Challenge Accepted! Expandable audio journalism lets listeners take control.

What if listeners could control the way an audio story plays out while listening to it? Four Missouri convergence journalism students explored various means for achieving an expandable audio experience with RJI Fellow Michael Epstein, writer/director with Walking Cinema in San Francisco.

Missouri School of Journalism students partner with media organizations to solve problems they face.

By Slone Salerno, Vivian Wang, Elliot Bauman and Sarai Vega

Columbia, Mo. (May 21, 2020) — Technology has allowed us to change the way we listen to the news and has expanded our options dramatically. We can listen to the news wherever we are, on a run, at the gym or in our homes on a smart speaker, and whenever we want, not just at the top of the radio hour.

One thing hasn’t changed: The audio experience has all been somewhat linear. You find a live radio channel or a podcast and you listen until you get tired and shut it off.

But what if people could control the way an audio story plays out while listening to it?

Expandable audio journalism allows audiences to interact more. We see and hear the news everywhere, so much so that about 66 percent of Americans feel overwhelmed by the amount of news, according to Pew Research. Turning traditional audio stories into an interactive experience allows the audience to feel a sense of control again – to feel like they are the deciders in what they want to hear at that moment.

We worked as a team with our client, RJI Fellow Michael Epstein, who runs Walking Cinema, a San-Francisco-based interactive non-fiction production house that develops cutting edge media projects for museums, media outlets, and civic organizations. Our team and client found that the best medium to use expandable audio journalism on would be on smart speakers, like Amazon Alexa. Smart speakers are already very interactive in their daily use.

How it works

Expandable audio journalism allows listeners to respond to prompts. Structurally, the most basic model consists of only two elements: the main storyline and bonus loops. The main storyline is the most important information, the backbone of the project. The bonus loops are meant to allow the reader to pursue an optional topic if they are interested and skip over if not. In a daily news format, the main storyline could be a 1-2 sentence synopsis of the day’s top headlines. The bonus loops would allow the listener to dig deeper into a branching story topic and return back. For a podcast, bonus loops could allow listeners to meet different characters or explore all of the content typically left on the cutting room floor if it piques their interest.

Our project was to create two prototypes for Walking Cinema. There were several stories we tried to make work. We kept running into the same issue: They were too long. We wanted the maximum time of stories to be under 15 minutes so that our audience wouldn’t be overwhelmed with the new concept of expandable audio. While sifting through potential stories for our prototype we used this table to help us rank the stories we were listening to and help us decide if each story would work with EAJ.

Table: Controlling the audio listening experience.

We believe this is useful for news organizations to help decide whether or not their archived stories can be reformatted to an EAJ structure.

Planet Money buys oil

The first story we had success with was reformatted from a series on Planet Money NPR where the Planet Money team buys a barrel of oil and follows the journey straight through to someone’s car. It was called Planet Money Buys Oil. The second prototype was from a string of podcasts on COVID-19 from NPR. We wanted to choose stories that were different. The oil story is more entertaining and light-hearted. The coronavirus story we pieced together was more current news and had a more serious tone.

The original Planet Money oil story was five separate pieces totaling about two hours. We edited it down into a main story line with three bonus loops. In our final prototype, the Planet Money oil story was 15 minutes if you were to say yes to all of the bonus loops. The bonus loops in this story include an optional meeting with the owner of a Kansas oil well or an oil speculator. Listeners can also choose to take a deep dive into what our world will look like without oil.

For our story on COVID-19, we used information from NPR regarding the coronavirus to build our main story line. We ended up having to write our own script and record it ourselves to get our desired time. The bonus loops in our prototype were shorter versions of already-produced audio news stories from NPR. One was about ventilators, another about social distancing during funerals, and the last one was about how China had handled the pandemic.

Creating your own script makes expandable audio journalism more realistic and functional, versus trying to re-edit and piece together audio from previous stories. We reworked already-produced pieces for the bonus loops, but as for the main pieces, creating your own script makes the overall story flow better. This also helps you get your story into the ideal time frame. The goal of these prototypes was to simply introduce the audience to the concept and how it would work.

News junkies vs. guided listeners

We tested the finalized stories with 10 people. We then created three potential personas based on their reactions and listening habits: “News Junkies,” “Self-Improvers” and “Guided Listeners.”

News Junkies always want to be in the loop of local, national and global news events. They obsessively consume news both passively (podcasts, radio, TV) and actively (online, interactive audio). This group is usually highly-educated with a high tech and news literacy. Expandable audio has the potential to help these people navigate their way through the news cycle, diving into topics and events of interest and skimming over others. This group requires a high level of control and may not be completely satisfied with limited options presented by expandable audio journalism.

Self-Improvers are more interested in news that pertains to their lives or to their community. Expandable audio lets them look for specific topics; they want to learn as much as they can about their desired topic. Since their interest is so narrow, there might not be an expandable loop developed on their topic. However, if they did find a certain podcast that catered to their interest, they would continue to follow up with it and look for more that are similar.

Guided Listeners are those who use audio as a background noise or for entertainment purposes to replace their TV. They would use expandable audio when they’re doing something like working out or cooking. They need to be able to focus on the questions that are being asked; otherwise it defeats the purpose of a story being interactive. These listeners tend to lack tech fluency, so they might need help from a friend to tell them how expandable audio works.

All of these groups are important. Who will be your target audience for the story? How will you spread awareness? Do you have a story about a current news issue with the host recommending the new expandable audio story after? Or do you blow it up on social media? It’s important to ask these questions so you can create the best listening experiences for your target.

According to our interview with smart speaker users, their reactions show that this format can be a possible way for news stations to tell news stories. Traditional news outlets can transfer their investigative pieces into a main version with multiple bonus loops while podcasts or radio stations can choose to expand their daily content.

Roadblocks may occur, such as lengthening the time to get a piece to the public because of the extra expandable audio segments. However, we still think this type of journalism will be an engaging way to tell stories and fit in people’s everyday life.

Slone Salerno, Vivian Wang, Elliot Bauman and Sarai Vega are convergence journalism students:

  • Slone Salerno has an emphasis in multimedia production. She has worked at the Columbia Missourian, KOMU-TV and Newsy. She spent her 2019 summer at WGN-TV in Chicago. See her previous work at https://www.slonesalerno.com/.
  • Vivian Wang is an international student from China and has an emphasis in convergence investigative journalism. She has worked at the Columbia Missourian. Follow her on Twitter at @VivianYuzu.
  • Elliot Bauman is a graduating senior with an emphasis in multimedia production. He’s previously worked with the Missourian, Newsy and Missouri Business Alert. View his portfolio at http://www.elliotbauman.com.
  • Sarai Vega is a senior and has an emphasis in photojournalism. She has worked at the Kauffman Foundation, Columbia Missourian and Newsy. View her portfolio at http://www.saraivega.com.

Updated: June 1, 2020

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