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A Solution to Podcast Note-Taking? Look to the Airr App

If you’ve been struggling to find a viable solution for podcast note-taking, now might be the time to take a closer look at a free iOS app called Airr (Android users can register for the beta waitlist). I first learned about Airr earlier this year when I posted my article “Solutions for Taking Notes When Listening to Podcasts.” One of the founders reached out to me and told me he was working on a solution for sharing podcast clips and episode notes. The app was in beta at the time and, while I was intrigued, it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Airr officially launched in May and since then the development team has been hard at work releasing a steady flow of updates, improvements, and new features. Having recently reinstalled and reassessed the app, I can now confidently recommend Airr to other podcast enthusiasts in search of a viable podcast annotation tool. This app gets closer to podcast-note-taking nirvana than any other app I’ve used to date. Mind you, the team still has a way to go to completely hit the mark (I offer details on this below). That said, at this time of this article’s publication, Airr is easily the best among the set of contenders I profiled in a previous article.

What Airr Got Right

In my post “More Solutions for Podcast Note-Taking” I described what I wanted from my ideal podcast note-taking app:

  • A single app for discovery, playback and podcast annotations.
  • A fully-featured and professional looking player with polished UI.
  • An integrated note-taking feature on par with Amazon’s Audible app.
  • A robust set of export features.
  • More full-episode transcriptions.

At the time I wrote that article, none of the apps I tested—Airr included—came close to checking all these boxes. The current version of Airr, however, has made so much progress, it now ticks all of my boxes and has forced me to revise my thinking on podcast note-taking. Let’s look at each requirement individually and see how well Airr has fared in the pursuit of note-taking nirvana.

Item #1: I want a single app for discovery, playback, and podcast annotations.

I’m a demanding user. I imagine if you are reading this article, you are too. I have no desire to split discrete podcast consumption activities—e.g. find podcasts, consume podcasts and take notes on podcasts—between different apps and services. Unfortunately, this is precisely what I do. For podcast discovery I use Apple Podcasts (episode search, curation and show reviews) and a host of other options (see my article “Resources for Discovering New Podcasts”). For listening, I use Pocket Casts. For note-taking, I’ve detailed my cumbersome workaround which involves screenshots and email notes to myself. It’s a mess.

In an ideal world, I want to be able to discover, listen and annotate my podcasts in one app. Podcast annotations are of paramount importance—and I get into the topic below—but I don’t want to use an app that feels like a compromise or that is woefully lacking in the areas of discovery or playback. Podcast apps that neglect or lack this feature altogether feel naked and incomplete. After all, in order to consume content you need to find it first and then you need to listen to it. If these parts of the equation are shortchanged, it negatively colors my experience with the app.

Airr has made improvements in the area of discovery that adequately address my needs. Users can discover new content in two ways: (a) explore the publicly available AirrQuotes shared by other users for inspiration or (b) discover podcasts via the keyword search feature. The search feature is much improved from the earlier iterations: it’s faster and better designed. Airr also features two curated lists of shows: a list of favorites and a list of NBA shows (the Airr team are big fans of basketball—I just hope they’re not Lakers fans). The app could benefit for a greater variety of curated lists, but it’s a start.

The lack of new podcast discovery is somewhat mitigated by Airr’s subscription import support (via OPML file) and a much improved subscriptions page. The subscriptions page no longer looks like an afterthought: you can view your podcast subscriptions by episode or show and the grid-view is pleasing to the eye. It’s a cinch to find new episodes or favorited episodes.

Airr has room for improvement with podcast discovery, but I’m glad they offer the essentials. Coupled with their now solid audio capabilities and note-taking features, Airr offers a true all-in-one package for discovery, playback, and note-taking.

When I first used Airr at the beginning of the year, the podcast player was subpar. At the time, I couldn’t imagine abandoning my preferred podcast client Pocket Casts for Airr. Today, the situation is different. Airr’s player interface is now polished, pleasing to use, and now all the extra features most will insist on: episode queuing, variable playback speeds, skip forward/back, episode sharing, and a sleep timer. Based on the playback capabilities alone, I have no qualms about ditching Pocket Casts to use Airr to listen to podcasts. I’m guessing other podcast listeners will feel the same: Airr now offers a listening experience comparable to popular podcast clients.

I’d further argue that Airr takes the playback experience a step beyond the competition because they offer additional features that other podcast apps lack: an episode progress bar with AirrQuote markers, a list of personal and public AirrQuotes, and full episode transcripts (I’ll detail the transcription feature more in Item #5 below). Yes, there are a few nice-to-have features that Airr is missing—trim silences, chapter support, slower playback speeds—but these are icing on the cake. Airr’s playback capabilities provide almost everything you’ll need.

Item #3: I want an integrated note-taking feature on par with Amazon’s Audible app.

As one would expect, note-taking is where Airr shines. Creating a new note or bookmark—Airr calls these “AirrQuotes”—is simple: when you hear something interesting while listening to a podcast, you click the “AirrQuote” button on the player. This action saves a 45-second audio clip which appears in a list below the playback controls. The starting-point, duration and end-point of the clip can be altered by manipulating a simple waveform editor. Airr also lets you change the default AirrQuote length which is quite handy if you prefer longer or shorter excerpts.

The initial AirrQuote functions like a bookmark: it highlights an important part of the content and lets you easily replay the audio. Airr also lets you annotate the AirrQuote by adding your own text to these audio bookmarks. If a transcript is available, Airr will auto-populate your note with corresponding transcript text. A button to view a longer transcript excerpt is also available.

Airr has also added support for creating AirrQuotes without interacting with the touchscreen. This is invaluable for listeners who are on-the-go, driving, or exercising. One option is a Siri shortcut furnished by Airr. Once installed, you simply say “Hey Siri, take an AirrQuote” to trigger a new AirrQuote. Apple AirPod users can triple-tap on the earbud to create new AirrQuotes. Non-AirPod earbuds and headphones can also trigger a new AirrQuote by using the “previous track” command. I tested this with my wireless Bose QC35s and it worked as advertised.

To revisit your collected AirrQuotes you can go to a page called “My AirrQuotes” that is a comprehensive archive of all the notes you’ve collected. The list is sorted in reverse chronological order based on when you first listened to and created a note for a given podcast episode. Notes for a single podcast are all grouped together for quick referencing. I imagine this list will become cumbersome as more notes are added and more advanced search, sort and filtering capabilities will be needed. For now, it probably makes sense to visit this page on a regular basis to transfer notes to your note-taking system of choice.

Item #4: I want a set of robust export features.

Airr has made significant improvements to its export capabilities since the beta. First off, they’ve added an incredibly useful markdown export feature which lets you export selected AirrQuotes as a single markdown file.

This is what the output looks like for a single AirrQuote:

(45 second AirrQuote)(https://www.airr.io/quote/5f5e3ef3c385478041cfe4a5) The implicit purpose of college: business personality testing

This is a much appreciated addition to the service but I do wish they had gone a little further with it. More specifically: in addition to the annotation and audio link, I’d love to see podcast name and episode title along with the AirrQuote timestamp in the markdown output. The user can add this information to the note when sharing the file, but I’d prefer it if Airr automated this task.

Airr also supports export integration with three popular tools: Roam, RemNote and Readwise. Roam and RemNote are note-taking applications that have gained avid followings over the last year. I am not a user of either, but it’s good to see the added external app support. Readwise is a service that aggregates ebook and article highlights. You can connect your different services (e.g. Kindle, iBooks, Instapaper, Medium, etc.) and Readwise will sync all your highlights and notes from those platforms in one place and send daily emails with random selections from your corpus of notes as a way to rediscover interesting content from the past. I synced my Airr notes with Readwise and was pleasantly surprised to see my podcast notes integrated alongside my Kindle and article notes.

Item #5: I want more transcriptions.

I remain convinced that transcripts are the holy grail for podcast note-taking. Having accurate episode transcripts that are synced with the podcast audio make for a seamless transition between listening and reading. Moreover, transcripts facilitate searchability, discovery, and recollection. Audible users who make use of Amazon’s “Whispersync” understand how powerful this feature can be when implemented effectively.

Airr has made some excellent progress in this area. For starters, they offer full transcripts for a number of popular shows like The Tim Ferris Show, The Joe Rogan Experience, The Drive by Peter Attia, Conversations with Tyler, The Knowledge Project, and others. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to see other programs that I subscribe to with extensive transcriptions: NPR’s Hidden Brain, The North Star Podcast, The Daily, and Freakonomics. As you might expect, only the most popular programs are likely to have transcripts. However, Airr users who are interested in having a program transcribed are encouraged to submit a request to the company (I haven’t tested this feature out to determine how responsive Airr is to specific requests).

When a transcript is available for an episode, it is displayed adjacent the podcast player so it can be followed while listening. A “scroll to current time” button conveniently lets users sync audio and transcript positions. Users can also highlight an arbitrary section in the transcript and then skip to the corresponding audio from that point. AirrQuotes can also be generated by interacting directly with the transcript.

I’ve already mentioned that transcripts will auto-populate notes and can be referenced via your AirrQuote. Transcripts also figure prominently in Airr’s Readwise integration. When you sync your podcast notes with Readwise, the resulting notes on Readwise include your own annotations as well as the relevant transcript text for the selected AirrQuote.

There’s a lot more to say about transcriptions, that I’ll cover in a future post on the topic. Suffice it to say, this is a big area where Airr can extend, differentiate, and add a ton of value. This is also a feature where a premium subscription tier could make a lot of sense.

What Airr Can Improve On

I’ve painted a justifiably rosy picture, but there is always room for improvement. Here are a few thoughts on how Airr might further enhance its offering.

Discoverability:

  • Discovery could be much better. It’s not a core feature of the app, but discovery is a meaningful input for podcast consumption (and consumption is one driver for increased app usage). Airr displays public AirrQuotes from the community which gives it an angle on podcast discovery that other apps don’t have. Currently, users can view lists of public AirrQuotes based on newly created AirrQuotes, popular AirrQuotes, AirrQuotes related to your podcast subscriptions, and sports. Airr probably needs to expand the list of topical categories like sports and maybe also consider a keyword search to help us uncover interesting quotes.
  • Airr’s podcast search is decent but adding a directory of popular podcasts (beyond the current list of “Our Favorites”) would be a nice addition. Moreover, I’d love to see a list of programs that are regularly transcribed along with a list of the most annotated or most shared programs.
  • Leverage the AirrQuotes to encourage more active discovery. The new and top feeds are insufficient. More granular categories would be helpful to uncover ideas from topics of interest.

Podcast Playback:

  • The Airr player is very capable, but there are additional bells and whistles that would sweeten their offering. One popular podcast player feature is “trim silence” which aims to save listening time by removing extended pauses and silences during playback. Offering slower playback speeds is another popular option for content that warrants closer listening or where the speaker is a fast-talker.
  • Some podcasts episode chapter data which is also helpful when navigating individual programs. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it is a nice-to-have.

Note-taking:

  • A Siri Shortcut that allows me to dictate the contents of a note would be awesome.

Export Features:

  • Individual markdown notes should include the podcast show name, episode title and the clip’s starting time would be nice to have.
  • The app supports batch exporting, but I’d like to see episode specific batch exporting (e.g. when I’m using the podcast player let me batch export the notes for that episode on that screen).

Transcripts:

  • My only request here is for more transcripts; greater coverage for more podcasts. I imagine this becomes feasible as machine transcription gets cheaper and if Airr ever pursues a premium tier subscription to underwrite and accelerate the process.
  • Making it easy to find the episodes with transcripts would also be nice.

Miscellaneous:

  • Airr has a huge asset that is currently underutilized: its community.
  • Airr would benefit from encouraging more community members to post publicly. More incentives are needed. Some ideas: visibility to my other online activities (e.g. twitter, blog, etc.), opportunities for actual interaction and communication with other podcast enthusiasts, ability to follow certain Airr users (for podcast idea generation and visibility on their notes). There’s a lot of directions Airr can run with this in the future.

[Update: The Airr team informed me that they have private Slack group for early adopters. Interested users can request access by DMing their email to the Airr team via Intercom (accessible through the Airr app Settings > Help) or via  Twitter (@AirrAudio).]

Lingering Questions

An important question I always ask when adopting a new tool into my workflow is “will this company be around in a year’s time?” When it comes to Airr, I have no idea; I have zero insight into their long-term plans or their business model. I hope they’re around, but could use some reassurances.

One way to achieve this would be through better communication and transparency: A blog or a periodic newsletter from the company would go a long way to keeping outside observers abreast on new developments, company milestones, and new features. Moreover, a communication outlet is a great way to surface interest content and app use-cases: teach us how to use the app better. Lastly, as a consumer, I find that periodic communication goes a long way to reassure users that, yes, the company and the app aren’t going to disappear overnight or abandon the project.

I’m also curious about Airr’s long-term business model. Many users live and die by the free app, but as someone who has developed free and paid apps and run profitable businesses, it’s often unrealistic for end-users to expect sustained development of a high-quality tool without corresponding financial incentives. I have to imagine there is significant overlap between Airr’s user-base and apps like Roam and Readwise. These users are ideal as they are willing to pay for value and utility. For instance, a premium tier that includes a set number of monthly transcription requests, expanded export options, 3rd party integrations, and advanced automation and Siri shortcuts might be appealing. I’m sure the Airr team recognizes the attractive premium subscription path in front of them; it will be interesting to see if, how, and when they address this opportunity.

Concluding Thoughts

Last time I wrote about Airr, I stated that U2’s “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” encapsulated my thoughts on the podcast note-taking landscape. This time around, I’m happy to say the situation is much improved; Airr offers up a satisfying podcast note-taking experience for iPhone users. It’s well worth your time to download and check it out. If I was to quote a song that reflects my current sentiment, The Beatles’ “It’s getting better all the time...” is an apt choice.



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