How listener-centric podcast categories for RadioPublic came to be

Or, “Who decided this was the best way to organize things, anyway?”

If reading about process and strategy is your jam, you’re in exactly the right place — or maybe you stumbled across this article from RadioPublic’s announcement of listener-centric categories. Once you’re done reading, explore our categories in full to begin listening.

Our process and approach

I’ve spent a lot of time neck-deep in hundreds — no, thousands of podcasts of all shapes, sizes, longevities, and topics recently, trying to figure out how they all shake out in the wild west of show creation.

One of the ways you can browse podcasts in Apple Podcasts, the most comprehensive (although quite narrow) directory out there, is by category. And yet, the more I’ve learned about categories, the more confused I am about how they help listeners navigate the world of podcasts.

First off, in no place in the Podcast Best Practices documentation, a go-to guide for podcast creators, does it tell you what categories exist for shows, beyond the following:

Be sure to include a valid <itunes:category> tag. You can also define a subcategory if one is available. Podcasts with category information appear in more places on the iTunes Store and are more likely to be found by users.

It does not appear that you can’t have a category if you’d like to submit your show’s RSS feed to Apple Podcasts. But wait! What’s a category? How does a show creator know which category a show falls into if one doesn’t even know what they are? And who are these categories for, anyways — a show’s creator, the listeners of a show, or for the podcatcher? Also, not all listeners use Apple Podcasts, but that’s a topic for another day and another article.

After some digging, I found this genre-mapping chart for all iTunes products, including podcasts, and note: I was on a serious mission to find these, and it was not easy. I scratched my head a few times, then I wondered:

  1. Who decided these categories, and when and how were they decided?
  2. How does a podcast creator know what category is best for their show? (Because remember, podcast creators define the category their show falls under, not a listener or a podcast distributor.)
  3. And just LOOK at how many classifications we have for music, TV, movies, and apps, and how few we have for podcasts.

I understand that podcasts are new in the grand scheme of things, but they come from a long-established foundation of audio, and they don’t exist in a vacuum of media creation. Yes, the bounds of creativity are being pushed daily with new shows and as a result, we’re going to hear wild and wonderful things as a result of this new ground being broken. However, these existing boxes are part of what currently defines the present creative landscape and future shows that will build upon their foundation. To me, that’s a limitation: this structure does not encourage new and different approaches for creating new shows.

There is a better way for listeners (and podcasters!)

My conclusion: these categories are not enough. They’ve been around a while, and as such, they serve as the jumping off point for all sorts of charts, network organization of shows, and even awards. They’re broad and they’re creator assigned, which means that it’s hard as a listener to know where to begin finding what one wants and by extension, more things like it. The mindset of someone who makes things is not necessarily the mindset of the consumer of that thing, which aligns with the age-old marketing adage that it’s not how you define yourself, but rather how someone else defines you.

It takes a human to start pulling together how listeners might want to explore the big wide world of podcasts, a human who listens a lot and knows how to read into a show’s tone, approach, and style to get these groups of shows right AND with a descriptive name. And lest you think this is all for listeners, dear podcaster creators: these categories are for you, too. More listener-centric categories allow you to find and align with relevant related shows faster and, of course, to grow your audience. It all starts from building your RSS feed — including the description tags you use to define your podcast for others — with care and attention to how your show’s content connects with your listeners.

I’m not the only person trying this out — just think of all the listicles that group podcasts together with a descriptive title, or perhaps you’re this awesome guy building out a public recommendation list — but for the past few weeks, I decided to focus in and do it, too: I put myself in the shoes of a listener and started to connect the dots. A fool’s errand, perhaps, since there are more podcasts launching every day who are working within the confines of an undefined but established system, but I had to take a first gander at it to know that it was possible, and that it can and will be helpful to a listener.

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