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June 13, 2011, 1 p.m.

“The atomic element is the story”: This American Life navigates a future that goes beyond broadcast

This American Life T-shirt

This American Life has a big broadcast audience and a podcast that dominates iTunes, but Seth Lind is concerned about the next generation of listeners. You know, the ones who don’t have radios.

As the show’s production manager, Lind serves as everything from lead engineer to business manager. Now he’s on a mission to overhaul the show’s digital presence.

Step one: Rethink what the “show” is in the first place.

The episode versus the story

TAL’s website and mobile apps have long been organized like the broadcast. You can download the whole episode from iTunes or stream it from the show’s website or mobile apps.

But users often don’t want the whole show. “Right now people often share an episode, but they’ll say, ‘Act 3!’ Or, ‘Fast-forward to this time!'” Lind told me. For users, he discovered, “the atomic element is the story, rather than the episode.” That might seem kind of obvious to web publishers, but it doesn’t necessarily fit with the narrative philosophy of the show — a handcrafted hour of storytelling, woven together by a common theme. “I think we’re sort of purists, in terms of wanting people to get the entire episode and to encourage them to listen to it as a whole,” Lind said.

Lind is assembling a UX team to make the TAL website more user-focused. Individual stories recently got their own play buttons, and soon they will be broken out into discrete posts, each with a dedicated URL and share buttons — a similar approach to the one taken by, say, WNYC’s On the Media. Every story will get full transcripts, a first for TAL, in part to improve search-engine optimization. (The only textual content that accompanies the show’s stories at the moment are radio-style promos, purposely spare and titillating but practically invisible to Google.)

TAL has hired a Boston company called 3Play Media to convert all 437 hours of its radio content into text, dating back to the show’s 1995 debut. The company makes software that transcribes speech automatically, but a team of humans has to review each one for quality control (and make editorial decisions: Should we remove Ira Glass‘ um’s and ah’s or transcribe them?).

Radio is an art form as much as a medium. Doesn’t a transcript ruin some of the magic? Aren’t the producers worried people will read, not listen to, the stories they’ve labored to tell? The staff is going to have to get over it, Lind said, and that includes a certain bespectacled host. Lind said the benefits of the updates will far outweigh the drawbacks. “I think that for every person who comes and just reads…there’s going to be 10 more people who find the audio because of it.”

The team is also working to add richer metadata to stories, with tags for locations, people, era, topic, and mood. So you might search for “mood: angsty; topic: love; decade: 90s” and find, for example, Episode 42: “Get Over It!” (And a lot of other stories, too; this is TAL, after all.) TAL is working with 3Play to design a custom XML format for categorizing its content.

In mid-May, the TAL site added an optional registration system, which allows listeners to build playlists and mark their favorite episodes. It also allows the show to keep a closer eye on who’s using the site and how. Lind said about 2,300 people had registered with the site as of last week, a modest number in his estimation; the TAL website gets about 40,000 visits per day.

Podcasts and the future of streaming

The broadcast of This American Life reaches more than 1.7 million FM listeners each week, Lind said. It reaches 650,000 podcasters. That’s remarkable considering, like most public radio, TAL “has no marketing to speak of,” Lind said. “I think the only marketing is the No. 1 slot in iTunes. You couldn’t probably pay for that.”

That’s why Lind thinks TAL could grow on the web with very little effort. As the show finds more listeners, it becomes more sustainable. The program generates revenue, in part, by selling ad spots and making direct fundraising appeals to listeners. The typical pledge drive might annoy you, but Glass’ charm is irresistible. “The average gift can be so tiny,” but they add up, Lind said.

TAL charges $3 and $5 for its iPhone and iPad apps, respectively, which have been downloaded 169,000 times as of April. TAL also sells old episodes for 99 cents apiece, about 10,000 per month, with most of the cash going to the mothership at Chicago’s WBEZ and some of it to contributors as royalties. “They still sell,” Lind said of the archives. But “I don’t think they’re going to sell for that much longer.”

And why not? Streaming. After all, downloading music is just a stopgap for streaming, right? Eventually, wireless connectivity will be ubiquitous — in cars, in subway trains, in rural hayfields — and fast enough to obviate the need for caching.

“I don’t want us to get stuck and realize that everyone’s moved to on-demand listening when we are still living in the download world,” Lind said. “I just have a sense that there’s way more opportunity — that we’re very, very passive. And I think that there are a lot of people out there who not only don’t know our show, but who don’t know what public radio is.”

The problem is, there isn’t much good usage data on audio streaming in general, and Lind can barely track who is listening to his own show. If someone begins streaming and then drops out a few seconds later, is that a “listen”? Did the stream drop because the user got a phone call? Lost connection? Lost interest? If the listener reconnects, is that a new listen or a continuation of the same one?

Podcasts are hard to measure, too. You can measure the number of subscribers and downloads, but you can’t measure whether someone actually listened to a podcast after downloading it — or, if they listened, for how long or during what time of day. Once the MP3 is saved to a listener’s hard drive, the stats go dark. And then there are the audio “aggregators,” such as Stitcher, which often cache podcasts on their own servers and reduce the overall download tally. Not to mention the fact that some of those aggregators sell ads against the content, which undervalues TAL’s sales.

Lind relies on Google Analytics for web data, Podtrac for podcast data, and his streaming provider for streaming data. One of the challenges ahead, for him and his new tech team, is finding a way to centralize all of that.

Another priority for the team this year: Build a mobile site that serves HTML5 audio on any device that can support it. “I’ll tweet out a link to our blog,” he said, “and I’ll get responses from people clearly on their phones…saying, ‘The audio is garbled on my random cellphone!’ People are just getting to a point where they expect everything to work on handheld devices.”

Lind said he was inspired to get serious about the show’s digital strategy after this year’s South by Southwest Festival, where he met fellow public radio producers who were fretting about 2011 being “the year we lose the car” to Internet radio. His goal for TAL is a big one, especially for a show known for its stories: “to have our thinking about technology somewhere close to the level we’re thinking about narrative.”

POSTED     June 13, 2011, 1 p.m.
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