Why is sharing podcast episodes such a pain?

Why is sharing podcast episodes such a pain?

Every time I hear, “find us wherever you get your podcasts,” I’m reminded of how little pride podcasters take in their websites. Reciting their domain name at the end of an episode would surely be the most memorable call-to-action, but the common convention would tell you to just say, “figure it out yourself!”

If you understand how RSS feeds work in blogging and podcasting, you can appreciate how odd sharing in podcasting sounds. Imagine if we shared blog posts like we share episodes, “Catch my latest post! Links below → feedly.com, inoreader.com, newsblur.com, or where you read blogs!” Even though most podcasts have a canonical URL for every episode, people understand that directing people to their web browser isn’t the ideal destination. The better experience is to direct listeners to their browser for audio, aka their podcast app. Nathan Baschez explains:

With text-based websites, RSS was/is an optional step at the bottom of the funnel. You’d visit a link (via search engines, email, etc) and read an article, and if you get really into it, you might add that site to your RSS reader (if you even used one). But with podcasts, RSS is the whole thing. Podcast apps are more analogous to “web browsers for audio” than text-based RSS readers, because they are the beginning and end of pretty much all podcast discovery and consumption.

The quest for a podcast protocol

So if you can share a link to an article and it will open in the user’s browser of choice, why can’t we do the same in podcasting? Many have tried to no avail. People have been linking to RSS feeds by using the pcast:// URL scheme since at least 2006.

In 2012, Apple released Apple Podcasts for iOS. The iPhone didn’t let users set their preferred browser for http:// links or preferred email client for mailto:// links. So it was no surprise when they began preventing third-party podcast apps from registering that URL scheme themselves.

In 2018, Mark Steadman and Brendan Hutchins launched a campaign to get podcasters to support a new podto:// protocol. The folks at Supertop summed up the key issue with that initiative:

If it caught on, Apple would probably add support for it to Apple Podcasts and we’d all be back at square one…The best answer here is for Apple to start allowing iOS users to do what Windows and Mac users have done for years. Let us choose our own default apps to handle the various scheme links.

Years later, Apple eventually let users change their default web browser and email client, but they haven’t felt the need to do the same for podcasting.

Charting a path forward

If we want to create a world where sharing podcast episodes is easier, we need to bridge the gap ourselves. I think podcasting should work around Apple, demonstrate demand, and then pressure Apple to give users control over their preferred podcast app. Here’s what I think could be achieved without their support:

Step 1: Extend pcast:// to support episodes

I hope we can reach further than past efforts for cross-app linking and support episodes as well as feeds. Deep-linking to an episode in several apps is a more laborious task than just feeds, and it’s the kind of thing that motivates people to get on board.

Presently, the vast majority of apps make it impossible to link to an episode on their platforms programmatically. On GitHub, I maintain a list of the URL patterns used by podcast platforms based on my experience building pod.link. Talking to these companies, many of them don’t want to construct URLs dependent on values within feeds because they don't trust them to remain stable over time. To solve this, podcast platforms could agree on a well-known endpoint to request an episode’s stable URL based on foreign keys like GUID or enclosure URL.

Step 3: Give users control where we can

When Gmail for iOS ran into a similar issue, they added their in-app settings to give users control over their default browser, maps, and calendar apps. Taking a page out of that playbook, podcast apps could recognize pcast:// links in show notes and redirect them to their in-app pages. Podcast newsletters could store subscribers’ preferred podcast apps and use merge tags to tailor their links to each reader. Podcast websites could override pcast:// links on iOS with something like the Podlove Subscribe Button for episode links and set a first-party cookie to store the visitor’s preference.


I built pod.link out of frustration that the industry wasn’t making progress in tackling this problem. It’s been thrilling to see podcasters I respect adopt it as part of their marketing efforts. But it’s always been a stop-gap for a systemic problem that should be addressed at the platform level. The podcast landscape has changed significantly since 2018, and I hope Apple recognizes its opportunity to help the open ecosystem of podcasting thrive.