[This review has been edited to incorporate new information that has come to light re: Luminary. Edited/added content will be appropriately tagged.]
The venture-capitalist funded podcast company Luminary launched their app this morning, capping weeks of hype and controversy with a podcasting app sporting fewer features than its free competitors. Launching two months earlier than originally proposed, Luminary lacks some basic quality-of-life functions one has come to expect from a podcatcher after years of just having these features for free. It feels like Luminary the Company put all of their power into establishing themselves as The Company With 40 Exclusive Podcasts You Have to Pay For they never stopped to ask the question “how do we also make Luminary a good podcast app.”
Luminary is the only place you can go to listen to certain shows, namely Lauren Shippen’s The AM Archives, set in the Bright Sessions universe. While the boutique content is a large selling point of the app, this review will specifically focus on the app itself. Plenty of Twitter debate and column inches have already been dedicated to how much Content the company has promised to deliver (and failed, as of this writing, but we’ll get to that) but it seems nobody wants to dig into discussing the fact Luminary’s app is, first and foremost, a podcatcher. It has a gated-off community of paid shows exclusive to the app, but it also can listen to freely available podcasts.
[4-26] Or Joe Rogan, or I Heart Media, or a slew of indies. [Edit end]
The goal of a podcatching app is to become the only app a podcast listener uses. As a developer they want you to sign up to listen to Trevor Noah’s show then stick around forever because you’ve established yourself in the Luminary ecosystem so much it’d be a pain to go back to a free app. Unfortunately for Luminary they’ve neglected to include some industry-standard functions that instead make the app a pain to adopt as one’s sole podcatcher.
Where’s the Exclusive Content?
This section isn’t meant to review the quality of the content but instead the lack of what was promised. Luminary technically has 40 exclusive podcasts to offer, or at least it will. A fair chunk of that 40 are currently existing podcasts that are still uploading free episodes to their RSS feeds, not having caught up to the Luminary exclusive content release dates they’ve set for themselves. Several big-name shows Luminary has gone out of their way to mention repeatedly on social media and plug in the steady stream of big-site articles about the app won’t be available for weeks, which begs the question: Why did they push up the release date?
Which, by the way, they did. The original article that put Luminary on the map as a new contender to the podcasting scene stated the app was to debut in June. This was then followed up by an announcement from The AM Archives that their show would drop the day Luminary launched, which happens to be April 23rd. Now the app is live over a month early with an incomplete catalog full of “coming soon” promises.
Where’s the not-exclusive content?
As the Verge article linked above says, this launch has been hamstrung by several huge names in the industry blocking their RSS feeds from Luminary, specifically The New York Times and Spotify-held companies Anchor, Gimlet, and Parcast. From an academic standpoint it’s interesting to see what qualifies as “top podcasts” when you delete some of the biggest shows. From a user standpoint you’re effectively paying to have less overall content, including any indie show produced on Anchor. I know I don’t want to live in an ecosystem where I can’t listen to The Empty Bowl on the regular.
While these networks pulling their feeds isn’t necessarily Luminary’s fault (though I argue their tech-bro “we’re here to revolutionize the industry, brah” marketing pre-emptively bit them in the ass on this front), it does serve as one more highlight of just how little the app really has to offer. $100 million of funding, enough to commission new shows wholecloth and (more impressively) pull large podcasts out of free feeds into a subscription-only ecosystem, yet they couldn’t be bothered to play ball with some of the biggest names in the industry?
Regardless of who the asshole is in this Luminary/Spotify clash the Luminary user suffers from it. Here’s hoping this is simply a flash-in-the-pan news story and Reply All begins dominating the home screen in a couple weeks’ time.
[4-26] Censored Show Notes
Since the app’s launch on April 23rd a decision Luminary made for “security concerns” has been brought into sharp focus: the powers that be at Luminary have stripped all formatting and links from podcast show notes, sometimes even going as far as to delete entire paragraphs containing a single link.
My initial reaction to this was sympathy for the creators whose financial future relies on users being able to quickly and easily access referral links to products that sponsor their podcast. No Audible referrals, Etsy shop sales, or even Patreon pledges.
But then something far worse was brought to my attention: by removing links Luminary has hamstrung podcasts that provide links to transcripts and content warnings in their descriptions.
As a producer who links transcripts in show descriptions this is frustrating. As a podcast listener who regularly uses transcripts to help focus it is infuriating.I tested the system during an upload of my own and as of this writing I can say the Patreon hyperlink in my show notes for a Standard Docking Procedure upload is clickable on Luminary for Android, but I’m also told by someone who uses it on iOS that the link is gone.
The de-linkening has been defended by Luminary with vague comments that it’s for security sake. I’ve seen a couple of people defending this behavior on Twitter, citing the fear that a single bad link or one malicious code injection is all it would take to get Luminary in hot water. Were we talking about Podcast Addict, an app made by a single person I would be sympathetic. Unfortunately Luminary decided to show up to the party with “Ask me about my $100,000,000 budget” on their lapel. I find it hard to be sympathetic to the “we’re looking out for your safety” over an industry standard practice they’ve broken in mere hours.
Not only is the app lacking in features, it’s lacking in concern for the independent creators on the free side of the app. [end edit]
You can’t import your subscriptions
Subscription importing is, in the grand scheme of podcasting, a smaller feature. That said, it’s a smaller feature employed by podcatcher power-users. When one has 100+ subscriptions to keep track of the usual method of manually re-adding shows in a new app can be painfully slow, which is why a fair few podcatchers implemented the ability to generate an OPML file of their subscriptions. This both allows one to have a backup of their subscriptions in case something goes wrong and easily jump to another app whenever they want.
In the same e-mail mentioned below re: RSS feeds, the Luminary customer support agent said the feature is being “explored.” Much in the same way my household only opens VRV to watch My Brother, My Brother, and Me, the lack of subscription import dooms Luminary to be a tertiary app only ever opened for its exclusive holdings.
You cannot manually add RSS feeds
It is outrageous Luminary overlooked this as a basic feature. Actually, it’s worse! They know about the feature and actively chose not to include it at launch. The response I received from their customer support agent confirmed the app “does not support this functionality” but that “this is a feature we are exploring.”
The ability to add a podcast by pasting an RSS feed into a search bar might not seem important until considering the biggest use-case of manually added RSS feeds: Patreon-exclusive podcast feeds. A widely common selling point of supporting podcasts on Patreon is the site’s ability to generate a custom RSS feed that delivers content to the user’s app of choice. Luminary can’t do that.
Pocket Casts, Podcast Addict, Overcast, these apps have all had the ability to simply paste an RSS feed and add a Patreon-exclusive RSS feed. As it currently exists, Luminary either doesn’t care or doesn’t want you, the consumer, to be able to easily listen to content you get by directly supporting a creator. At best it’s a poor oversight on the developer’s part, at worst it’s a shady attempt to isolate listeners so they only support Luminary shows.
Other issues with the app I’m bullet-pointing for fear of making this review way too long.
- No playlists.
- No “up next” queue.
- Underwhelming playback speed controls.
- Show notes ignore formatting, creating unreadable walls of text.
- Disliking a podcast seems to not really do anything.
- It’s impossible to peruse audio fiction/audio drama, despite the app having many ways to discover non-fiction shows.
Luminary has made a point of saying its app can be used as a podcatcher without paying for access to their exclusive shows. I signed up using The AM Archives’ three months free link and, quite frankly, If I had paid money I would’ve come into this review far more full of pith and vinegar than usual. As a delivery device for their “40” shows it’s meh at best. As an app designed to be the hub through which you listen to all podcasts it’s embarrassing they’re charging a subscription fee for less functionality than its free competitors.
[4-26] While not directly relevant to how I used the app for review: It is worth noting the fact Luminary – until getting absolutely roasted on social media – was copying files to a proxy server before sending them to listeners (somehow thinking adding a second download step into the process would make it… faster?) which inadvertently stripped valuable listener metadata from an individual listen beyond a near-useless “someone who is on Luminary just listened to your show.” This doesn’t affect app usability and I fully admit I’m straying from my “this review is about the app, not the company” but in this case the company pulled some shenanigans that makes me feel actively bad for using the app.
Since writing this review I’ve not listened to a single not-Luminary Premium show because of this. They have since reverted to using 302 redirects that do not strip metadata like the proxy service did, but I sincerely believe changes made purely because of social media and press pressure do not allocate a company brownie points. They did it, and there’s no evidence to suggest they would’ve ever changed it of their own accord. [end edit]
I’m sure Luminary will roll out updates in the coming months, including RSS feed addition and OPML imports, but in its current state Podcast Addict will remain an objectively better app for every feature I can think of except “can listen to The AM Archives.”
I want creators to be fairly compensated for their efforts, but after weeks of piss-poor PR work on their social media and seemingly few efforts made to deliver a quality product… I question if we’ll be talking about Luminary in three years in the same way we’re talking about Stitcher after its bumpy start.
As the market currently stands, paying the nominal fee to deactivate ads on Podcast Addict or downloading the free RadioPublic app remain the optimum ways to consume freely-available podcasts. Save yourself the hundred million bucks.