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Podcast sort order: A helpful look at the troubled Podcasts app

Apple iTunesI love listening to podcasts and yes, I do use Apple's Podcasts app. I typically manage subscriptions on my iPhone, but recently launched iTunes and noticed that my shows seemed to be in a random order. They're not sorted by subscription order, or number of new shows or even most recent modification. How did they get this way?

It turns out the problem is twofold. I've re-ordered things based on my own preferences as best I could. I say that because the sort options Apple provides are confusing and seriously lacking. Here's a look at how iTunes 11.1 and Apple's Podcasts app sorts your podcasts.

New subscriptions

By default, these apps do in fact sort your shows by subscription date. New subscriptions are added to the top of the list. For example, if you subscribe to Selected Shorts and then Welcome to Night Vale, the latter will appear above the former in your list. Ah, but what if you're not happy with that?

Re-ordering things

Some of the shows I listen to are updated more often than others. I've moved the more frequently refreshed shows to the top of my list to save some scrolling. This is easy to do. In Podcasts, tap Edit and then use the handle that appears to the right of each show's title to drag and drop them into your desired order.

Those synching via iCloud will notice that, the next time iTunes 11.1 is launched, that same order is applied. Likewise, if you re-arrange the shows in iTunes (drag and drop), the new order is synced to Podcasts, too.

Drag-and-drop is nice, but not when you subscribe to twenty podcasts. Or fifty.

What's missing

There are a lot of problems here. First, there should be a simple one-click ABC sort. There's isn't, on either device. As a work-around, you could choose "List" in iTunes, as it sorts podcasts alphabetically by title (see below).

Apple iTunes

But don't get too excited while you're there. Clicking the titles of each column (Podcast, Time, Release Date, Description) does nothing. You can sort episodes of a single podcast by release date, ascending or descending, but not the shows themselves. So it's not very helpful.

Both iTunes and Podcasts offer show-specific settings, including a sort order option. Again, all you can do is sort episodes by release date, chronologically or reverse.

It should be possible to sort shows by which was refreshed most recently, so that shows with new episodes bubble to the top. I'd even like to sort by the subscription with the most episodes I'm yet to hear. I can't do this, either.

What about stations?

Podcast Stations, introduced with Podcasts 1.2 in March, let you create custom collections based on your preferences. For instance, you could create a "sci-fi" station for shows that cover the genre. Podcasts will play the corresponding episodes, on after another. But that's really all they do.

What about a smart playlist?

Apple has a few suggestions for podcasts and smart playlists. For example, you can make one that finds all files that are podcasts, and then sort them by title. But that messes up episode release order. You could add more conditions to compensate, but that's something the software should do, not you.

For now, drag-and-drop and episode-specific release date is all you get. It's needlessly unpleasant. You could use a third-party app like Instacast or Downcast, both of which offer ABC order. But they don't fix the jumbled mess that is iTunes podcast management, unfortunately.

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