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Even more reasons why audio never goes viral (and how to change it)

Posted on 22 January 2014

If you care about radio as an artform, you should read Stan Alcorn’s “Why Audio Never Goes Viral.” I’ve read it about four times already, and plan on doing so again- it is a thoughtful, insightful story about exactly what its title promises. After reading it- here’s the link again– feel free to come back here for my thoughts on the subject.

Back? Here we go.

Even more reasons audio doesn’t go viral

1. We aren’t conditioned to think of the world in terms of audio

We just aren’t.

Three years ago I wrote a post asking why there was no Instagram or YouTube for capturing and sharing audio. My belief was and continues to be as follows: there is no pre-internet analogue for sharing pure audio experiences. As I wrote:

“Why record the audio of a birthday party when you could snap some photos or combine the audio-visual experience by bringing out the camcorder? Pure audio has largely been irrelevant in the daily sharing of our lives, both before and since the internet.”

This continues to hold true. Soundcloud, which at the time seemed to be trying to change that, has become mostly about music with a bit of podcasting thrown in– professional or semi-professional audio performers using it to showcase their work, not amateurs sharing aural experiences with friends and family.

Cameras taught us to share the world visually. Video cameras gave us the ability to share the world visually and aurally. If we want to capture a single, unchanged moment, we go for the camera (or camera app). If we want to capture sound, why not use the video camera (app)– it gets you both. People generally have no use for pure audio, or at least don’t think they do.

2. Sharing audio is expensive

If I want to share photos I have Twitter, Instagram/Facebook, Flickr and probably more. If I want to share a video, I have YouTube and Vimeo. If I want to share audio I have Soundcloud. Of all those services, Soundcloud is the only one with major storage limits on free accounts.

Facebook has never hidden my old photos until I pay a fee.  I could put hours of video on YouTube and never pay a dime. Flickr used to give you unlimited storage for $30 a year, and now it’s 2 TB for free. But if I want to share more than two hours of audio on Soundcloud, I have to be ready to pay $30 a year- or $100/year if I want to share more than four.

This is not a criticism of Soundcloud- they have a business model and every right to it. But the fact remains that this sort of limitation is going to inhibit people’s interest in sharing audio using their platform.

And there really is no alternative to the quick audio share. I’m a fan of Mixcloud for full-length podcasts and mixtapes, but again we’re in the world of professionals and semi-professionals here. Not some guy with an iPhone recording the sound of his kid’s soccer game to share with the rest of his family. Tumblr has an audio option, but you’re limited to one mp3 upload a day (no such limitations on photos).

Where else do you even share audio that isn’t professionally produced? I have no idea.

Update: I have since re-discovered Audiboo, which seems to be filling the niche of short audio shares– it’s free for an unlimited number of posts, up to the three minutes in length.

3. There are too many competing platforms (or at least not one centralized platform)

OK, so regular people don’t capture and share audio. But what about us outliers– the people who practice the ancient art of producing stories made purely out of sound?

Well, hopefully we’re employed somewhere. In which case, we are probably uploading our work to our company’s platform. Which means the CBC Radio Player or the BBC iPlayer or the NPR Media Player or… you get the idea.

When I log into YouTube I get the latest sketches from Conan O’Brien bumping up against Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with Neil Young, Nardwuar taking on Chance the Rapper, Ted Talks, sports highlights, and whatever random videos are popular today.

My point is this: when it comes to video, content creators- even professional ones- are not hiding their work inside walled gardens. They are putting it out into the world of YouTube where you and I can easily browse work from all over the place and share our favourites, making it- well, viral.

Where can I do this for audio? Well, see points one and two. We’re kind of in a chicken-and-an-egg scenario here, but I suspect it would serve audio makers of all kinds to band together to create some sort of global platform. A CBC/BBC/PRX/NPR-hybrid if you will, only way more embeddable and cross-platform.

4. Audio makers don’t always make it easy to share their work.

I’ll defer to Dan Misener on this front:

“The existing embedded CBC audio players are terrible. I’d embed one here, but I don’t want to put you through that. How terrible are these players? Let me count the ways…

Also:

“‘Fast forward to 10:34 or ‘Skip ahead to 23:30’ is a terrible user experience.”

Essentially:

“Public broadcasters can’t realistically expect listeners to share and spread radio stories if the experience of doing so is absolultely miserable.”

While we’re here, I’ll suggest you read Dan’s whole piece, as well.

5. Audio makers don’t share their work

This point is made in Alcorn’s article:

“Compared to other media, even young, tech-savvy audiophiles are less likely to share audio on a weekly basis, and when they do, they’re more likely to use email instead of social media.”

I work in radio. I am Facebook friends and Twitter followers with plenty of other people who work in radio. And yet I rarely see audio being shared around. Again, maybe because there’s not an established platform for doing so, but still… if even the people who like audio so much they’ve made a career of it aren’t going to evangalize for their work, why would anyone else?

 

waveform
waveform photo by Brenderous on Flickr

So where do we go from here?

I truly love audio as a story-telling platform. I believe that the aural divorced from the visual can provide a less-biased, more personal understanding of a person or issue- more intimate than television, print, or GIF.

I don’t think the quest for “virality” should be the end-all and be-all, but I don’t think it should be ignored, either. After all, trying to be viral is simply trying to be heard- if you are telling a story you believe is important, why wouldn’t you want it to be shared and spread?

So how do we do that? These are my hunches.

1. Experiment with platforms

Maybe Mixcloud should be used to share short stories, it’s just that no one’s doing it.  Instagram was supposed to be about tracking drinks and Twitter wasn’t conceived of as a place for breaking news- but users affected what the sites became simply by using them. Find ways to upload and share your audio somewhere- anywhere- and see what works for you.

2. Don’t be afraid to get a little visual

Stories with compelling pictures are more likely to be clicked on when they come up in social media feeds. Print understands this, so they create at least one good visual to go along with their longform stories. Do the same: it lets people have some idea of what the story is about before they hit “play.”

3. Write better

If you make radio, you know a lot of it is about writing. You need to create promos and introductions that are ear-catching and compel the listener to stick around. Apply those same skills to your headlines, descriptions, and Tweets when posting your audio to the web.

4. Maybe the YouTube for audio is YouTube

I’ve been holding YouTube up as an example for audio, but the underlying problem is that there is no YouTube for audio. Except maybe there is.

In the music world we have countless streaming services: Rdio, Spotify, Pandora, etc. They are all eclipsed by YouTube.

I read something somewhere about how a song on YouTube with some terrible clipart slideshow is still going to be played way more times than it is on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Spotify, Pandora and Rdio combined, and it’s probably true.

If that holds for music, why not for other audio? Why not take that one nice picture you found in step three, put it and your mp3 in Windows Movie Maker or iMovie and upload your work to YouTube where all the users already are?

A case in point: I recently made a terrible, terrible slideshow to go with a radio piece I produced. It took me maybe half-an-hour. I posted it the same places I post all my work and less than a week later, it has more than two-thousand views.

To put that in context, my single most popular Soundcloud upload has 68 streams, and on Mixcloud I have a story that made national headlines with 19 listens. Both of those are after months of being in existence. I like the story I put on YouTube, but it is not 100 times better than my other work. It just has that many more people who have listened to it.

YouTube is understandable, sharable, and massive. Maybe we don’t need to re-invent the wheel.

5. Believe in audio

If we are making audio, we should believe in its viability, and believe that non-radio people would be interested in hearing the things you are hearing and making you go “wow”. It isn’t TV without the budget or print without the stickiness- it is its own unique medium, and the internet is allowing it to be transformed from something ephemeral to something with more permanence. Stories that would have once disappeared the instant they were broadcast can be uploaded, embedded, and spread. Embrace it.

Filed under: Best Of, radio

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