Nieman Foundation at Harvard
America’s Test Kitchen, “the Consumer Reports of cooking,” wants to grow to new platforms
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
July 31, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

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.

POSTED     July 31, 2012, 9:30 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show comments  
Show tags
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
America’s Test Kitchen, “the Consumer Reports of cooking,” wants to grow to new platforms
“We’d like to move to other platforms, particularly as we see the changes in how people consume television.”
A program from Poynter and ONA is helping foster a community of female leaders in digital media
The Women’s Leadership Academy provides camaraderie and concrete advice beyond a bundle of platitudes.
Come talk ad blockers with Nieman Lab and a set of experts in New York
We’re having our first event in New York City with industry leaders: Wednesday, December 2 at 6 p.m.
What to read next
How one blog helped spark The New York Times’ digital evolution
“I certainly had editors tell me that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on Bird Week. But that was the best part of City Room…We were like unsupervised children.”
572News outlets left and right (and up, down, and center) are embracing virtual reality technology
Among those experimenting is The Wall Street Journal, which plans to open source its 360-degree mobile video and VR technology and hopes to turn VR into more of a mainstay of its storytelling.
502Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004: exciting, evolving, and trouble for incumbents
The same trends we saw a decade ago — professionalization on one hand, platformization on the other — sure seem to be playing out again.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
Center for Investigative Reporting
Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism
The Weekly Standard
New York