Google Play Will Now Soundtrack Your Life With Podcasts
A decade after their inception, podcasts are hitting the mainstream. You can argue about why (everyone does), but the numbers don’t lie. At this point, podcasts are a bit like the Internet in the 90’s: Growing so fast that regular people are interested and even the die-hards can’t keep up. Apps like Overcast and PocketCasts are great for people who know where to look, but everyone else really, really needs a discovery tool. A search engine. And don’t look now, but here comes Google.
Today, the company launches the podcast section for Google Play Music that it announced last fall. There are no wacky new playback ideas; you’ll still find a popularity chart, and a lot of sonorous NPR hosts here. The ability to listen to music and podcasts in the same place is nice, but you can do that with iTunes, Spotify (sort of), and others. What makes this big is, well, it’s Google, the biggest company since Apple to try being a podcast platform. “This is a long-awaited announcement,” Hot Pod’s Nick Quah wrote after Google’s initial October teaser, “particularly from the corners of the podcasting world that often lament the medium’s issues with discoverability and its predominant funneling through the Apple ecosystem.”
What Google truly hopes to do is expose podcasts “to people who had no idea they were looking for podcasts,” says Elias Roman, the product manager for Google Play Music. Sure, Google now offers a way of getting your Radiolab fix or finding the latest from Criminal. But what really excited Roman is delivering exactly what you want to listen to, exactly when you want to hear it, without you doing anything more than pressing play. (And eventually not even that.)
If you look at the top of Google Play Music’s website right now, or open the app, a list of playlists—Today’s Biggest Hits. Boosting Your Energy. Working to a Beat.—appears there at the top. These, in Play Music parlance, are moments. Moments are the true organizing principle of the Play Music strategy. Within Google, no one’s terribly excited about simply delivering millions of songs at the touch of a button. That’s old news, and it causes as many problems as it solves. “That level of choice and decision-making became sort of oppressive,” Roman says. What a good music service does now is curate all the best stuff for you. If Google can marry curation with a contextual understanding of what you’re doing and what you might want to listen to, that’s where the magic happens.
“When we look at the future of music,” Roman says, “we think it’s not about searching and browsing at all. It’s much less about how people find things, and much more about how things find people.” If that sounds obvious, it should, because that’s the approach the entire music industry is taking. “What if we took [context] to its full conclusion,” Spotify’s vp of product Shiva Rajaraman asked me almost a year ago, “where instead of orienting around this idea of having music which you put in a library, we orient more around your life?” Rhapsody, Pandora, and others are asking the same questions.
Google, the company that knows more about you than anyone—except for Facebook, but that’s not a music service, so give me this one—may be uniquely able to pull it off.
Which brings me back to moments. When Play Music serves up a playlist, it does so after considering where you are, what time it is, what you’ve listened to before, and much more. When you’re working out, Play Music tries to offer the best thing to listen to between grunts at the squat rack. It suggests something a little different when you’re driving, different again while you’re making dinner, watching the sunset, getting ready for bed, and falling asleep. As your life changes, so should your soundtrack, and Google Play Music is far more interested in providing that soundtrack than in making it easy for you to find your favorite Myrkur song. Podcasts open new moments, like when you’re driving and want to learn something or you’re heading home and want to unwind. “I think the best feedback we get from customers has nothing to do with music,” Roman says. “It’s like, ‘you make studying better.’ Or ‘you make the gym more tolerable.’” The Play Music streaming team, led by Peter Asbill, is constantly creating and testing new places to insert music into your life. Do you remember those Starbucks Doubleshot commercials from years ago, where Survivor followed a guy named Glen around singing his theme song? That’s what Google’s going for. To do that, it discovered, requires podcasts.
There are three broad categories for Play Music’s podcast moments: “Learning Something New,” “Laughing Out Loud,” and “Getting Lost in a Story.” Within them are slightly more specific options. Want to learn about money? Here’s a Stuff You Should Know episode followed by Stacking Benjamins and then a little Planet Money for good measure. The “Personal Histories” playlist queues up TED Radio Hour, How to Be a Girl, and more. The curation is episode-specific, so you’re (ideally) getting the absolute best of the podcasting world.
Roman and Asbill were both founders of Songza, which Google bought in June, 2014. They’ve spent years working on “IRL soundtracking,” as they called it in their farewell letter to Songza users. It’s a very Googley approach to music, turning big data into Big Recommendation. But what truly Roman and Asbill excites them is talking about how they can integrate music and podcasts into everything Google does. Think about Google Now, Roman says: “You’re sitting on your couch, and your phone lights up, and it says you need to leave now for your dinner party. That is an incredible, magical moment.” Roman and Asbill are exploring how to do that with music. Roman says they hear from users who actually go outside and watch the sun set when they see the “Watching the Sunset” playlist pop up. It’s music-ception. “Today we live in a world where we sort of wait eagerly for you to open the app,” he says, “and then we come up with an awesome, contextually relevant recommendation for you. What if we anticipated the need, and we got to you before you open the app?”
He won’t elaborate on what that means, for fear of revealing Google’s specific plans. (Which, if you’re following along, means there are specific plans.) But the path is clear: With the right stuff to listen to and the right data to organize it all, Play Music could be your own personal DJ. You just put on headphones and live your life. Google makes it epic.