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SoundCloud expands its effort to become the YouTube of public radio and podcasts

On the web, audio has long been video’s neglected little brother.

SoundCloud is arguably the biggest music-sharing community since MySpace, but now the company is eyeing a different kind of audio: the spoken word.

SoundCloud logoThe website was founded five years ago by two sound guys who wanted to make it easier for musicians to share their work. After a series of smart moves — releasing robust public APIs, building partnerships with the likes of Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress — SoundCloud has attracted audience (20 million registered users, according to the company) and money (including a reported $50 million investment round in January). SoundCloud’s “freemium” model charges heavier users for extra storage capacity and deeper analytics.

Now, as part of its effort to “unmute the web,” SoundCloud is courting radio news professionals, podcasters, and indie storytellers. A year-old team of about a half-dozen people is focused on spoken-word content. The company just hired Jim Colgan, formerly a producer and digital experimenter for WNYC public radio, to manage partnerships with audio providers.

“In our outreach…we highlight that if you’ve got great audio, appreciate it for what it is,” said Manolo Espinosa, SoundCloud’s head of audio. “It does not need to have an overlay of a video container. It doesn’t have to have a separate experience. … You don’t have to have a stock video image of a tape player or a microphone on there. The audio stands by itself.”

A recent example: Audio from police scanners captured during the Aurora shootings, edited and posted to SoundCloud by The Madeleine Brand Show.

Producers of radio stories don’t need to be told how powerful sound can be. The problem is, the form has long suffered from neglect on the web. Sample a variety of public-radio sites and you’ll find proprietary Flash-based widgets or direct links to MP3 files. The HTML5 <audio> standard was supposed to fix all that, but ongoing format wars have led to inconsistent browser support, so hardly anyone uses it.

Video producers might still be having this conversation if not for YouTube. Do you remember what it was like trying to embed video in a blog post before YouTube (or Vimeo)? Pretty terrible. YouTube became a de facto standard for video because it nailed three things:

  1. It provided free hosting of the content
  2. It provided an easy-to-embed player
  3. It built a huge community

It’s uncommon for a news organization not to upload original video to YouTube — at least those organizations without their own infrastructure for video. There’s no need to fiddle with file formats or pay for server space, and it’s dead simple to embed the file in a web page. Plus people might actually see it.

Standardization, in addition to simplifying things for news outlets, can go a long way in providing a consistent user experience. SoundCloud, of course, wants to be that standard. Think of it as an aspiring YouTube for public radio.

SoundCloud is itself a social network, within which fans can like and comment on tracks. But the content is portable, easily embedded in other sites. And the player is offered in HTML5, which means mobile devices (without Flash) can still render the audio.

Some producers are signing on. L.A.-based KPCC and KCRW, North Carolina’s WUNC, St. Louis Public Radio, and (newly relaunched) CNN Radio are among the traditional outlets actively uploading to the site. Boston’s WBUR and WGBH program The World have switched to using SoundCloud’s player on their websites. A number of other shows are on the platform, free to download and share, including Roman Mars’ wildly popular 99% Invisible.

SoundCloud also provides a way for producers to solicit audio from users. Last week Michael Caputo of the Public Insight Network wrote about American Public Media’s new effort to collect audio responses to survey questions:

For years now, the web has elevated visual presentations, making videos and video streams a means of trading information on sites like YouTube, Skype and Google Hangouts. They, and thousands of similar services, have turned the seen into the shared, and helped make video an important mode of engagement.

But it seems like audio has lagged behind, likely because the vast majority of audio platforms cater to music creators. They enable us to hear the songs and even pass finished pieces along to someone else. But where’s the engagement in all this?

Espinosa told me one of his challenges is winning over commercial outlets, who are, for better or for worse, more focused on monetization and concerned about releasing control of their product. Unlike YouTube, SoundCloud offers no built-in options for advertising or other ways to monetize. That could stall broad industry adoption. Espinosa said SoundCloud’s focus now is on maximizing distribution.

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  • BetweenTheLinerNotes

    SoundCloud’s pricing tiers make it impractical for a radio/podcast show to use this service.  The free tier has a 120 minute cap leaving enough time for two one-hour long shows.  The paid tiers are not much better.  A weekly one hour show would burn through the Solo tier’s 12 hour cap in 3 months and the Pro tier’s 36 hour cap in 9 months.  The only tier without an upload cap is the Pro Plus and comes with a cost of 500 euros per year.  Using I can upload four shows per month at half the cost.  The only scenario I would consider using SoundCloud would be for a daily show.  Also, YouTube is annoying for any content over 20 minutes because they cap individual upload lengths but at least they don’t have a cap on total uploads.  My podcast is  

  • Will Koenig

    It’s not just for radio stations. With almost no equipment, newspapers can produce some worthwhile stuff. For example:

  • BetweenTheLinerNotes

    That being said, nothing beats SoundCloud if your uploading a 4 minute song.

  • Grant Barrett

    A Way with Words joined SoundCloud in May. I am incredibly happy with the community response. We’re tapping into a brand-new group of listeners who are a complement to the traditional pubradio audience: they’re younger, hipper, more foreign. They’re doing more than just following (almost 28,000 in just two months), they’re actively engaging by listening and downloading the show, and they’re calling and emailing, too (which, for us, is paramount, as we are a listener-based show). It’s true that LibSyn is cheaper, but LibSyn doesn’t come with a community.

    For those of you who are just going on, I recommend using tags wisely and thoroughly, uploading as much back-content as possible (we have four seasons up so far, with another one on the way), and using the same high-quality headline principles on your files as you would on your website. Here’s our profile:

  • Eric Danville

    Soundcloud is a great service, and in addition to the sets i have up now, later this month i’m going to pay for their enhanced service to host audio clips i’ll be linking (with qr codes) in a book i’m releasing early next year. combined with the ease of use and community (as mentioned above), SC is everything i’m looknig for as a writer / spoken word person who doesn’t necessarily want to take a shower just to broadcast.

  • qitian

  • The Real Troy Olsen

    Libsyn’s setup is HORRIBLE and we are moving from podomatic to Soundcloud because of some of the features. It is indeed practical for podcasts