The promise of podcast playlists

Now that Spotify has podcast playlists, what will you do with them?

I’ve been thinking a lot about podcast playlists lately, especially since Zach Kahn tweeted about Spotify’s new playlist features:

In the music world, playlists reshaped discovery and listening behavior in the era of streaming services.

In the podcast world, playlists hold huge potential too.

But before podcasters can put playlists to use, it’s important to think deeply about what they are, what they’re good for, and the different ways apps implement them.

First, a caveat

I’m using the word “playlist” as a catch-all. Different services use different words for slightly different versions of the same core idea. When I say “playlist” I mean “a named group of shows” or “a named group of episodes.” With that said…

What even is a podcast playlist?

At the risk of stating the obvious: playlists are lists.

But… lists of what?

Some podcast playlists are lists of episodes, like this Spotify playlist of Today Explained episodes, or this Podchaser playlist of Top Accounting and Bookkeeping Podcast Episodes.

Other podcast playlists are lists of shows. For example, Apple’s Learn to Cook Curated Collection, or

’s Puerto Rico feature in Castro.

From left to right, podcast playlists (or “Collections” as some prefer) in Castro, Apple Podcasts, Podchaser, and Spotify

Shows vs. episodes is an important distinction, and there doesn’t seem to be any industry-wide consensus on what the atomic unit of a podcasting playlist should be.

It’s worth noting that some podcast playlists can contain both shows and episodes (e.g Listen Notes playlists).

Who’s allowed to create a podcast playlist?

Some podcast apps allow anybody to create a playlist.

Spotify seems to be taking this route, allowing users to create and publish their own private or public playlists, while simultaneously featuring Spotify’s own in-house curated playlists. As Ashley Carman reported for The Verge in June 2019:

Five playlists will start showing up today to around 5 percent of users in the UK, US, Canada, Mexico, Sweden, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. The themes include comedy, true crime, “geek culture,” “walking (motivational),” and “relaxing (mindfulness).” The playlists are expected to change over time as Spotify experiments with how to present them, which means they could update at different rates and feature a rotating selection of both Spotify-exclusive shows and third-party podcasts. It’s unclear how the curators are choosing the episodes — if they’re creating deals with networks for placement or just picking content they themselves recommend.

Meanwhile, other apps restrict public playlist creation to editorial staff and curators.

A framework for thinking about different kinds of podcast playlists

So, we have two axes: episodes vs. shows, and user-generated vs. editorial curation. At the risk of introducing a 2x2 matrix…

If there’s a prominent podcast app or service with a dedicated editorial team that hand-curates playlists made up of episodes, I haven’t seen it.

This feels like an opportunity to me.

Update, 3 September 2019: After I published this post, I heard from a few services that offer episode-focused podcast playlists, including Podyssey and Majelan.

A few other factors to consider when thinking about podcast playlists:

Shareability. Some podcast apps let you copy/paste a sharable link to a playlist. Others don’t. Music playlists spread because they’re easy to share. Podcast playlists need to be just as sharable as music playlists.

Playlists for discovery vs. playlists for playback. Whether you call it a queue, a list, the “Listen Now” screen, or something else entirely, every podcast listener’s personal list of shows and episodes is a kind of playlist: a playback playlist.

Personally, I use Overcast’s “Smart Playlist” features to sort and filter shows and episodes for my own personal listening, and I have no need or desire to share those playlists with the world.

Whereas Apple’s Curated Collections or RadioPublic’s Stations seem designed primarily for new show discovery.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What can podcasters learn from the established world of music playlist promotion?
  • How can you use playlists to repackage back catalog episodes in new ways? What do thematic playlists look like? What do guest-based playlists look like?
  • How can you use playlists to create accessible onramps for new listeners? What does a “Best Of” playlist look like for your show? What does a “Start Here” playlist look like?
  • For podcast networks: What does a “Starter Pack” playlist look like? How can you demonstrate your network’s tone, style, range, and breadth by highlighting specific episodes?
  • What does a RIYL playlist of similar shows look like?
  • If your show releases highly differentiated seasons (I’m looking at you, Uncover) or miniseries (e.g. Seeing White from Scene on Radio), how can you use playlists to package groups of episodes to make them more standalone and sharable?

Have you seen interesting examples of podcast playlists in the wild? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

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