPhone and iPad, appropriately named Podcasts. (You can download it now.) And it’s chock full of radio metaphors. The most popular podcasts are labeled “Top Stations.” Users can browse those stations by swiping across the “dial.” And, as you can see above, the playback display looks like a reel-to-reel. (The design is receiving mixed reviews.)

Apple has chuffed1 a lot of designers for nicking bits of real-world design for its iOS apps. Newsstand gets a walnut bookshelf; Notes gets that hideous marker font; Calendar looks like a tear-off desktop calendar.)

Defensible or not, those visual ties to the real world are meant to make the digital transition easier for less-savvy users. Podcasting has long had difficulty breaking beyond a core audience. Apple’s app reduces podcasting to one-tap simplicity: Users can now subscribe to podcasts right from the device, edging us closer to the “post-PC” world. The app also downloads new episodes to the device automatically, a missing feature that has caused much grumbling. Episodes can either be streamed or downloaded for offline consumption.

What does the app look like for news podcasts? Buried in the middle of the Top Stations “radio dial,” somewhere around 103.7 FM, is the News & Politics category, which currently features two NPR programs, Bill Maher, the BBC, and 60 Minutes. would seem to represent Apple’s renewed commitment to a medium sometimes accused of irrelevance. The desktop version of iTunes simplified podcasting somewhat back in 2005, abstracting away RSS feeds and MP3 downloads by providing a directory listing. The iOS app takes it a step further, untethering the user from a computer.

Now that Apple is shunting podcasts onto a private island outside of the iTunes iOS app, however, it may be more difficult for new users to discover the content. The Podcasts app won’t come preloaded on iDevices, unlike the separate Music and Video apps. (The same is true for iBooks, but users are prompted to download that app after turning on the device for the first time. It’s unclear if Podcasts will get the same treatment.) The podcasts section is apparently removed from iTunes altogether in the beta version of iOS 6 being shown to Apple developers.

“It’s tough to overstate how lazy and nervous people are about trying new forms of media, so I’m scared that separating podcasts from iTunes might mean a huge drop in people trying them out,” said Jesse Thorn, who makes a living from podcasts.

“My hope, though, is that the downside will be outweighed by a great, easy-to-use piece of stand-alone software,” he said.

  1. Several readers were none too chuffed — some of you positively narked — by my use of this word to mean “displeased, disgruntled.” I heard from Britons, online and off, that chuffed means “pleased,” as in, “chuffed to bits.” I have understood this word to be an auto-antonym, a word with two meanings that are opposites (e.g., sanction, handicap, oversight). Dictionaries disagree with one another. The O.E.D recognizes both definitions, but its citations of the “pleased” usage are older, dating to 1957. Random House has “displeased” as the earlier usage, dating to 1825–35. In all cases, however, it is clear the “pleased” usage is much more common, if not ubiquitous. I thank all of the word boffins for raising the point.
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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • Scott Hunter

    Podcasts are already available without the use of a computer. I download them directly to my iphone every day. Not sure I like the idea of forcing me to use three different apps for video, music and podcasts, but we shall see.

  • WarOnMugs

    Yeah you are on the wrong side of history with your use of “chuffed.” I’ve heard many Brits use it in the “pleased” manner, but never heard anyone on either side of the Atlantic use it to mean the opposite. It’s funny, because you seem to be striking a bit of a Brit pose with not only that word, but then using “nicking” for “stealing” shortly theafter. I mean have you ever heard an American use “nick” that way?

  • Joshua Benton

    Don’t mind us — we’re too busy eating jellied eels and black pudding to respond quickly.

  • Andrew Phelps

    Cheerio, constable!

  • CraigSilverman

    Capital conversation we’ve got going on here, gents!

  • Joshua Benton

    I move that the remarks of the right honourable gentleman from Toronto be struck from the record on the grounds of his Canadianity, which leaves him lying suspiciously atop the boundary point of Britishness and non-Britishness.

  • CraigSilverman

    Why, I’ve never been so insulted in all my years in the realm. I’ll have you know that this gentleman hangs his cap and suspenders in Montreal, you filthy American ingrate. How fitting that we recently celebrated the bi-centennial of the great War of 1812, in which my countrymen and our British brothers trounced your rebellious incursions. Enjoy your new White House this 4th of July, chap. We sure had a ball lighting up the old one. Ta.

  • Joshua Benton

    (You see, here’s where my flexibility can come in handy — I can switch seamlessly to attacking you as an Anglophone oppressor of the French majority.)

    All I know is the War of 1812 ended with Ol’ Hickory and some Louisiana boys giving the Brits a little hot sauce.

  • Andrew Phelps

    Post-script: With the release of Podcasts 1.2, the goofy visual metaphor of the tape deck is gone (but the radio dial design remains).