Uncovering the potential of mobile audio: a new experimental player, and a new show

Introducing a fully featured web player that lets listeners subscribe to, interact with and see stories — as well as hear them.

Strange Bird launches today in an experimental web-based audio player built by the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab. | Illustration by Mona Chalabi.

Audio, much like email newsletters, is an increasingly prominent part of the editorial strategies in many digitally focused newsrooms. Driven in part by the popularity of podcasts produced by Gimlet, Radiotopia and This American Life, newsrooms have started investing in their own. While no one format is dominant, common ones are daily news shows, like The Daily from The New York Times and Up First from NPR, and regular feature series, like Presidential and Historically Black from the Washington Post, Dirty John from the L.A. Times and The Future of Everything from the Wall Street Journal.

At the same time audiences, who can now be counted in the millions, are definitely tuning in. The New York Times just reported that The Daily has secured 4.5 million monthly listeners, and the latest figures from Nieman Lab’s Hot Pod column suggest that NPR’s Up First has a weekly listening audience of almost one million people (and that number is from August). Vox also just announced that they’ll launch a daily news podcast next week targeted at evening commuters, a time when news updates in audio are sparse aside from NPR’s news briefings.

But despite all this activity, there is still little experimentation taking place in the way audio is presented. The few innovations so far amount to a small handful. Notably, Reveal, by the Center for Investigative reporting, has experimented with interacting with listeners through SMS messages. Shortcut, a tool that makes audio more easily shareable on social media, was released by This American Life over a year ago. And not yet launched is Spotify’s Spotlight product, with BuzzFeed News as one of the few news outlets participating. It promises to offer enhanced “visual podcasts” that include multimedia elements.

But audio still proves to be an increasing area of opportunity for news, and for experimentation, especially given the growing popularity of in-home assistants like Alexa, Google Home and Apple’s HomePod. Such devices promise a wider audience for news audio, but will require text-focused newsrooms to build the muscle of translating and adapting storytelling skills from text to sound, and potentially other media.

Recently Eric Nuzum, the senior vice president of original content development for Audible, argued a similar point in his 2018 Nieman Lab prediction for journalism. He said:

“If the audience for digital audio is going to expand, it needs to bring in more (different) people. Different types of people will have different tastes, different needs, different ideas about what’s “good,” and different ways of using media.”

— Eric Nuzum, senior vice president of original content development, Audible

Nuzum’s statement echoes one of the key parts of the lab’s mission, to introduce new storytelling formats for designed for mobile devices, and to test reader interest in them.

The popularity and prevalence of the new class of news podcasts has sparked a number of questions for us — questions that suggest broad opportunities for innovation: How can newsrooms make their own audio shows easy to find? And how can they reach listeners without iPhones, or even headphones? What about people who have never heard of podcasts, much less go searching for them? And how can we explore ways to enhance audio with experimental media features that take advantage of other digital newsroom skills?

There are, of course, a few significant barriers to entry for many newsrooms who want to innovate with audio formats, or even launch audio series. For one thing, not every budget can accommodate the hiring of an experienced audio producer.

Another factor is that technologists with an interest in audio may be steering away from a form that is still locked mostly within apps. (It is because of those apps, too, that podcast discovery remains difficult at best, for both listeners and producers. It isn’t easy to find podcasts through Apple’s Podcast app, and the app doesn’t boast a very intuitive user interface.) Also audio isn’t typically well integrated into most publishers’ sites or apps.

Embedded audio on USA Today

It’s worth noting that many prominent audio producers and publishers like WYNC, NPR and USA Today have been embedding audio on web pages for some time. However the experience is typically optimized for one-off listening, and often augmented with either a short description of the show or a partial or full transcript. As is the case with USA Today, where they embed audio at the bottom of their daily “5 Things to Know” article that loosely doubles as a script, or at least a storyboard, for the sound.

The website for S-Town, designed by Studio Rodrigo

There’s also a precedent for podcasts providing companion visuals for listeners, however they’re often put on separate websites, or distributed through Instagram feeds and Twitter accounts — as with the Washington Post’s Presidential Twitter account and S-Town’s stunning website.

We noticed that no one had yet built a place or a product that brings all of these complementary storytelling elements together in one simple and easily accessible place for listeners to experience a show, and also subscribe on an ongoing basis.

To address many of our questions about innovation in audio, and in keeping that mandate to test reader interest in new storytelling formats designed for mobile, we have launched our latest experiment: a fully functioning audio player that seamlessly integrates visual content and is available on a web page instead of an app, making it available to a wide group of users, and doesn’t require any special apps for following.

To boot, the lab’s product designer Dylan Greif conceived of the web player’s chat-like interface with the show’s host, giving listeners instant access to pieces of information that enhance the listening experience — such as related images, data visualizations and links to additional resources on the show’s topic. For Chrome users, the extra content can be delivered through notifications that live on your lock screen for when you want to look at them.

A look at the Strange Bird Episode 1 as it appears in the new web player. | Image by Dylan Greif.

To launch the new player, an idea that began with lab developer Alastair Coote’s work at a Guardian hack day last year, the lab sought out two more collaborators on the experimental series: an experienced audio producer, Josie Holtzman and Guardian US data editor Mona Chalabi.

Illustration is a big part of Mona’s work (have a look at some examples) and Josie had previous experience producing audio series called “soundwalks”, which are designed to adapt to the location of the listener. We were excited about the skills and spirit of experimentation each of them brought to the project.

The results can be heard and seen in Strange Bird, which launches today in the new player. In the series, Mona uses data and statistics to address topics that are common, but little examined or discussed.

In the first episode of Strange Bird, Mona explores the gap between the the frequency of miscarriages among women and how little they are discussed. You can listen to and see it in the new player here. The full experience, which includes notifications, is available for users of Android devices with Chrome browsers. iPhone users can experience everything but the notifications.

As with all our experiments, we will be watching closely how people use the player. We’ll study the effectiveness of it, as well as the potential for this type of listening experience. We are aiming to answer questions such as: Do most people enjoy the visual aspects of the experience, and the availability of information related to points raised in the podcast? Is it useful to be able to listen on the web, rather than through an app? Would users be more likely to consume podcasts this way, both casually and regularly? As we do with all our experiments, we will make the results and our interpretations available in a follow-up post.

So please have a listen, on any web browser, and let us know what you think.

Want to know a bit more about the nuts and bolts of how the player was built? Read Alastair’s piece about building an early version of it.

The Guardian US mobile innovation lab is a small multi-disciplinary team housed in the Guardian’s New York newsroom, exploring storytelling and the delivery of news on small screens. It is funded by the John S and James L Knight Foundation.



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Sarah Schmalbach

Sarah Schmalbach


Leading the Lenfest Local Lab (@lenfestlab) for the Lenfest Institute (@lenfestinst). Philadelphian and former product @GdnMobileLab @usatoday @phillydotcom.