For those of you who are new to podcasting, gather round and I’ll tell you a story.
In September of 2005, Apple released a new iPod called the iPod Shuffle, and it was the first iPod to use flash memory. Steve Jobs pulled it out of that “little pocket” that is in your jeans. The idea was that it was for exercise. You would load your songs on it, and it would shuffle them as they played. There was only one problem: It had no screen. It was smaller than a stick of gum. If you had an intro that announced the name of your show, when you hit “play” you heard:
Welcome to the (and then if you’d hit the “skip” button)
Welcome to the (and then if you’d hit the “skip” button)
Welcome to the….
This lack of screen forced the listener to consume about a minute or two of your show before they realized that they had already heard this episode. The solution? People started their show announcing the name of the show and the episode number.
“Today on episode 16 of the…” — if you pressed “skip” you might hear:
“On episode 22 of the…” — now you could quickly tell if you had heard this episode or not.
One other: an episode number is beneficial to those who are visually impaired.
Every podcaster jumped onboard. Meanwhile, the iPhone came out in 2007 and iPods were being discontinued left and right (although you can still buy an iPod touch — which is an iPhone without the phone part). These not only had screens, but the screens kept getting bigger and bigger. The iPad was introduced, and screens were ginormous. The iPod shuffle was discontinued in 2017, and here we are still announcing our episode numbers. Why?
Force Of Habit
If you started adding episode numbers, it might seem weird to stop using them (but in reality, I don’t think the sky would fall).
I believe this is part of it. If I start my show about widgets with “Today on episode number 157 of the Widget Show…” and another show starts with “Today on episode number 75 of Widgets on Fire…” maybe the show with the larger number has more authority (or, is one a daily show and the other a weekly show?) Is there such a thing as “episode number envy” where you wish yours were bigger?
Easier To Search
In theory, if you have the episode number in your title, it will be easier to go to your website and search for episode 16. Better search results will also work if you put it in the description of your episode (show notes). While this is true, we don’t talk about TV shows in regards to episode numbers. We don’t say, “Oh man, I loved episode 116 of Seinfeld. You say I love the “Soup Nazi” episode. When I go to find that information, I didn’t Google episode 116 of Seinfeld. I searched for “Soup Nazi” and found this.
I tell my clients all the time that the audience doesn’t care how the soup is made. Announcing the episode number is definitely in the “how the soup is made” category. Any new podcasts I start in the future won’t have episode numbers. If I have a guest or a topic, I’m pretty sure you’re going to search for the person or topic. For my sight-impaired friends, I can use a tease at the beginning of the show that is going to capture the attention of the audience more than an episode number.
Does this mean everyone should stop using episode numbers? Here is the beautiful thing about podcasting — you are in control. If you want to use episode numbers, then use episode numbers and enjoy every minute of it. If you don’t want to use episode numbers, then don’t. I don’t think there is a huge pro or con to either.
The only con I see is when people put the episode number in the title of their episode. The title is HUGELY important. Radio and TV both start when you press the “on” button. Podcast apps do not. What inspires you to click? The episode title, and again, I’m pretty sure we don’t care that it’s episode 57 more than we care that the title says “Double your income in five years.” I recommend that if you MUST put episode numbers in the title of your episode, put them at the end.
The purpose of this article was to attempt to answer the question, “Why do people use episode numbers?” and I’ve attempted to answer it. If you have a hypothesis or insight, share it in the comments below.
Dave Jackson is a Hall of Fame podcaster and consultant. He started the School of Podcasting in 2005 and potentially has helped more podcasters with their podcast than any other human on the planet. Find him at www.schoolofpodcasting.com.
If each episode is a single topic, then episode numbers might not have much relevance. If each episode has many topics, as all mine do, then the episode number is how each can be identified. To use your example, each Seinfeld episode has a single theme or defining moment. There is some reference you could make to name the episode. “The Soup Nazi episode” is sufficient. How do I reference my episode where we talk with the president of the Greteman Agency about the history of Wichita and why it’s called the Aviation Capital of the World, we talk with United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz outside LAX about why he’s handing out hamburgers, we discuss how FAA and European regulators differ over the 737 Max, how general aviation is responding to hurricane Dorian, the last Red Bull Air Race, and a bunch more? I call it Episode 569. Later this week you can listen to episode 570. That’s what my audience will call it. So episode numbers make sense for work some podcasts, and no episode numbers works for others.
Hi Dave, I didn’t use episode numbers at first, as a reference when I intro, but then there were times when I needed to reference a past episode and it was easier to just reference EP#. Also, and here is why I leave it in, the podcast sponsors I have, and the numbers are growing, want to know what episode # they are featured, and go back to listen, and ask if they can pick. So my 100th episode is coming up and I have 7 sponsors requesting to be on it. Welp…that won’t work since I am an estimated 30 minute solo podcast, but I would have to say, revenue is what keeps me numbering my episodes. PS- Also a little vanity. I can’t believe I have found this many new topics each week 🙂
Interesting subject. When I started my Podcast I didn’t number the episodes because I didn’t like the way it looked. Then later I was encouraged to do so on an episode of the Libsyn Podcast The Feed.
So I started numbering them, but I didn’t go back an edit the titles of the ones that were not numbered. In February of this year I got a comment that contained the following. I am currently working my way through your back catalogue and I was especially touched by your personal musings and recollections regarding some friends that had passed away, which you included in your ‘On Brighton Road’ episode (Aug 2016). It resonated with me and has stimulated some necessary introspection. I wish you all the best, thank you. That episode was not numbered so the listener used the title of the story I read on that episode and the month and year. So why do I need episode numbers ? Well I read short stories so my my content is evergreen in fact my very first episode is number one in downloads in my Libsyn stats and also my Spotify stats. I’m currently at 109 episodes. What happens when I’m at 609 episodes and beyond ? Would it be easier for a listener to reference a number or would the title as in the example be sufficient ? I dunno I’m confused 🙁
I couldnt agree more. I tell my clients and students all the time that putting the number in the title is wasting valuable SEO and unless someone just wants to listen to season 2 episode 14 podcasts of all genres, there is no point. Click bait esq titles work, episode numbers do not. Personally, I think being on the 200th episode gives you less authority, I think for some reason it makes me feel like its less valuable information. Im not sure that even makes sense but its my initial reaction to podcasts I have never heard of that are on episode 300.
Dave, I’m testing podcast listening on my Google Home Assistant, and finding episode numbers in the title useful for the same reason they were on the iPod Shuffle – no screen.
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