Open your mind and listen

A Brief History of Audio Storytelling and Why Journalists Should Care

In the multi-media age, journalism has been forced to transition to more accessible and mobile mediums in order to keep audiences engaged. Audio storytelling has grown as one of these newer mediums over the past few years.

Vanessa Quirk in her “Guide to Podcasting” attributes this to what she calls the “So-Called Serial Effect.” Serial , hosted by Sarah Koenig, was first aired on October 3, 2014 and took its listeners on an exploration of the evidence and details of the murder trial of Adnan Syed. It was released as a spin off of This American Life, which took four years after its 1995 debut to reach a million downloads. It took Serial just four weeks. This success could be credited to the story itself, which was composed of different episodes unfolding the story a little bit at a time. However, the technology that had been developed during that time also made podcasts easier to consume. The iPhone podcast app was launched in 2012, making it simple to download a podcast and listen to it on the go.

The portability of this medium lends itself to consumption. It can reach more audiences and the listeners are loyal to the medium. Most podcast listeners listen to at least five podcasts per week, according to Edison Research’s statistics on the Podcast Consumer 2016 . Podcasts can be listened to while driving, exercising, or just moving anywhere. Ads are built in to generate revenue, but are not as disruptive as print or television advertisements.

Slide from Edison Research’s Share of Ear survey showing the amount of time Podcast Listeners spend on different audio sources.

Audio Storytelling Research

According to the Edison Research’s Share of Ear survey, on average people spend four hours listening to audio each day. Two percent of that time is spent listening to podcasts, but 32% of the podcast listener’s audio time is spent listening to podcasts, meaning that podcast listeners spend a lot of their time just listening to podcasts. 34 percent of people listen to audio via their smart phone every day.

So where does this leave us today? The medium is on demand and impossible to listen to by accident. You have to be searching for a podcast in order to find it. That being said, it’s not as easy for Android users to consume because of the lack of a built in app, but there are different options out there. Even though podcast audiences are loyal to the medium, growing that audience remains a challenge. The popularity of podcasts can be used to journalism’s advantage by giving another option for storytelling as well as a different communication channel for audiences to consume the news through.

An intimate form of storytelling

Audio is arguably the most intimate form of storytelling. To start with, the hosts of a podcast or whoever happens to be speaking are talking directly into your ears, especially if you are listening through headphones on the go. This makes it easier for an audience to connect with the hosts. Chris Sutcliffe from The Media Briefing described this connection as giving listeners a better sense of who the journalist is. Podcasts also are catered toward an individual’s interests, which creates a sense of community with other listeners, as stated by Wendy Pilmer from the BBC.

What makes audio stories different?

Audio stories are also narrower in focus than most other forms of storytelling. According to Poynter’s News University’s Writing for the Ear , an innovative online media training program, audio stories will help writers “become a more focused, more succinct, and more powerful teller of true tales,” partially due to the fact that there are fewer words in audio stories than in print. Compared to print, audio storytelling usually uses anywhere between 75 and 300 words for a 30-second to 2-minute piece. This means that the storyteller must focus on a specific character, angle, or theme. This lesson became extremely clear during the creative assignments for our audio storytelling class. If you have two minutes to tell a story, give a sense of space, and captivate an audience, you have to choose every word carefully. During the field exercise, this became apparent when we tried to do too many things with our short narrative. It would’ve been better to focus on an interview and touch on one other aspect of the art museum we were in that coincided with what the speaker was talking about.

Rob Quicke (right) presenting the Bravery in Radio Award to Howard Stern in 2011

Some of the best advice for audio storytelling came from Rob Quicke who said to “get out of the way of the story.” Unlike in writing, an interview subject can move the narrative along without the help of the writer. It is important to let people tell their story and to listen closely in order to ask the right questions in order to allow them to do so. Quicke also said, “the best interviewers are unafraid to ask the questions we want to know.”

Audio is an extremely powerful medium that is relevant in the digital age we currently live in. People can find their individual interests in most podcast genres and can also hear from other people’s perspectives through their stories. As audio journalists and storytellers, it is our job to provide these opportunities to learn about the world around us and communicate that to our audiences through sound. Above everything, the most important takeaway from this term is to keep your ears and mind open to really listen to the world. There are stories out there that are begging to be told; all they need is some great natural sound and someone who is willing to take the time to tell them.

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