How online audio tools can help journalists
First blogs, then Flickr, then YouTube, then Facebook, then Twitter, then Tumblr... If you were told there's one more thing that you have to be using to survive in journalism, you’d be forgiven for lashing out. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Audio is becoming a force in Internet content, well beyond music and radio streaming.
SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung put it starkly at the French Internet conference, Le Web, earlier this month: Sound will be bigger than video, he said.
You might expect those words coming from the head of a company that relies on wide adoption of audio for its business, but his argument was convincing. Recording audio is less intrusive than recording video. Everyone who has a smartphone doesn’t just have a camera in their pocket, but a microphone. And unlike video, you can listen to audio you and others create when you’re doing other things.
Journalists should at least experiment with online audio – whether they work in radio or not.
Edison Research and Arbitron released a slew of data on digital platform usage earlier this year (pdf). It found that about 89 million Americans listened to online radio in a given month. And that number is expected to rise dramatically in the next five years. But the biggest jump was audio in the car. The number of people listening to Internet audio through their cell phones while driving is increasing, and you can expect manufacturers to take heed, since more than a quarter of Americans say they are “very interested” in doing so.
So what do you need to get your head around as a journalist? Here’s a rundown of some of the most important tools for audio journalism online.
While SoundCloud isn’t the only audio tool out there, it’s certainly one of the more established players. Until last year, the company was focused primarily on music content. Since then, the platform has entered the realm of the spoken word and a big part of the strategy is about journalism.
In one way, SoundCloud is a social media platform. There are usernames, people to follow, items to favorite and comments to share. Except that the items are audio tracks and the comments are embedded along a sleek waveform. The SoundCloud smartphone app is essentially just one big record button that lets you add a title and a picture before uploading and sharing.
SoundCloud can be used by a range of people. You could be a full-time sound designer, sharing ideas and soliciting feedback; you could be an audio neophyte, uploading a tidbit you recorded on the train with your iPhone; or you could be an editor at a major radio station, looking for new ways to distribute and socialize your professionally recorded audio. Of course, like Twitter and Facebook, you could be the passive lurker, listening to what everyone else is sharing (and maybe marking some as favorites or leaving a comment or two).
The site lets you upload a total of 120 minutes at any one time, but you can pay a yearly subscription for more space (anywhere from $38 to $654 a year, converted from Euros).
Here are some examples of SoundCloud on news sites:
- Public radio station KALW in San Francisco uses it to organize audio related to its Occupy Bay Area coverage.
- Public Radio International's "The World" hosts its audio on SoundCloud and embeds it on many story pages.
- The New Yorker uploads many of its Web-only audio files to the platform.
- CBS News used SoundCloud to show examples of audio it featured in a TV broadcast.
- The Daily Californian uploaded a speech by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, using the SoundCloud iPhone app to record, upload and post the audio and share it via Facebook.
When I was working at WNYC Radio this September, I used the SoundCloud website to upload and share audio archives from the station’s broadcast on September 11, 2001 for the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
While SoundCloud has an element of social media, AudioBoo is all about being the Twitter for audio. It’s an app that lets you record short clips (currently with a three-minute limit, with some exceptions) and share them on Twitter, Facebook or its website, AudioBoo.fm.
CEO Mark Rock is quick to distinguish his company from SoundCloud. “If you go to SoundCloud, you find music. If you go to AudioBoo, you find spoken word,” he says. However, that’s not entirely true. SoundCloud has expanded its volume of spoken word content in the past year and there are plenty of musical snippets on AudioBoo, albeit mostly of random people singing.
The site is free with the three-minute limit, but for 60 British pounds you can get 30 minutes recording time and some enhanced sharing and podcasting features.
You are more likely to find AudioBoo on British news sites like The Guardian and regional BBC radio stations, but Rock says 53 percent of “listens” come from the U.S.
Here are some examples of AudioBoo on news sites:
- The Guardian uses AudioBoo in its political liveblog
- BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 have a page on AudioBoo.fm.
- The Guardian curates audio from the Middle East on AudioBoo’s website.
- The BBC Today program uses AudioBoo.
This audio tool is all about location. Broadcastr lets you discover and listen to audio stories from a map on its website and on its iPhone or Android app. For instance, my neighborhood in Brooklyn (where Broadcastr is based) features a walking tour produced by the Brooklyn Historical Society next to some crime stories produced by a local online news site, The Local.
Before the site’s launch in late 2010, it partnered with groups that wanted to showcase audio for free as a way to seed content on the map. You’ll find sounds from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and Fodor's Travel Guides sprinkled in with the stories individuals uploaded on their own.
The beauty of the app is its relevance to where you are: To hear sound stories around you, just open the app, load the map and click on the pins (and then leave your own).
Terrestrial radio’s challenge
Now that all these tools are emerging and audio listeners say they want more mobile, Internet-based content, the existing broadcast system might be in for a shock. This is one of the reasons NPR posted a job for “product manager of connected cars,” and launched its Pandora-like Infinite Player online.
“We see the bulk of audio listening going to these platforms," says Javaun Moradi, product manager for APIs at NPR. “We have to be prepared for it.”
Executives at radio news organizations may not know exactly what the landscape will look like in a few years, but some are certainly preparing. Jake Shapiro is the CEO of the Public Radio Exchange, which has recently made creating smartphone apps and digital distribution a big part of its operation. He says the new model has yet to emerge. “How audio is treated and integrated, it’s still not a compelling experience,” he says.
The most recent innovation in distribution was podcasting. And while it may have been a shift in how people listened to spoken word content in an Internet age, according to the research from Edison and others, its popularity is waning.
One show that manages to share popularity equally on the airwaves and online is WNYC’s Radiolab. The show has an enviable listenership in both platforms and a few months ago its host, Jad Abumrad, received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” award. Abumrad says content creators for terrestrial stations would be wise to experiment beyond the traditional system.
“Public radio is like this little island that’s been floating in the ocean for a while,” he says. “But there are all these adjacent islands and we have to seduce them onto our island.”
Whatever way you get it, the data shows spoken word audio has the same appeal on the radio as it does online.
“There's something really great about losing yourself in an audio story, even though you can go five paces to the right and turn on your TV,” Abumrad says. “There’s something about the way it engages the imagination when you don't have pictures and you fill them in yourself. There’s something I still crave about that.”
And SoundCloud, AudioBoo and Broadcastr are likely just the first of many new ways to hear it.