When talking about digital news apps, we often don’t think outside the walls of written content. However radio and audio applications also deliver news, stories and entertainment to large audiences. There are excellent podcasts in almost every category and their popularity is growing constantly.
Why would someone choose to listen to audio news instead of reading the same thing, especially when you can probably read faster than most speakers can deliver the same amount of information? Audio news apps are convenient, especially for the increasing number of long-haul commuters. Audio apps let you multi-task (which is arguably a good thing). Listening to a discussion on a topic may be more insightful than an article with one person’s point of view. Maybe our eyes get tired of looking at screens all day. And sometimes it’s nice to listen to well-spoken people with pleasant voices.
I fell in love with Audible a couple of years ago. They have a great selection of books and reasonably priced membership. But two things really sold me: 1) the convenience of being able to drop them onto my mp3 player and listen during commutes and travel and 2) the wonderful readers. Reading a David Sedaris book is always entertaining. Listening to David Sedaris read you his book, while doing impressions of his sisters and his father, is like stand-up comedy. Malcolm Gladwell’s books become somehow more insightful when read by his calm and thoughtful voice.
So I have a thing for voices. Anyway, back to the apps and their popularity. Today we’ll be covering iPad audio news apps Stitcher, NPR, and RTÉ Radio News.
I learned about Stitcher a while back when I first found the TechCrunch Headlines podcast (which Stitcher produces). Stitcher is an app for streaming podcasts, radio and news to mobile devices including iPhone, Android, iPad, BlackBerry and Palm. The app has a catalogue of various podcasts and channels both on demand and live which users can subscribe to for free.
Opening Stitcher shows a nice, simple layout with some of the top news stories, popular channels and new additions on the right and basic navigation on the left. Clicking into a podcast or channel starts it playing immediately.
For navigation, the user can choose between OnDemand or Live Stations. Once the user has found a podcast he likes, he can click the star icon to add it to the list of Favorites. Favorites stitches together playlists so users can simply click on Favorites and hear a stream of interesting content.
Individual episodes can also be bookmarked, to save or listen later. The Favorites list refreshes the podcasts every so often to make sure the episodes are the most recent ones.
Stitcher has done three things very, very well. First of all, they have tons of content. By region, by interest, by source, they have created a very good directory of much of the top audio content available. Next they created native apps for multiple platforms. So you can listen on many devices and get the same great experience. Lastly they have kept the interface very clean and simple. There aren’t any instruction pages here, no one needs them. The audio controls are always at the top, the navigation always on the left, and the playlist or podcast detail always on the right. Very easy-to-use.
NPR, or National Public Radio, is a familiar enough name to most radio fans. They have built a large audience for their popular shows like Radiolab, All Things Considered, Planet Money, On The Media and many more. NPR’s programming reaches a weekly audience of 26+ million listeners, so they’re clearly creating desirable and interesting content.
NPR has done a fantastic thing by creating their COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) system which allows other people to build on top of them and access their content. This means that there are many different people and organizations pushing NPR’s content out for them, spreading the audio and podcasts to various devices and platforms. They’re a very creative organization when it comes to their technology, and their iPad app, which was recently updated for iOS 5, is no exception.
When you launch the NPR iPad app, you have a lovely, easy-to-use interface showing you a selection of recordings and news with a radio player/navigation control section at the bottom. To move between the different channels, there is a sort-of Flud-like, horizontal scroll with thumbnails and short descriptions. For each item, you can choose to listen now or add it to your playlist.
If there are particular programs you regularly enjoy from NPR, you can find them by clicking on the “Programs” button at the bottom and search by title or topic. Clicking the heart icon adds it to your favorites on the left-hand column.
Clicking on an individual podcast starts it playing in the radio player at the bottom of the app. You can alternately add it to your playlist & queue up several podcasts. Some of the news stories have written content you can read and share, some only audio and no metadata. But the navigation controls are relatively easy to use to find the programs you want and listen live or on-demand.
NPR has an interesting advertising model as well – they intersperse occasional audio ads in between programs or before certain programs.
The only thing that doesn’t work outside the US is the station finder. As it uses zip code look up, it can’t find anything near you if you’re outside of the US. I’ve seen this as a problem in many US-centric apps; for a long time trying to use geolocation on The Daily would simply crash the app.
RTÉ RADIO PLAYER
It is difficult to find a general “audio news” app that isn’t either full of content specific to the producer (like NPR) or more of an aggregator (like Stitcher). The RTÉ Radio Player is an example of a “local news channel” app. Wherever you live, it’s possible that a local media outlet is doing something similar and providing streaming, podcast feeds or an app for you to listen live or catch up on local news.
Upon opening the RTÉ Radio Player (which is landscape view only), the live radio begins playing immediately. It starts in RTÉ Radio 1 streaming the live radio station. Underneath a small summary of the current playing program is a tabbed interface where users can select the schedule, website or podcasts. There’s currently an ad to the left which, if you click it, takes you to Safari and then immediately the App Store to download the same application again for some reason. But maybe it’s a rotating ad and I just caught it on a bug.
The schedule link is a bit off-putting as it appears as though you could click on one of the programs and start listening to it, but it’s just a static listing of the programs for that channel. Clicking back from the current day takes you to next week’s programs, so there’s no way to look at the schedule from the previous day.
The website tab simply embeds the RTE website into a small view. You can increase the area by clicking the up arrow icon on the right and navigate around the website, but as it’s full-sized and contains flash ads, it’s a little bit shoe-horned in. It would be much more useful if it were streamlined content or maybe a mobile device-friendly version of the site.
On the podcasts tab, you can select from things like most popular, most recent or recommended and you can also search. While you’re presented with only the last day or two worth of podcasts, you can search and find much older recordings if you’re looking for a specific broadcast. I did find it strange that while the podcasts on most popular and most recent seemed to play correctly, clicking on recommended podcasts didn’t always play the podcast I clicked on. I am wondering if it has to do with them being listed but not yet uploaded for that day maybe?
To get back to live radio you can click the “Back to Live Radio” button in the top right, which turns into a “Change Station” option when you’re listening to the live radio channel. So you can select that and switch from RTÉ Radio 1 to RTÉ 2fm, RTE Choice, etc. When you change channels, the schedule and website tabs will update but the Podcasts always contain a variety from RTÉ Radio 1, RTÉ 2fm & RTÉ Raidió Na Gaeltachta.
If you travel a lot or spend a lot of time already in front of bright screens, audio news may be a great option for you. Alternately it’s an excellent source of entertainment and education. Whether you decide to go with an aggregator or a local news outlet application depends a lot on the type of content you prefer to hear. Think about your preferences and give one of the audio news apps a shot.
As a podcast enthusiast, I listen to quite a few different podcasts (mostly technology). These days I primarily use Stitcher on my iPad, but I also use Zune software (yes, still) to sync my mp3 player and listen on my desktop computer. Anything to keep me away from trying to use iTunes for podcasts, which I think is a miserable piece of software.
The 5by5 Podcast network has a few different shows I listen to regularly including:
- The Big Web Show with Jeffrey Zeldman. Quite simply, it’s the best.
- Founders Talk with Adam Stacoviak – interesting interviews with startups
- Latest in Paleo – Excellent Paleo-focused podcast by Angelo Coppola
and several others I listen to occasionally such as:
- Build & Analyze with Marco Arment – Mostly iOS/Apple-related
- Let’s Make Mistakes with Mule Design – Design topics
- Back to Work with Merlin Mann – Productivity and work topics
- The Talk Show with John Gruber – Technology, Apple, the web
Other podcasts I like are:
- TechCrunch Headlines (produced daily by Stitcher)
- Onion Radio News (does what it says on the tin)
- 99% Invisible – Insightful design & architecture topics
- Stuff you Missed in History Class – Always fascinating & fun
- BBC World News Update: Daily Commute – Excellent world news
- The Economist – Also excellent world news
- Freakonomics Podcast – The hidden side of everything
And of course I have to mention Tech Radio, where I occasionally join Dusty Rhodes and Niall Kitson to talk about everything tech-related in Ireland: http://techcentral.ie/pod_casts.aspx