Image: dearmiami/Flickr
Tow Center

Two new tools at the cutting edge of audio sharing

October 19, 2016
Image: dearmiami/Flickr

When you hear a great story on the radio, there is no easy way to send it to your friends. You might be in the car listening to live radio, doing the dishes with a podcast on, or streaming on the computer. Wherever you’re listening, the best you could do is send them a link to the Soundcloud, and tell them the timestamp at which to start. 

Two new tools are aiming to make it easier to share audio. WNYC’s Audiograms, which was made public in August, is a way for audio creators–like radio shows and podcasts–to create shareable snippets from their shows. This American Life’s Shortcut, which came out last week, and was partially funded by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, is user driven. Listeners are now able to go into the transcript of any This American Life and highlight the text they want to include, and the tool will spit out a clip to exactly those points.

The tools are both open source, aimed at making audio more shareable for everyone. Audio culture, particularly podcasting, has been on the rise in recent years. According to Pew, podcast listenership is up from 12 percent in 2014 to 21 percent this year. But it has remained resistant to sharing on social media.

When you are scrolling on your Facebook feed, you are not always in an environment where you’re looking to listen. “No one stops scrolling just because they see a clickable triangle,” Stan Alcorn, a reporter and producer at Reveal, a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, wrote me in an email.

So when WNYC and This American Life were designing their tools, coming up with a visual element was key.

Related: A free tool that uses artificial intelligence to transcribe large audio files

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Designing with the visual in mind

Alcorn wrote a seminal piece in 2014 on why audio never goes viral. The most impressive piece of audio, points out one of his sources, “will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.” But even the most simple visualizations, he wrote, add a component that can allow audio to go viral.

While the clickable triangle does not necessarily catch eyes, when you see a soundwave, the “natural reaction” is to click play, says WNYC’s Social Media Director Delaney Simmons, who led the development of Audiograms. Audiograms didn’t start out designing their tool with the visual in mind, she said. As they worked closely with an audio engineer, they realized the best option was to create a visualization that tracked the audio in some way. “The more true to the medium we were with the design, the better the results,” she said. Audiograms now provides several different visualizations to pick from, but they all track the audio in some way, with space to add a written quote, manually. 

The Shortcut team approached their tool by looking at it as “a set of interconnected design challenges.” In a post about designing Shortcut, UX designer Jane Friedhoff writes that their goal was to create something that would be “frictionless”—natural and easy to use—and allow users to “express their fandom the same way a gifmaker on Tumblr might.”

After several iterations, the team landed on a design that spits out something like a lyrics video for This American Life episodes. Shortcut is able to take advantage of This American Life’s transcripts, which they have available on their site for every episode. While they hope others will use it, this is not something that many other podcasts have done—and certainly not something that is done for live radio.

But it may be something that more audio producers should consider, according to radio consultant and self-proclaimed futurologist James Cridland: “For enhanced searches or even for an alternative way for audiences to consume content, transcriptions are incredibly undervalued by audio producers.” Such measures, he wrote to me in an email, can build audiences in new environments.


Can audio compete in the news feed? 

These tools are still very new, and their success will depend on the level of engagement they elicit on social media. While Audiograms doesn’t have the engagement data back from the corporate partners who are using Audiograms—which include NPR, The New York Times, The Economist, PRX, Panoply, and Reveal. But on WNYC’s own page, they have already found that engagement is 8 times higher on posts that include an Audiogram than non-Audiogram posts, and some shows’ Audiograms are outperforming photos by 58 percent and links by 83 percent. “We knew that videos perform better on Facebook; we didn’t know that this hacked video would do as well as it has,” said Simmons.

Such numbers suggest that some of the pessimism about audio as a medium online might be overstated. But in the long term, these tools will also need to be supported by both the platforms and the audio producers themselves. Facebook and Twitter need to make audio presentation on news feeds more robust. Alcorn suggested to me a one-tap podcast subscriptions without leaving the Facebook feed. And adding a visual component also needs to become part of the workflow for all producers. Cridland notes that content makers rush the production: “They don’t bother writing a good cue into the piece, they don’t do good metadata or descriptions for it, and don’t bother creating nice images and other detail to help it live online.”

For now, more experimentation is necessary. After all, as Simmons put it, “We’re still in the infant stages of audio being consumed on social media.”

A previous version of this piece listed James Crisdale as a source. That is now corrected to James Cridland.

Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.