For an audio format invented before mobile internet was even really a thing yet, podcasts have kept up with the times remarkably well. Gone are the days of hard-wiring a click-wheel iPod to your laptop just to swap in a new playlist. These days, an ever-expanding catalogue of podcasts is just one click, tap or -- if you're within earshot of Alexa -- voice command away.
But unbridled access to this vastly expanded podosphere creates its own problems. Podcasts have never been quite this ubiquitous, yet with so many devices to play them from -- phones, tablets, watches, smart speakers, even glasses -- good luck keeping track of what you've already played or where you left off.
Full disclosure: I'm a professional podcast fan -- or so I've been told. And almost every podcast I listen to gets played, one way or another, through an Amazon Echo device.
"One way or another," you ask? Why so assertive?
Watch this: Amazon Echo Show 10: Alexa puts her spin on moving smart displays
I'll be honest -- it can get a little dicey trying to coax Alexa into playing the right podcast. It's not as seamless as, say, playing music. When you ask for a specific musical artist, album or song, most of the time Alexa nails it, even if you flub part of it (try asking for the "Scooby Brothers" and I bet Alexa will rightly cue up the Doobie Brothers).
But if you're at all sketchy about any of the podcast details -- and sometimes even when you're not -- Alexa's liable to go off the rails, and fast. I've got a fix for when that happens, but first I'm going to show how to get to your favorite shows with just voice commands. If you master these tips and Alexa still borks your requests, as a last resort I've included a foolproof workaround toward the end.
How to speak Alexa's podcast language
First, let's cover the basics (I'll get into setting your preferred podcast provider in a bit). Most podcast problems with Alexa arise because, unlike music, which has fixed titles, podcast names are all over the place. There's, of course, the name of the show itself ("the podcast"), but then some podcasts title individual episodes -- and are constantly adding more. Others merely assign numbers or dates -- there's basically no continuity or consistency. (No wonder Alexa has such a hard time.)
To call up a specific podcast, you'll want to tell Alexa at least two -- but occasionally three -- pieces of information:
The title of the show or podcast: Alexa's definitely not a mind reader, so start here.
The specific date of the episode you want to hear: if you want something other than the latest one or the one you listened to last.
The name of the host (to disambiguate): Some podcasts have similar or exactly the same names.
You'd think the title would be the easiest part, but have you ever seen how many podcasts TED puts out? Or the New Yorker or Vox? Even CNET produces a menagerie of podcast shows. Also, you might consider appending the word "podcast" to the title, as in, "Alexa, play Morbid podcast." Otherwise, you may find yourself rocking out to the 1980s Swedish metal band, rather than the popular true-crime podcast -- both called Morbid.
When trying to locate a specific episode of a podcast, the only consistently effective way to find it with Alexa is to include the date. Specific episode numbers or titles are liable to yield an error message, so you'll want to pull out your favorite podcatcher app and drill down to find the date of the episode you want (if you're binging, for example). "Alexa, play the TED Radio Hour from March 19" will cue up that specific episode. (See the next section for navigating around from this point.)
Finally, there are a number of podcasts with similar or, in some cases, exactly the same name as other shows and, in my experience, Alexa always picks the more obscure of the two when you ask for them. If you're a fan of Dax Shepherd's podcast and ask for "Armchair Expert," you might get an almost surreal sort of test episode called Introduction to Anchor belonging to a podcast titled, you guessed it, Armchair Expert. Fans of Sam Harris' Making Sense podcast may find themselves in a similar pickle, listening to a financial podcast also called Making Sense.
To direct Alexa to the correct podcasts in those instances, you'll want to tack on the host's name, e.g., "Armchair Expert with Dax Shepherd" or "Making Sense with Sam Harris."
Navigating podcasts with Alexa
Moving around within a podcast is pretty simple and intuitive. Generally, if you just say what you want to happen -- "Alexa, fast-forward three minutes," for instance -- Alexa returns the result you expected. Summon Alexa and say, "pause," then "play" or "resume" to take a break. You can even scrub to a specific point in the podcast -- say, "Alexa, go to 31 minutes, 15 seconds" and the podcast will zip right over to that point.
Navigating around a podcast's catalogue gets a little trickier. For example, when you ask to play a show you haven't listened to yet without specifying an episode, Alexa will usually play the latest episode. Some podcasts -- especially bingeable mini-series like S-Town that unfold in a specific order -- will actually begin with the first episode of that podcast, the oldest.
When moving between episodes, Alexa speaks a very precise language: "Next" always means "next most recent." That means, if you're listening to the latest episode of a podcast and you say, "play next," Alexa will respond, "You're playing the latest episode." In that instance, the command you're looking for is "play previous." That also means Alexa will stop playing episodes after the most recent, so if you want to binge most shows you'll want to start with an older episode. From there, Alexa will automatically cue up the next most recent, followed by the next, until you get to the latest episode.
Alexa still can't handle your queue
Like I mentioned, I'm a podcast fiend. I live and die (er, sleep) by my queue -- the "Up Next" playlist where I put all the episodes I want to listen to, rearrange them based on what I feel like listening to in the moment, and which I can let play for hours and hours and never have to think about (until I want to obsess about it some more). And sadly, Alexa can't handle me.
That doesn't mean I don't access podcasts directly with Alexa via the aforementioned commands. When I'm in the kitchen, I usually play Armchair Expert ("with Dax Shepherd," in case there's any confusion). At my desk, I might tune into Lore and just let it run. When my attention is only half fixed on the podcast that's playing, Alexa manages the task just fine.
But when I'm driving -- and especially when I lie down in bed at night -- I need my queue. That's when I cut Alexa out of the equation almost completely (keep reading to learn how I do it).
Move over, Alexa. I can take it from here
When my podcast demands are more than Alexa can handle, I connect my phone to an Amazon Echo device using Bluetooth. It's not my favorite way to listen to audio on an Alexa speaker -- I'll often continue to scroll Reddit or read the news on my phone when lying in bed, and if I want to watch a video, for example, the audio overtakes the current podcast while I do, which means going back to my podcast app and resuming the show that was playing after the video finishes. But it's the best solution I've come up with so far and, well, it works well enough.
If you've never connected your phone to an Alexa speaker with Bluetooth before, first do this:
1. Say, "Alexa, connect to my phone." Alexa will respond, "Searching."
2. Open Bluetooth settings on your phone and scroll to the list of devices in pairing mode.
3. Tap the Amazon Echo device (it'll have a name like "Echo Dot-X1Z").
4. When Alexa says, "Now connected to," followed by the name of your phone, you're in like Flynn.
5. To disconnect, say, "Alexa, disconnect from my phone" and wait for Alexa to say, "Now disconnected from," followed by the name of your phone.
From then on, all you'll have to say is, "Alexa, connect to my phone." Alexa will say, "Searching," then play a tone and confirm your phone's connected. If this process ever glitches (and it does, all the time), you may have to go into your phone's Bluetooth settings and find the device you want to connect to from your list of (previously) paired devices. If you have a ton of Amazon Echoes in your house, you'll have to remember which three-digit alphanumeric combination designates the specific one you want. If you forget, Alexa will remind you after a few minutes of futile searching.
Sync your podcasts across devices with these steps
I primarily use Apple Podcasts, but you might like Spotify. Amazon Music now has its own podcast service, so if you're agnostic on the subject I'd suggest checking it out. Whichever you use, if you link your Alexa account to your preferred podcast provider, you can pick up where you left off even when you switch from an Echo Dot to an iPhone and back again. (Of course, sadly, this does not affect your Up Next queue.)
Here's how to link a podcast service and which one Alexa should use as a default:
1. In the Alexa app, tap More in the lower right corner, then tap Settings about midway down the screen.
2. Scroll down to Alexa Preferences and tap Music & Podcasts.
3. If you've never linked a podcast service, beside Link New Service tap the plus sign (+).
4. Tap the service you'd like to add, then tap Enable to Use and sign into the service.
5. Back in the Music & Podcast settings menu, at the very top tap Default Services.
6. At the bottom, under Podcasts, if the service you want isn't listed, tap Change.
7. Tap the service you want to use as the default.