Jim Colgan

Jim Colgan was a producer and digital editor at WNYC Radio for almost ten years. He now works independently, helping news organizations with mobile mapping projects and consulting for technology companies that include the texting platform, Mobile Commons. Jim launched one of public radio's first ever crowdsourcing projects by asking listeners of WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show to report on the price of milk, lettuce and beer at their local grocery store. Jim is also an active member of Hacks/Hackers New York.


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.

SoundCloud’s smartphone app is available for the iPhone.

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:

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.

AudioBoo is based in London.

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:


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.

Broadcastr partners include the History Channel, Simon & Schuster, and Audible.com.

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.

This piece is part of a Poynter Hacks/Hackers series featuring How To’s that focus on what journalists can learn from emerging trends in technology and new tech tools. Read more


How journalists are using the iPad to enhance their reporting

Many journalists know what it’s like to have a source freeze when you pull out a microphone or start recording them on camera. What were once colorful anecdotes can quickly turn into stilted monologues.

Now that the quality of mobile and tablet devices is so advanced, however, reporters are finding new ways to use them — and lower the barriers between themselves and their sources.

My first experience of iPad reporting was illuminating. A few days after the first generation device came out in 2010, I tried using it on a New York City subway. I wanted to do something simple like read a news app, but each time I tried, the person sitting next to me asked if she could touch the screen.

Even standing up, I’d get curious stares from around the carriage and I would put the device away. It was the first week of its much-hyped release after all, but I was feeling more self-conscious than the people on the street with a video camera in their face.

I decided to embrace the feeling for a radio story. My first piece about the iPad was a look at why it was drawing so much attention. I took the device to Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan and brandished it without reserve. Dozens of people stopped me to ask for a look, and I interviewed them all with the iPad’s voice recorder. The story’s headline was apt: Can the iPad Get You a Date? (It turns out, it can.)

More than a year — and another iPad generation later — the device is far more ubiquitous. Now that more people are using smartphones and tablets, sources are less likely to freeze up when you pull out a device they’re used to seeing.

I’ve found mobile devices to be especially effective for on-the-street interviews. When New York City brought in a new system of letter grades for restaurant health inspections last year, the WNYC newsroom asked me to get reaction from New Yorkers. Using my iPad, I asked people on the street where they liked to eat and then looked up the restaurant’s inspection report online. I was able to capture their reactions when they heard the details — things like evidence of live vermin at their favorite restaurants. It was tape I could not have gotten in the moment without an iPad.

I used it in a similar way for a story about surveillance cameras in New York. It was after the attempted bombing of Times Square last year, when there was a focus on the street cameras that captured a man police were looking for. With the iPad, I interviewed people below government traffic cameras and then showed them live images from those cameras on the iPad to get their reaction.

Richard Gutjahr, a Germany-based TV, print and radio journalist, has also used mobile devices to enhance his reporting.

“I was in Tahrir Square in Egypt when the revolution broke out and they stole my camera at the checkpoint when I tried to enter Cairo,” Gutjahr told me via Skype.

He didn’t argue when they took the broadcast equipment, fearing they would also take his iPhone and Macbook Air. When he got to the square, he used his phone as a hot spot on the only working cellular data network available. (The government had shut down the Internet). He took pictures with his iPhone and filed stories with his Air. Far from limiting his abilities, he says it helped.

“I didn’t have fancy equipment or a camera crew with me,” Gutjahr said. “I was just sitting in front of the protesters, who also had their gadgets. It was the perfect camouflage.”

Gutjahr said he noticed that standard TV cameras would attract raucous crowds that overshadowed the peaceful singing and quiet protests happening away from the cameras. The benefits of blending in were so great that he says he now prefers to leave his camera crew behind whenever possible. While reporting, Gutjahr uses apps like Ustream, Audioboo, Tweetdeck for iPhone, Camera+ and iMovie.

Reporter Neal Augenstein got attention earlier this year for being one of the first radio reporters to ditch his broadcast gear entirely for an iPhone and iPad. He said he can do his job as a reporter at Washington D.C.’s commercial all-news station, WTOP, just as well without it.

“After it’s gone through production [and] played on the air, my sense is it’s the same as audio recorded by anyone else,” Augenstein told me via Skype.

Augenstein uses his iPhone to record interviews using the built-in microphone. When he’s at a press conference, he uses his iPad to take notes with the phone at the podium. The devices, he said, have changed his entire workflow. He now begins a story with a tweet, takes photos and videos for the Web, and then files a radio report. Before Augenstein made the switch, he wasn’t even using social media. He uses a series of apps in his reporting, including 1st Video by Vericorder, Twitter, Ustream, Skype and Camera+.

Like any profession, the quality of the journalism depends more on the journalist than on the tools. But if the tools let you capture stories you wouldn’t otherwise get and expose you to platforms you wouldn’t ordinarily go to, they can greatly improve the quality of the stories you tell.

Have you used an iPhone, iPad or other mobile device to help your reporting? If so, what apps would you recommend?

This story is part of a new Poynter Hacks/Hackers series. Each week, we’ll feature a How To focused on what journalists can learn from emerging trends in technology and new tech tools. Read more


How a college journalist created SoundNote, an iPad app for recording interviews

How do you design a mobile app for journalists? Do you commission consultants to research a tool they think reporters will use? Do you spend weeks observing the daily habits of journalists to try to anticipate their needs?

If you’re David Estes, you just throw yourself into the Apple iPad development toolkit and try to make your own life easier. That’s what Estes did when he created an iPad app called SoundNote last year as a college sophomore at the University of Washington. The app was so successful he was able to quit college, pay off his student loans and live solo in a West Village apartment in New York City.

SoundNote is a simple note-taking application that lets you record from the iPad’s internal microphone. It matches your notes with the timeline of the audio recording, so you just click on a word in your notes to jump to the related point in the audio. If you’re interviewing someone, you point the iPad in the direction of your subject and jot down a few keywords as the person answers. The audio doesn’t let you measure levels, which would help with the recording quality, and although it lets you draw, it doesn’t recognize hand-writing. But Estes says he doesn’t want to overcomplicate the features.

I tried out the app by interviewing Estes at a cafe near his West Village apartment to find out what drove the app’s creation and how a college sophomore with an interest in journalism could make something so successful.

“When the Ipad came out, I was in college,” Estes said. “I thought it would be great for note-taking.”

To find that quote, I just clicked on the keywords I had typed while recording him and then transcribed that part of the audio in full.

“I was working at my college newspaper at the time,” Estes said, “and I was thinking of ways we could use the iPad at the newspaper.”

He had played around with programming as a hobby before this and knew a little about developing on the iOs platform. But, he says, he mostly learned the code to build the features for this app as he went along.

It costs $5.99 on iTunes and has already sold enough to let Estes pay off his student loans.

“I live in the West Village and I can feed myself,” Estes said. “I guess that would be an OK measure of success — without having to have another job besides this app.”

Estes has been surprised by how some people have used the app. It quickly became popular among lawyers, he said. And he got a response from one man who used the app to record his doctor as he talked about treatment options for the man’s sick wife.

Estes’ development of the app is a lesson in innovation. Instead of going through a formal process of soliciting requirements or getting multiple people to sign off on wireframes, a 21-year-old student thought about how a device like the iPad could make his life easier — as a journalist and student — and he just made it.

But it’s not as though anyone can do this. Most journalists don’t know how to code, and they may not have a desire to delve into the iPad development kit as Estes did. But as a developer, Estes based his approach on his own first-hand experience, which was the same as his target users.

“I had a bunch of ideas, and one that I really wanted was a story-building tool, where a bunch of journalists could put together pieces of data they were collecting,” Estes said. “Then I noticed that the note-taking part of it would work really well for general purpose note-taking.”

Estes built the prototype by himself in a week’s time and then submitted it to the App Store.

Short of becoming coders, Estes said, it’s important for journalists to familiarize themselves with various platforms for news — and the opportunities they present. It’s also a smart idea for journalists and developers to work together more to create useful tools.

“For the most part, from what I’ve seen from both tech people that I know and journalism people that I know, they don’t know what each other is doing very well.”

The iPad itself also has a lot to do with this kind of approach. Estes says the infrastructure Apple created helped drive his innovation. He didn’t have to worry about marketing, because the App Store lets people come across the app on their own, especially if they’re looking for productivity tools. If he had to worry about the marketing and sales, he said he wouldn’t have had the time to do it.

A combination of factors drove Estes to create the app: his desire to create a useful tool for journalists and find a better way to take notes in class, and of course the potential to make money.

Whoever is building an app to make someone else’s job more efficient, Estes said, has to really want to do it. And if you’re a journalist, that motivation is usually pretty high.

Correction: This post originally misstated the college that Estes attended. He attended the University of Washington. Read more


7 ways to get your audience to participate in mobile mapping projects

News organizations are increasingly involving the community in their reporting and trying to figure out which approaches work well.

One way to get your audience involved is to combine the ease of mobile texting with the visual appeal of a map. Throughout the past few years, I’ve launched several successful mobile mapping crowdsourcing projects for public radio stations and have found that they engaged audiences and helped advance news stories.

Drawing on my experience with these projects, I’ve come up with some tips on how to involve your audience in a successful mobile mapping project in any medium.

Start with a simple question.

Last December, a huge snow storm hit the New York City area. It happened during the holidays when many of the city’s political leaders were away. After two feet accumulated in Central Park, the story quickly became about the cleanup effort — or lack thereof. At first, the mayor said the city was making good progress clearing snow. But listener calls to WNYC, where I was a producer and digital editor at the time, indicated otherwise.

To find out more, we opened up the story to our listeners around the city with a question: Has your block been plowed? All listeners had to do was text the word PLOW to a short number. Using a Google Fusion Table, we plotted all the submissions on a map.

It’s important not to bombard your respondents with questions they didn’t sign up to answer. We made the mistake of asking the same group of people the next week to tell us if their trash had been collected or not (the snow cleanup was affecting that process too). We noticed many people opted out after that question.

In hindsight, we probably should have just asked those texters if they would like to help us report on other issues related to the snow and have them opt in rather than sending them the question directly.

Integrate examples seamlessly with other content.

Once people answered the yes or no question in this case, we responded by asking them to describe how the snow was affecting them. Once we had the audio message, we could play excerpts of people’s stories on the air.

But we didn’t just use that tape to promote the project; we used the tape just like we would any other news soundbite. That way, listeners heard the latest news about the snow storm, the clip from someone affected by it and the prompt to text in your own situation. We ended with a mention of a listener map online that showed blocks that had or had not been plowed.

Be ready for breaking news.

With the snow storm map, we weren’t trying to get our audience to engage for the sake of engagement. There was a specific goal in mind that related to a newsworthy question. But we needed to be ready with the tools way before this. We already subscribed to a text message service (in this case with Mobile Commons) and we were very familiar with the interface.

Fifteen minutes after we made the decision to do it, the texting project was up and running and the question was on the air. The contributions started flooding in.

Showcase some version of the end result as soon as possible.

Even with the initial few dozen responses, it made sense to post the snow map online. That way, it was very clear what people were contributing to. And by playing excerpts of the audio stories on the air, it showed what would happen if you took part.

We applied the same principle at WNYC and PRI’s national show, The Takeaway when we asked people to tell us how high gas prices were forcing changes in their habits (and to tell us the last gas price they paid for). Once we had a few stories from around the country, we made the map prominent online so others could quickly see why they might participate.

Reward people for participating.

When you set out to ask a question of listeners, readers or web users, it’s important to think of why someone would bother to answer. In the spring, WNYC partnered with The New York Times to create a crowdsourced map of bird-watching spots throughout the metro area.

To go along with the Times’ “Bird Week” series, we asked radio listeners and newspaper readers to text in the location of their favorite spots for observing birds. We also asked people to tell us the last bird they’d seen in that spot. While the news value was not as great as the snow map, there was a clear reward for taking part.

Individually, readers and listeners got to share their urban wildlife story with the public. Collectively, they helped create a map that could be used by anyone interested in watching birds in the city.

Make the project fun when possible.

While the bird map was not quite breaking news, it was fun for people to share their wildlife observations from around the city. And while it didn’t necessarily advance a news story, it helped anyone who participated — or even just looked at the map — to think more about his or her surroundings.

Similarly, the snow storm was a serious story that involved some life-threatening situations. By participating, listeners related to the story in a different way, by listening to a report that they — or someone just like them — helped report.

Follow up with participants.

One of the most powerful parts of the snow map was something I think we could only do with a mobile texting project.

When people told us whether or not their block had been plowed, we could text everyone back with a single message. So on the second day of the cleanup effort, when it was becoming clear just how slow the city was removing the snow, we could ask for a status update from the people whose blocks had not been plowed. Some of those people told us the snow trucks had finally reached them, but many were still snowed in.

On the third day, we asked the same question again and discovered the situation was a lot better. Far from getting annoyed at our follow-up message (as we had feared), the people we texted back told us how much they appreciated our interest in their situation. This is something that rarely happens with the people journalists interview  — at least not on the scale made possible with a texting project.

Of course, it also help to write up stories about the project along the way, as we did with the snow map and the gas price project.

Not all audience-driven projects are going to be as successful as you’d like. The key is to make sure they’re driven by a legitimate need for information rather than for the sake of engagement. Read more

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