Luminary Launches App Lacking Features, Content

Luminary image advertising at least one podcast that isn’t available on launch day.

[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.

Unless they’re Reply All or The Daily.

[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.

The new way: fewer shows, features, and satisfied users than any other app.

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.

How not to cover podcasts: An open letter.

We approach the end of 2018 and I’ve yet to see a big pop culture site (that isn’t Polygon) post an article pertaining to podcasting that hasn’t brought down the fury of podcast fans. Like packs of ravenous wolves, tweets from TIME and the New Yorker alike are ratioed to death within hours. The harsh truth is these articles getting bombed isn’t the fault of the author. The real blame lies squarely on the editorial staff of said website. In this one rare instance, the fans are doing the good work. I’m here to point out what is going wrong in a lot of mainstream coverage of podcasting, why perfectly good writers are getting beef from Twitter, and how editors could not only fix these problems but generate a LOT more traffic.

Today, the New York Times posted a preview of Night Vale Presents’ upcoming series Adventures in New America, written by internet culture contributor Amanda Hess. As a critic myself (including some resume-fluffing state level awards for film and theatre review in college), I acknowledge that coming down on an opinion-based piece for saying something “wrong” is wandering into a minefield of problematic potential outcomes. That said, Hess starts their piece with incredibly poor taste.

Fiction podcasts have always felt one step behind the culture. The audio drama’s great and unexpected resurgence in this decade, thanks to the rise of podcasting’s listen-whenever-and-wherever-you-like technology, has produced a cutting-edge genre that seems somehow suspended in time.

Maybe it’s because so many scripted podcasts have borrowed from old radio plays. Or maybe it’s because they’ve so often leaned into genre storytelling, leaving social reality behind to build fantasy worlds and unravel mysteries. The experimental sandbox of the new form has produced sharp plots and intriguing aural soundscapes but few stories that seem to access something bigger than themselves.

Amanda Hess – The Best New Social Thriller is a Podcast.

These two paragraphs typify a series of bad habits I and fellow indie podcast reporters have seen recur in more mainstream media. Let’s break those down into three items, who doesn’t love a list?

Bad Habit #1: Podcasting isn’t a quirky new field.

While there isn’t much meat on the bone to analyze here, we’ve reached a point where this needs to be said aloud: Podcasting is not a burgeoning new format. We’ve reached a point where there are shows that have been running for well over a decade. “Podcasting is a new media frontier” is an advertising line used to talk investors/advertisers into taking the plunge and running ads on podcasts. HelloFresh might be running TV ads now, but they got to where they are now in part thanks to a sizable investment in podcast advertising (and still do to this day).

True, I’m coming from a biased perspective as someone who reviews/produces in the podcasting field but even long before that I was aware of the concept of what a podcast was and how vast the field could be. I attended a live performance of Welcome to Night Vale before I’d even attended my first concert, and I live in a cultural wasteland in the US Midwest. Cultural hubs like NYC, LA, Seattle, and dozens more are seeing popular podcasts having to add extra shows to their tour dates because they sell out within days of ticket announcement. Hank Green raised $300,000 for PodCon with relatively little effort compared to how hard he and his company pushed the early years of VidCon.

Seek to be better than this. I promise if you do, you’ll see a hell of a lot better like/retweet ratios on Twitter and next to no angry comments/subtweets.

Bad Habit #2: Just looking at Apple Podcasts’ trending feed is not enough.

Yes, celebrities talking to other celebrities for an hour with 15 minutes of ads is garbage podcasting. Yes, it’s a large genre of podcasting. Yes, there are a lot of dudebros who blather about “bad movies” or discuss “gaming news” every week with horrible audio quality, no real opinions to offer, and of course tons of advertisements. There are some absolutely painful podcasts out there, but as Amanda perfectly points out: Podcasting is a medium.

I don’t presume to know how many podcasts Hess has listened to before listening to Adventures in New America but from the phrasing of those first two paragraphs of their preview . . . it doesn’t feel like Hess has made much headway.

I am quite excited for Adventures in New America. Night Vale Presents has been doing some good work in diversifying their producers and content in recent months, but I can also immediately list off some podcasts that have covered the themes that, according to Hess, audio fiction hasn’t had the maturity to tackle yet. My Twitter DMs are open, Hess. I’ll gladly shoot you some fantastic recommendations, or (see the Update below). I could even send a few Discord invites to places absolutely jam-packed with creators and reviewers flinging shows around like they’re engaged in an aural food fight.

Branching off from the NYT preview for a moment, this bad habit is at its worst in listicles. I love a good listicle – we all do – but whenever it comes to podcasts certain pop culture sites love to toss the burden of research on a contributor who, well, does what TIME Culture did with their embarrassing Best Podcasts of 2018 So Far.

Eight recommendations, none of which weren’t trending already, and the only fiction recommendation was the much-maligned Gimlet production Sandra, which at least in the circles I run in has become the symbol of fiction designed more for profit than quality (though Maximum Fun’s failed TV pilot-turned-podcast Bubble comes close). There’s nothing wrong with recommending a popular piece of culture, but lists like TIME Culture‘s are the podcasting equivalent of assigning someone who doesn’t actively explore YouTube the job of writing “Ten YouTube Channels you need to follow” and it’s just a random selection of the top 50 largest channels on YouTube. Nobody clicks on that article to be recommended Shane Dawson; they already have an opinion on someone like Shane Dawson before they’ve even clicked.

Bad Habit #3: Comparative insults hurt both the writer and the thing they’re attempting to compliment.

There’s not much else to say about Hess’ two paragraphs that isn’t already obvious from what I’ve been saying about #1 and #2: opening the preview by essentially insulting the entire audio fiction community is not a good move. Just ask Maximum Fun’s founder Jesse Thorn how that went when he posted this fun tweet a few weeks ago as an attempt to drum up interest in MF’s new audio fiction series Bubble:


That tweet is brought to you in glorious PixelVision because it broke so bad Thorn deleted it. Turns out bigging up your own podcast by being a dick isn’t the best marketing strategy. Now the only surviving evidence is the wonderful quirk of Discord caching previews of Twitter links and never updating them. Thanks, Discord!

When covering podcasts it’s important to remember the medium is far bigger and far deeper than something like terrestrial television. Algorithms act as gatekeepers – it’s up to the consumer to seek out content they want (and trust me, podcasters are losing sleep over making sure their SEO game is up to snuff in hopes the right keywords will grab that consumer). If one is making broad claims about fiction podcasting, they’re guilty of either 1: Trying to burn the podcasting community as a whole to make this show seem cooler (which has the added side effect of making that show seem snobbish by association) or 2: that person has little to no experience with podcasting and assumes the two episodes of The Thrilling Adventure Hour they listened to in 2014 are indicative of the medium as a whole.

If you find your writers positively frothing at the mouth to show the world they haven’t listened to many podcasts while still acting as a critic who is knowledgeable enough of the medium to have an opinion worth publishing, couch it at the end of the article like iO9 did in with this cringe-worthy final paragraph of their Mission to Zyxx review.

Even though podcasts have been around for a while and we’re now living in an age where pretty much everyone has one, Mission to Zyxx is proof that the medium still so much untapped potential, particularly for fictional work. There’s no telling whether podcasts are fated to become the next big thing in scifi and fantasy dramas but, if Mission to Zyxx any indication, shows like it very well could be.

Charles Pulliam-Moore – Mission to Zyxx is the best podcast you’re probably not listening to… yet.

For those who haven’t heard of the show: Mission to Zyxx is an improv comedy podcast dressed up in an audio drama costume. Several improvisers are given a vague end goal for the episode, they improvise for a while, an editor slices it down to 20 minutes of content and adds in sound effects and music to give the impression it was one cohesive story all along.

This is a thing that many other podcasts have done for quite some time, some I’d argue as successfully as if not better than Zyxx (and to perfectly clear, I like Zyxx) and they have equally large listener bases. Tabletop Roleplay podcasts like The Adventure Zone or, for a more recent example, the excellent 20 Sided Stories have basically transformed the idea of recording some people playing Pathfinder or D&D into a way to generate an amazing longform audio fiction piece.

See, I just expressed a negative opinion of a thing with evidence to back up what I’m talking about. That’s how you can do it without being a dick to hundreds of producers in one fell swoop.

How to fix this.

The above is an absolutely wonderful thread by Klaudia Amenábar addresses some points I’ve not touched on here and is well worth a read, but this first tweet really sends home the message I want to hit on here: Adventures in New America deserves better than this. I know people who hate the article but have signal boosted it because poorly written coverage is still coverage for this new show.

We should be at a point where the community gets excited when a bigger website posts an article covering podcasts or discussing podcasting, yet we’re at a point where we cringe. How can you, someone working at a pop culture site change this? Hire freelancers, get writers who cover podcasts for the sheer joy of covering podcasts, hire people who produce podcasts. There are lots of us, so many we have contact spreadsheets.

And I must be crystal clear on this: Not a single article I have mentioned in the bad habits thing was poorly written outside of those comments that inspired rancor in the podcast community. I actually love Pulliam-Moore’s review of Mission to Zyxx save for the final paragraph. Amanda Hess’ preview isn’t a bad preview save for those two offending paragraphs that betray a deeper problem.

Update: In fact, since I pressed Publish on this piece and emerged from my writing cave I was presented with this lovely tweet posted by Hess mere moments ago!

This further cements my earlier comments: Podcasts require a bit more digging than other mediums (yes, book critics, I heard that laugh, work with me here) and we’re all learning. People need more variety in their podcast diet, and that variety can only take hold if editors onboard people who have not only listened to a lot of podcasts but have solid networking ties to find more.

Dockterman’s rundown of 2018 podcasts has some damn fine synopsis and suggestions of the podcasts covered, the problem lies in the fact that they didn’t recommend anything that hasn’t already been recommended to the average podcast enthusiast a dozen times by Apple, Google, or the Trending tab of their chosen podcatcher app. That’s the podcast equivalent of going exclusively flavorless Soylent. It technically works but… who would want to?

Come over to the podcaster side of Twitter, find some freelancers. My door’s open, e-mail me, or perhaps you could hire Wil Williams, Elena Fernandez Collins, perhaps the lovely Alex over at AudioDramaRama?

Not a one of us would pull the crap these sloppy writers have (and we’ll be absolutely knocking down your door with suggestions for further articles Podcast Twitter would love).

Three Awesome Episodes: A Newsletter Excerpt

podreport monthly header.jpg

For the two of you who haven’t seen me running around hat in hand on Twitter, I’ve started a monthly newsletter! All the other cool kids are putting out newsletters, it felt like just the kind of thing to motivate me to get some writing done on a regular basis. What follows is a fun section from last month’s publication!  Continue reading

Taking the time to listen.

Similarities in art do not always denote theft, but it takes time to find that difference.

As the internet shrinks our world by the minute podcasting as an art form grows exponentially. As my consumption of audio media continues its infinite march onward I find myself constantly wondering a tough question: Is this podcast original?

This weekend I loaded up Magic Folk (a show you should be listening to) to binge-listen during some downtime. Within a few minutes I had fired off several snarky messages to a friend poking fun at the similarities between this new indie podcast and The Adventure Zone. Put simply, this was a dick move and here’s why: Continue reading