Like a lot of podcast and comedy fans, I was surprised to hear the recent news that Earwolf had released a new app. Podcast apps are nothing new and are key to podcast listening and discovery. The hosting service Libsyn bundles an a prebuilt app with certain tiers of it's service. In fact, this was a way that some podcasts had been monetizing their shows for years.
But Howl and the website, Howl.fm are something else. Not only are they a means to access podcasts, but they are in a sense a single service that hosts (predominantly) humorous audio.
Let's break down the key ingredients of Howl. For the sake of this review, Howl and Howl.fm are essentially the same thing. "Howl" is the name of the app and underlying service and "Howl.fm" is the URL and browser version of that service.
Howl is an app for iPhone. A version of the app for Android is also on the horizon but does not have a release date. A person can download the app and start using it right away without needing to sign up for anything or paying any money. You can create a free account and then you get some added features like being able to use Howl.fm to listen and subscribe to the same podcasts you listen to through the app without any additional hoops. This is similar to Stitcher and PocketCast in a way.
The app itself
From the moment the app is launched it is clear that care went into building it. It looks good, it's fast and you can be listening to the shows you like with little effort. The sidebar of the app indicates the four primary sections of the Howl app: Earwolf podcasts (comedy), Wolfpop (pop culture with a humorous slant), WTF with Marc Maron, and Howl Premium. The only "setting" to be adjusted at the moment is whether or not to allow the app to use cellular data to download episodes.
The one overarching negative is that this is not for podcast power users and niche cases. The "skip" buttons only allow moving in 30 second increments (which i find too short when jumping forward and too long when I want to skip back to that thing I didn't quite hear). You can control playback speed (three setttings: half speed, regular (1x) and 1.5x). You can't set a start point (handy for lengthy preroll ads and repetitive intros) and there is no "sleep" function (for those folks who like to listen as they get ready for bed.) If you want those features, you'll need to stick to "real" podcast apps like Pocket Cast.
If you are already devoted to listening to Earwolf podcasts and WTF, that is enough to recommend the app. Someone relatively new to podcasts but knows they like Comedy Bang Bang or WTF can download the app and start listening. This app is already at least somewhat better than Apple's own podcast app.
Howl also offers a premium service for $5 a month. Users easily sign up through the app on the phone and use Apple Pay- the process of signing up was almost seamless. They will not start billing you until 7 days later as a promotion to let you try it out before you actually get charged.
Howl premium grants you access to the entirety of not only Earwolf's archives of podcast episodes but also allows you access to Marc Maron's WTF episode archive. So if you want to go back and listen to the "greatest podcast episode ever" (according to Slate) between Marc and Louis CK, you can easily find it there.
Speaking of WTF, old episodes are presented without commercials and listening to them is much more enjoyable. It would be nice to see advertisements stripped out of all podcasts if you're a Howl Premium subscriber, but at the moment it seems that only WTF and the Premium-only content like mini-series and comedy albums have this perk. It would be one more reason to use the Howl app rather than my regular podcast player.
While there are some real gems buried in Earwolf’s archives (including many appearances by James Adomian, Jason Mantzoukas and Harris Wittels), podcast episodes in general aren't particularly "evergreen." The thing that intrigued me most about Howl premium was the new collections of mini-series and specials.
This is where Howl seems to flex its muscle but will most likely appeal to a fairly small audience. I don't know how many people are dying to hear a one-hour audio documentary about the Gathering of the Juggalos, but wrestler Colt Cabana has just that in the premium section. There are also collected performances by Spalding Gray. I had no idea who Spalding was until I stumbled upon them. There is only a brief introduction to each performance by Nate Cordry but it's clear that, had Spalding lived to see podcasting, he would have been towering over all the folks at RISK! and the hordes of other storytelling podcasts. I think smart curation like this of things that are not necessarily directly in a podcast listener’s field of vision makes this a rather interesting service.
Earwolf has just enough of a catalog at the moment to be big without being incomprehensible. When one looks into the abyss of content that a company like Netflix or Spotify has, there is simply no way to know or trust who is running the show. Users must feel around blindly or ask their friends. But in the rather idiosyncratic world of podcasts (and in particular, comedy podcasts) discovery of the new and relevant is still incredibly difficult. In Howl there is a nice middle way. It is accessible to an average user but also quickly points you past the first run blockbusters and goes "oh, hey you know if you dig that check out Andy Daly's Nine Sweaters". It is enabling.
What is the value?
For fans of Earwolf podcasts, there is a lot to like. The episode archive is deep and varied. And specials add a level of exclusivity that I did not expect in an app that was geared towards podcasting, which generally tends towards being freely available. If Earwolf continues to play up its growing role as the premiere venue for "alternative comedy" audio, then this would be a service that is well worth $5. If you don't care about that niche then there is little to recommend here. It's pretty slick and it's a decent one-stop shop for a lot of podcasts but living solely in Earwolf-land can be rather bare if you really wanted to listen to something a little bit meatier like Hardcore History or This American Life.
My final suggestion is to give the premium version a whirl for the trial period and see what lies behind the velvet rope of Howl Premium. Canceling payment is quite easy so you can "buy" and cancel right away before you realize 7 days later that you forgot. You'll still get the full time of the trial period.