Crosstown Digital Communications

Audio: The Forgotten Flavor of Multimedia

http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshsemans/4379894772/in/photostream/When we talk about multimedia content, nine times out of ten we’re referring to video. But today, I want to talk about an oft overlooked multimedia content type: audio.

At first glance (or listen?) you wouldn’t think audio is too sexy: nothing to look at, nothing in motion. Right? But well-produced audio can be quite a compelling content type. A story heard in the teller’s own voice, combined with the context of ambient noise and even tasteful background music, is a powerful experience.

It’s worth noting what most video experts say: shaky or grainy video will be forgiven if the audio is clear, so make sure you get it right. Even video is all about audio.

Writing for Nieman Storyboard, Julia Barton describes the impact of audio content thusly:

Writers and video producers live in dread of the wandering eye. Audio producers live for it. That’s what makes us, in our secret hearts, troublemakers. We want you to lose sight of everything in front of your face: to stare through that dish in your hand, ignore your children, drop into a glazed-over trance of our making. Maybe don’t drive off the road, but please do miss a few exits or get stuck in your car. Good audio should be dangerous that way.

Your story should always guide your content decisions. Which medium best serves your story? How is your story best spread and delivered? It’s worth considering audio as an answer to those questions.

Loud and Clear

Audio is alive and well as a standalone medium, as recent findings by Edison Research indicate:

  • According to the 2011 “Infinite Dial” study [PDF] by Edison Research, the weekly online radio audience (including AM/FM and Internet-only streams) has doubled every five years since 2001, now reaching approximately 57 million teens and adults each week thanks to the prevalence of broadband internet and mobile devices.
  • Forty-one percent of respondents said they like or love audio podcasts (compared to 36 percent for video podcasts), and 53 percent like or love online radio.
  • In Edison’s fifth annual “The Current State of Podcasting” report, published in fall 2010, they reported that 12 percent of respondents had listened to an audio podcast within the past month, with 70 million Americans ever having listened to a podcast (31 percent of whom are between the ages of 12 and 24).

Podcasts are not as hot as they were a few years ago when Karine Joly wrote about the state of higher ed podcasting in the U.S., but there are still 150,000 available in the iTunes store, including a bunch of higher ed podcasts.

Another indicator that audio is a highly viable content type is the success of Soundcloud, the “social sound platform” that has quietly racked up 10 million users and recently landed $50 million in new venture capital funding.

The Soundcloud API has also found its way into Facebook, Storify and thousands of other applications. This includes the recently released Storywheel, a hipster version of the audio slideshow app Soundslides that allows users to create narrated slideshows with their Instagram photos.

The Case for Audio Content

The creation of high quality audio content is within our reach.

  • A white paper by audio content platform Cinchcast observes that audio content is exceptionally easy to produce nowadays, whether it’s with your laptop or iPhone.
  • With Audacity—a free, open-source audio editing tool—we can easily produce great sounding clips.
  • Resources like Transom.org highlight exemplary audio content from public radio and collects valuable tools and advice for audio storytelling.
  • We already have the opportunities to capture audio content all around us: interviews, events, performances, even chance conversations.

One of the most powerful examples of audio content is NPR’s StoryCorps oral history project, which gives ordinary people the opportunity to record their life stories for both broadcast on NPR and archival in the Library of Congress. Middlebury has a StoryCorps-type project called Murmur, launched in fall 2010, where they collect audio stories from members of the college community at different locations around campus.

“We got all kinds of ‘Middlebury people’ to tell us their personal stories about specific times and places on campus—students, alums, faculty and staff,” says Middlebury senior editor and communications specialist Blair Kloman. “It was almost contagious the way people would hear a story and then get in touch and say ‘I remember a time when…’”

They bridge the campus environment with the audio content by placing orange icons around campus prompting people to call a phone number and type in a three digit code that corresponds to the campus location—in the same vein as the Toronto project that inspired Murmur. (This begs the question of why they haven’t plotted the audio on a campus map, in the vein of this “narrative archeology” project.)

“It started as an alternative to the campus tour for prospective students and has now blossomed into a way for everyone to experience another perspective of the campus,” says Kloman. “Alums love it at reunions, parents love it at family weekends.”

When I was at Tufts, we did a lot of work with SoundSlides, an affordable and easy to use program that allows you to create rich media slideshows with photos and audio files. One of the projects of which I am the proudest is one of my last, a recap of beloved president Larry Bacow’s final Commencement ceremony.

We also used Soundcloud to embed audio files of an alumni chorus singing the school song and the fight song on our History page. An even better example of Soundcloud in action in higher ed comes from Marywood University. They embed high-quality audio clips of interviews into news stories, enhancing the plain text content with the perspective of a story subject in his or her own voice — and perhaps also giving members of the media a sense of how that faculty member would sound on TV or radio.

How are you using audio content to tell your stories?

Photo by joshsemans / Flickr Creative Commons

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