How journalists can use Anchor to make social media audible

Image: AP Editor’s Note: This post was produced as part of a graduate course on media writing and storytelling taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.

Rachel Rohr was making waves—well, one wave. The associate producer of NPR and WBUR’s Here & Now was recording a short post on Anchor, an audio app, in late February. But instead of speaking about a specific news item as she previously had in clips—waves, in Anchor parlance—Rohr asked her listeners a question: “Do you want to hear news on Anchor?”

The wave received more than 250 listens and 40 replies, triggering a week’s worth of thoughtful discussion among a wide range of Anchor users. “It’s exciting to see an audio-based social network emerging,” Rohr tells CJR. “It’s pretty new. We are trying to see if Anchor would be a good fit for us.” 

Think of Anchor as the audio version of Twitter. Launched earlier this year,  the app is designed to be “radio by the people,” where anyone can post short audio clips and interact with each other using their own voices. The goal, says co-founder Mike Mignano, is to make listening to Anchor feel like “listening to public radio.”

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Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms have provided journalists unprecedented opportunities to engage audiences and build communities through pictures, video, and text. Yet, what Anchor offers is a little different. “There’s something very intimate about hearing somebody’s voice,” Rohr says. “It’s quite personal.” 

When Rohr posed her question about news on the platform, one listener, Dave Connis, answered enthusiastically. “Abso-freaking-lutely,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for Anchor to be used for breaking news. I kind of think of it a little bit like Twitter, in that I would go to it for some summaries of what’s happening.”

Another user, Derek Markham, added that breaking news wasn’t as appealing to him, since he was already getting a steady stream of real-time updates on other platforms. “I don’t know that I would be tuning in here [before] I would anywhere else,” he said. Sergio Mion echoed Markham, saying that “having conversations around those stories is even more interesting to me” than the stories themselves.

The feedback points to Anchor’s potential for “engaged journalism,” a concept that emphasizes conversation alongside information. It invites listeners into discussions and addresses a very real obstacle journalists face: how to constantly interact with audiences. Audio-based social media could showcase journalists’ personalities in an authentic way, which may help in building online communities. But it comes with a downside, too, especially for individual journalists. 

“On Anchor, I am not trying to represent myself, I am trying to represent the show,” Rohr says. “But that’s pretty challenging. Because when it’s my voice, it becomes more about me.” 

The issue of blurred identity is universal across all social media. However, there is some guidance on the solution already. On Twitter, it’s common practice that people put “RT ≠ endorsement” or “opinions are my own” in their bios. A similar approach could be considered for Anchor as journalists and other professionals explore rules on audio platforms.

Beyond building communities, engaged journalism encourages audiences to serve as sources for news and feature stories. Last month, for example, Rohr asked Anchor users: “Is there a word you discovered you were mispronouncing?” Within a day, dozens of people replied with a variety of mispronounced words, such as segue, biopic, niche, and click, sharing personal tales about each. Rohr believes she’ll be able to use those replies on the radio, since Here & Now produces an episode about mispronounced words every year.

“The community is great,” Rohr says. “There is cultural diversity, and geographic diversity. That keeps things very interesting, in the sense that you will be getting different types of responses and different perspectives.” 

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Jianghanhan Li Jianghanhan Li is a Columbia Journalism School student. Follow her on Twitter @heipihanhan.