How Podcasts Work

How do podcasts work? There are three main components in getting podcasts from their creators to their listeners: a feed, a directory, and a "podcatcher" app for consuming the podcast. This post explains how each of these systems work together to make podcasting easier than ever for both hosts and subscribers. If you are interested in learning how to subscribe to a podcast, we recommend this guide.

How Podcast Feeds Work

Podcast feeds are typically constructed as RSS feeds, which stands for Really Simple Syndication. RSS is the same tool that blogs use to alert readers to new posts. An RSS feed is a structured document that lets subscribers view the content of a website in the order it was created.

For podcast feeds, there is typically a section describing the "channel" or the overall details of the show that are not specific to any single episode. The information in this section includes the show's title, a link to its website, and a brief description. The channel information might also include details such as what language the podcast is in.

There are a few additional fields that many podcast directories (such as Apple Podcasts) expect in a podcast feed. This includes the name of the host(s), whether the podcast contains explicit language, the category it belongs to, and show art to be displayed in the directory.

In addition to the show details, each episode is listed in its own section of the RSS feed. The most important details here are the title of the episode and a link to the audio file (typically an MP3 or M4A file). This section also includes the length of the episode (in seconds) and show notes with more information about the episode.

How Podcast Directories Work

Once a podcast feed is on the web, it is discoverable in search engines such as Google. However, most podcast listeners prefer to browse podcasts in specific directories. Apple Podcasts (formerly known as iTunes) is the most popular directory. Others include Google Play and Spotify, and each works in a similar way.


To be included in a directory, the podcast host must submit their RSS feed. Some directories review the feed before publishing it while others publish any feed that is formatted correctly. Each directory has its own guidelines. The main requirements for Apple Podcasts are: a unique title, show art, a valid email address, and at least one episode in your feed.

Podcast directories make shows searchable by title, and also organize them into categories. As a host you can select the category that best represents your show. Indicating the correct category for your podcast helps listeners discover it. Because shows are ranked by popularity within your category, choosing the most appropriate category also helps you to be ranked against similar podcasts.

One common misconception is that podcast directories download your audio files and re-host them for you. Popular directories such as Apple Podcasts and Google Play do not download your audio files directly. They use the download link in your RSS feed and pass it on to listener apps, which are explained in the next section.

How Podcast Apps Work

Now that a podcaster has created their feed and submitted it to podcast directories, it is available to listeners. Although a listener could download the audio files on their desktop computer or laptop, most podcast subscribers prefer to use mobile devices. Popular mobile apps for podcasting include Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Castro, and PocketCasts.

The features offered differ somewhat between podcast apps, but almost all of them have a search feature that lets listeners discover podcasts in a directory. Then, a listener can download single episodes, or subscribe to a show so that all new episodes automatically appear in their podcasting app. Having a group of oyal subscribers who listen to almost every episode is one of the traits that makes podcasting feel like a tight-knit community.

Both podcast directories and podcast apps periodically check the RSS feeds that a listener has subscribed to, looking for new episodes. When these episodes are published in the feed they will be visible to listeners, often within just a few minutes of publication. Most listeners will hear a new episode within a few days, although it is common for subscribers to have a backlog of several episodes that they plan to listen to when they have time.


These three components—podcast feeds, directories, and apps— work together to make it possible for anyone to become a podcast listener or host. The goal of this site is to simplify podcast hosting, making it easier than ever before. If you are interested in learning more about how you can use Dropbox and have us create your RSS feed for you, check out this post or get started now!