I love podcasts so much that I started one. And I'm also terribly picky about UX and UI, as you can imagine, so I was excited to give Marco Arment's Overcast a whirl. Downcast was my mainstay: its feature set was fine but it was just... kinda... ugly.
Overcast offers a free version, and one can pay $5 to unlock a number of features. The features include things like a smart equalizer and downloads over cellular. And like most podcast players, if you're new to the genre (or just looking for something new), it offers a directory. Overcast offers both a straight A-Z searchable directory as well as a curated selection of programs, called a “Starter Kit”. The curated selection is what I want to talk about.
The Starter Kit is broken up into categories. As I was scrolling through these lists, I noticed something: there was a severe lack of gender diversity in almost every category.
I was curious if it was just me or not. So I went into each section and identified any hosts or co-hosts whose names are traditionally female, and verified those that were socially associated with either gender. If a description did not include any names, I chose to count it as not having female hosts or co-hosts. Here's where things netted out as of August 27, 2014.
- In the comedy section, there are 9 podcasts, and 1 with a female co-host (Helen Zaltzman).
- In the tech section, there are 10 podcasts, and 1 with a female cohost (Gina Trapani).
- In the stories & variety section, there are 7 podcasts, and 1 with a female host (Ophira Eisenberg).
- In the public radio section, there are 8 podcasts, and 1 with a regular female host (Terry Gross). Notably, some shows such as BBC Newshour have rotating hosts of all genders, and some shows in this section routinely feature contributions from women.
- In the pop culture section, there are 7 podcasts, and 1 with female co-hosts (Claudia Dolph and Audrey Kearns).
- In the philosophy section, there are 8 podcasts, and 1 with a female host (Krista Tippett).
- In movies & TV section, there are 9 podcasts, and 2 with female hosts (the Verity! podcast with Deborah Stanish, Erika Ensign, Katrina Griffiths, L.M. Myles, Lynne M. Thomas, and Tansy Rayner Roberts; Erika Ensign once again, on the Babylon 5 podcast).
- In the games section, there are 8 podcasts, and 1 with a female cohost (Emily V. Gordon).
- In the business section, there are 8 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
- In the turns out section, there are 8 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
- In the politics section, there are 6 podcasts, and 3 with female cohosts (Emily Bazelon, Brooke Gladstone, and Arianna Huffington).
- In the health section, there are 9 podcasts, and 2 with female hosts (Jillian Michaels and Monica Reinagel).
- In the Apple development section, there are 8 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
- In the Relay.fm section, which is a podcast network, there are 5 podcasts, and none with female hosts.
Note: after I initially wrote this in early August, the “retired greats” section (with 6 podcasts and no female hosts) was removed and replaced by Relay.fm.
So, out of 108 distinct podcasts (2 Relay.fm shows are listed in two places), only 14 feature women in a regular host or co-host capacity. The Verity! podcast has the largest roster, with 6 female co-hosts (and all talking about Doctor Who? I subscribed.) This is a disappointing number.
Overcast written by a prominent person in the Apple dev community - Marco Arment, in this case. I also couldn't help but think about Vesper, the note-taking app headed up by John Gruber, also prominent in the Apple dev community. With these two apps, at least, there is a common ground: they have editorial points of view.
All apps entail design decisions, but for users they've typically been confined to the feature set or aesthetics. Vesper didn't have syncing for quite a while, and some people were quite upset by that. Overcast can be criticized for its feature set or its pricing model, but since Overcast includes editorial content in the form of this podcast directory, it can also be criticized for its podcast selection.
The main issue here is: is Overcast obligated to present a diverse list of podcasts? I say yes. Here's why.
The directory screen opens up as soon as you hit the “add” icon to subscribe to something new. Thus, lots of podcast show art shows up right away. It's visual, it looks great, and it has a prominent position. It has a lot of power. Thus, it blows the opportunity to expose people to ideas and shows that they might not have otherwise heard. A lot of these podcasts do sound like they could just be Marco's favorites - there's a lot of Apple nerdery and so forth. That starts to feel insular.
Most importantly, a Starter Kit or directory is a natural tool to help with that insular nature. As I was noticing this problem, I also took a look at my own list of subscriptions - it was all white (!), and mostly men. So where would I turn to next, logically? The built in directory! And yet the tool let me down there.
I must note that searching, which is a feature in Overcast, does help with this a bit - doing a search for “women” or “black” brings up quite a few podcasts from people of color and women - but this is something I must actively seek out. The directory can help and should help, particularly given this app is written by a fellow white guy.
Notably, I tweeted @overcastfm about the origin of this list but did not receive a response. I also contacted Downcast, and was informed that their directory is sourced straight from the iTunes RSS feeds.
Making this Better
So, how can this be addressed?
One thing I must point out is that it's quite possible that the podcasting community writ large is white male biased. I haven't seen any research on that yet so, if you're aware of any, do let me know. If it's true, that doesn't excuse an app like Overcast from promoting and encouraging diversity amongst its user base.
The most visible and supportive idea is to seek out more diverse podcasts from Overcast users and feature them in the directory. This is good for Overcast and the podcasters too. For Overcast, it starts to shift the editorial voice to one of discovery and diversity instead of (arguably) insularity. For the podcasters, they get a bigger audience (so Squarespace will pay more for ads!)
Another way is to not have a Starter Kit at all. This feels like a miss, but it's also an option.Without a directory, no one is steered in any direction. Notably, the directory also makes assumptions about its users - like that they'll be interested in Apple development podcasts. This may or may not be accurate of the population as a whole.
One other idea: smarter categories. Something more customized would be great; Overcast could learn that I give a shit about women's rights and start recommending great podcasts for that.
Finally, the nature of placement in the Starter Kit is unclear; Relay.fm is an entire podcast network and has its own entire category. So another option is to offer paid placement and then get a diverse podcast category in the app that way.
I criticize Overcast because I think the app is good. It's not great, but it's good. I haven't been compelled to pay $5 for the full feature set, and a lot of that is actually due to this editorial decision - not the missing features. But that's the risk with apps that have more of a voice than just a feature set: some people may love it, and others may not.