Free Podcast Apps Are Nothing New

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

There was a bit of chatter online yesterday over Marco Arment’s decision to make Overcast free and only make money on it though a patronage program. Essentially, he’s doing the Radiohead model of “pay what you want” for the app. Marco said he did this as a way to make sure all his users were getting a great app by not locking away features from those who didn’t pay. Others considered this a move to expand his podcast app market share and push his competitors out who “can’t afford to use this model”.

Outside of the the elephant in the room yesterday, I think we’re missing another critical fact. While everyone was upset about Overcast being free and how anti-competitive that was, few mentioned that the biggest podcast listening app is already free and has been free forever: Apple’s Podcasts app. This is the most used podcast app for iPhones and it’s completely free (and pre-installed on most of the iPhones sold in recent years).

And there’s more: Stitcher has a free app that has done surprisingly well for many years. There’s also TuneIn radio that is very popular and is completely free for listening to podcasts. If you break out of the iOS space, Podcast Addict, Player FM, and Podcast Republic are all free. Overcast is flat out not the first podcast app to go free.

And these free apps aren’t just side-project apps that a couple dozen people have downloaded. Going by Play Store stats, here’s how the Android players rank (take these numbers with a grain of salt, but these are the publicly reported numbers from Google):

  1. Tunein Radio - 100-500 million downloads
  2. Stitcher - 1-5 million
  3. Podcast Republic - 1-5 million
  4. Podcast Addict - 1-5 million
  5. Player FM - 500k - 1 million
  6. Pocket Casts - 100-500 thousand

I can’t do the same comparison for iOS apps, but I would wager that Podcasts and Tunein are at the top with a large gap between them and the awesome podcast apps that we nerds like to use.

Let’s check the entire “that’s fine for Marco” argument at the door and just talk about the broad podcast app market. Overcast is doing very well and for good reason, it is an excellent app. It’s the #1 way people listen to Bite Size Tech, and I bet it’s the #1 way people listen to many Apple-centric podcasts. I think we have to recognize that this is a small niche in the market, though. Most people who listen to podcasts are not like us. They don’t even know Overcast, Pocket Casts, Castro, and Downcast exist. They use Apple’s app and don’t even consider anything else. I’d be very curious to see This American Life’s or Serial’s listener breakdown by app, but I imagine Apple is dominating their listenership.

Ultimately, I think that it’s important to view moves in the podcast space with a little more acknowledgment of the market as a whole, not just our corner of it. A free, full-featured podcast app is nothing new, and they have been around forever. Us nerds (and I once again say that endearingly) are in a relatively small niche of people who care about “boutique apps”. We like supporting an underdog, and we’re more than happy to pay for the privilege. But there’s a wide world of people who are not like us, and they have been using free podcast apps for years. I don’t think making Overcast free is a way to block out the rest of the market, it’s a way for Overcast to get to the next level.