Nieman Foundation at Harvard
You’re more likely to believe fake news shared by someone you barely know than by your best friend
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Jan. 20, 2015, 3:05 p.m.
Audience & Social

From explainers to sounds that make you go “Whoa!”: The 4 types of audio that people share

How can public radio make audio that breaks big on social media? A NPR experiment identified what makes a piece of audio go viral.

Editor’s note: Public radio produces a lot of audio — but it doesn’t always get the attention on sharing platforms that it might deserve. Our friends at NPR Digital Services want to fix that, which has led to a series of experiments. Here, NPR’s Eric Athas shares some of what they’ve found.

Chances are you’ll listen to this audio — or at least 56 percent of you will:

That’s what our experiments in making audio more sharable have shown so far. You’re more likely to listen and share interesting sound if it’s packaged with a good headline and an image — and recently we’ve discovered the type of audio matters, too.

Last year, I told you about the start of an experiment with NPR member stations that poked at some of the bigger questions about audio on the web: why doesn’t audio go viral? How come people share images, videos and text, but not sound?

We thought this was a good time for an update since it’s been such an exciting year for audio fans. There was Serial’s rocket ascent into podcast popularity. Alex Blumberg’s addictive Startup podcast about starting a podcasting business. The Radiotopia launch and successful Kickstarter campaign. And at NPR, a new podcast called Invisibilia and an infinite-playing app called NPR One. Plus, way too many other innovations in audio to list here.

In the past year, we worked with 12 stations and launched two six-week pilot projects with the goal of getting people to share and talk about audio in new places with new people.

The stations created 44 audio packages that accumulated almost 500,000 total listens. The overall listen rate was about 56 percent — the number of listens as a percentage of total pageviews. That’s five times higher than the average audio story played on a station site. (You should keep in mind that station audio is often the radio story on top of a text piece — a much different experience than the one stations created for this project.)

The social audio framework

We created this framework using our initial experiment and by focusing on the things public radio already does well. Here’s each category, with examples of station packages.

Audio Explainers

Explainer journalism has become a common approach to storytelling lately. But actually, the practice of taking a news story and making sense of it for people — public radio has been doing that with audio for a long time. That’s the idea behind Audio Explainers. They teach you something through a simple, quick, and interesting audio clip. Like, how to sound like an Austinite (36,000 listens). Or, alternatively, how to sound like a Pacific Northwesterner (89,800 listens). Or the scientific reason tomato juice tastes better on planes (34,800 listens).

Want to sound like an Austinite? Give a listen to this Audio Explainer:

Whoa Sounds

A Whoa Sound should make you react that way — whoa. And many people did when they shared a Whoa Sound on Facebook or Twitter. This category captures the fascinating sound of a place, a person, wildlife, or something else. It creates a unique listening experience that wouldn’t work visually. It’s a cellist playing a duet with her brain (27,100 listens). It’s the eerie silence of climate change (26,000 listens). The strange sound hidden inside a hummingbird’s chirp (75,500 listens):


Public radio interviews a lot of people around the world. The subjects of our stories often have amazing stories to tell. But it’s more than that. The way the stories are told is captivating. This category, Storytellers, plucks out those experiences that have the makings of driveway moments. Like a doctor’s harrowing attempt to save a boy dying from Ebola (10,400 listens). Or the funny backstory of a woman who became the voice of D.C.’s Metro (4,300 listens). Or a 10-year-old girl eloquently describing everything she loves about Vermont’s climate (3,900 listens).

If you have two and a half minutes, listen to this wrenching Storyteller:

Snappy Reviews

This category is simple: Tell the listener what something’s all about. A movie, a book, a local attraction. Do it in a concise audio clip. This could follow the template of a traditional “review,” but the stations took some more creative approaches. KUT pinpointed the most beloved Austin landmarks…and read their worst Yelp reviews (13,600 listens). Two Nashville Public Radio reporters gobbled up the city’s famous hot chicken on tape and hilarity ensued (3,900 listens).

What’s next

Did every one of these packages light the world on fire with listen numbers? No, but this is an experiment. And we’re excited by the results. When the stories were shared on social media, people clicked, listened, and shared them. Often times, conversations on a Facebook thread centered around what the users had just heard.

The participating stations produced packages far different from traditional radio. And a lot of the audio was created for digital first, and then ended up on air, a complete reverse of the typical workflow. Some of the stations are exploring ways to integrate this type of storytelling into the newsroom.

This is another step in a series of experiments, not a conclusion. We’ll continue to experiment with this project, as others are doing inside and outside of public radio. And as I said in the previous piece, we’ll be sure to share what we find next.


If you’re doing the same, or have thoughts on the framework, we’d love to hear from you. My email is and you can find me on Twitter at @ericathas.

Stations that participated in these pilot projects: KUT, WBUR, WLRN, Nashville Public Radio, WUNC, WNPR, Vermont Public Radio, KPLU, KQED, KCUR, WAMU and WHYY’s Newsworks.

Eric Athas is a senior digital news specialist at NPR Digital Services. Graphic by Russ Gossett.

POSTED     Jan. 20, 2015, 3:05 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
You’re more likely to believe fake news shared by someone you barely know than by your best friend
“The strength of weak ties” applies to misinformation, too.
To find readers for longform investigations, Public Health Watch leans on partners and in-person work
Nonprofit newsrooms are competing for limited funding and attention spans, grappling with diminishing returns on social, and trying to address low trust in media. It’s forcing outlets large and small to adapt to survive.
Could social media support healthy online conversations? New_ Public is working on it
“We talk to a lot of towns where there is no newspaper anymore; there’s no community center anymore; the town store shut down. And this is kind of it.”