Katherine Boehret

Podcast Hunter Tracks Down the Web’s Best

What do Alec Baldwin interviewing David Letterman, an explanation of why mimes replaced traffic police in Bogotá, Colombia, and a story about burping have in common? They are all free podcasts that were, until now, difficult to discover and hear.

I’ve been testing Smart Station, a new feature in an app called Stitcher, that aims to simplify the hunt for great podcasts. Smart Station fills a station with audio content on a variety of topics that it thinks you’ll like, finding this content using an algorithm that compares your listening patterns with tens of millions of listening hours from other users. It is designed to improve as you listen to more podcasts.

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The Smart Station feature on the Stitcher app uses an algorithm to help listeners discover new sources of audio podcasts that they might like.

The Stitcher app is free and runs on Apple’s iPod touch, iPhone and iPad, as well as on Android phones and tablets, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color and Nook Tablet and Amazon’s Kindle Fire. It provides an elegant interface for finding and playing some 100,000 hours of podcast programming. But the app, alone, wasn’t doing a good enough job of helping users discover content they might like.

The Smart Station feature is a delight to use. I listened to podcasts it suggested while I was commuting, exercising and cooking in my kitchen. As promised, the content in my Smart Station seemed to get more personalized the more I used it. Each podcast in the curated list lasted about 30 minutes, more to chew on than three-minute news clips.

Other recent additions to Stitcher are a sleep timer, as well as a feature that shows podcast-representative album art on your device’s lock screen.

Meanwhile, Apple just released a standalone Podcasts app with a Top Stations feature.

My Smart Station took days to start working rather than the required minimum listening time of five minutes. Noah Shanok, Stitcher co-founder and chief executive, said this was due to a significant server outage soon after the release of this new version of Stitcher; the outage has since been fixed. Currently, the only way to manually adjust content added to your Smart Station is to start playing it and give each podcast a thumbs-up or -down, which will add more or delete similar content, respectively. Mr. Shanok said a future version of Smart Station will let people vote content up or down without playing it first.

Stitcher first-timers can choose up to three topics of interest from categories such as current events, liberal or conservative politics, tech, entertainment, and lectures and education. Or they can type a topic or radio station into a blank search box.

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On your Favorites list new podcast episodes enter the queue when they become available.

I tested Stitcher using an HTC One S Android phone, an iPad and an iPhone. One of the app’s coolest features is its seamless cloud synchronization. This means that if you use your iPad to listen to a Jeff Daniels interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, pause it and then want to restart it later while standing in line at the post office with your Android smartphone, “Fresh Air” will play from exactly where you left off on the iPad. Just don’t forget your earbuds.

If you find a podcast you like, hit the thumbs-up button to tell the app and improve the Smart Station algorithm. If you tap the star icon to add that show to your list of Favorites, new podcast episodes will fill up Favorites whenever they’re available. You can share any podcast episode with friends via Facebook, Twitter or email. If you do nothing while listening, Smart Station still knows what you’ve listened to, how far you’ve listened and when you stopped so it can tell whether or not to suggest similar content in the future.

I used Smart Station to discover the shows Freakonomics Radio and Moth, and found NPR favorites, like Car Talk, as well as some I didn’t know existed, like NPR’s Most-Emailed Stories Podcast. I learned a lot by listening to a podcast called Stuff You Should Know, made by Discovery Communications’ How Stuff Works. A podcast episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class taught me the fascinating history of John James Audubon.

Stitcher’s Front Page is a section of the app divided into In the Headlines, What’s Hot and What’s New. Another section of On Demand Shows lets people search podcasts by interest, such as Games & Hobbies, Local and Spirituality & Religion. A Live Radio section lets you hear what’s playing through normal radio stations, but I preferred podcasts. Smart Station is located in the My Favorites section of the app.

Stitcher’s new sleep timer offers seven options ranging in length from 15 to 120 minutes. And its lock-screen album art came in handy once or twice when I wanted to know the name of the podcast I was hearing in a quick glance.

If you’re already a fan of talk radio or you’re curious about what kinds of programs are available in free podcasts but don’t know where to begin, Stitcher’s Smart Station will almost surely surface several shows that will pique your interest.


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