Surround Sound: The Next Wave in Audio is Ubiquity

Written by Hayley Grgurich

Narrated by Colin Watts

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo – Unsplash

As audio streaming platforms proliferate and our appliances start talking, online publishers are eyeing speakers as well as screens

2014 may have been the year of the podcast, but in 2019, audio’s appeal is far from over. Since the rise of giants like Serial, Gimlet, and Radiotopia, interest in audio content has only grown. AM/FM radio reaches 93 percent of Americans every week — more than TV, smartphones or any other device — and an increasing number of streaming services are producing more content and more ways to listen.

Add to that the surge of voice-controlled virtual assistants, navigation systems and speech-enabled appliances on the market and in our homes, and today we’re entering into an age where sound truly surrounds us.

Savvy online publishers have taken notice and are producing premium audio content designed to complement — or repurpose — their written work. The goal? Meet audiences where they’re at, all day.

The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast is a prime example. Launched in February 2017, by mid-2018 “The Daily” had 5 million monthly listeners.

As an established publication, The New York Times had a solid base of readers, but by adding an audio-based product to its offerings, the Times augmented that readership in several key ways.

First, it gave its audience more ways to connect.

Reading digital articles requires you to be in a position to dedicate your full attention to a page, something you can’t do if you’re on the move or multitasking. With audio, Times readers became Times listeners too, bringing the voice of the publication with them in the car, to the gym, running errands, and on their commutes.

It sidestepped the pitfalls common to many online publishers when trying to work in a new medium.

The Times didn’t create a podcast just to have one; it chose a format that furthered its mission. Each episode of “The Daily” dives deeper into a few complex news stories to give listeners additional context.

It also knew better than to ask its team of traditional news reporters to become experts in podcast production without any help.

Lisa Tobin, executive producer of audio for The Times, explained the strategy in an interview with Poynter:

“The secret to the podcast’s success is twofold. Because “The Daily” is produced within The New York Times, with its global newsroom of more than 1,000 journalists, producers have an inside track on which stories will dominate the next day’s conversation. Because the team is comprised of outsiders — producers from public radio and podcasts, mostly — it’s had the benefit of a newcomer’s perspective and the freedom to operate as a startup within a much larger organization.”

By letting their reporters focus on what they do best while bringing in audio production experts from the outside, The Times leveraged its expertise without overtaxing it.

What’s more, it introduced audiences to Times reporters in a more personal way than ever before. Think about it: How different is your experience when emailing with someone, versus talking on the phone with them, versus meeting in person? The additional level of intimacy achieved by hearing a person’s voice and how she or he interacts with others goes a long way toward forging relationships and engendering trust.

Although the Times went all in with “The Daily”, investing in the resources and personnel necessary to create original work in-house, other publications, such as technology and science publisher New Atlas, have taken a more scalable approach.

By partnering with audio publisher, Gyst Audio, New Atlas gives its premium subscribers access to voiced versions of the day’s articles. Readers can then make a playlist of articles and effectively take their stories to go, thus expanding the time audiences can spend with New Atlas’s work, without doubling the publisher’s workload. (*Editor’s note: You can sample the article-as-podcast experience with this post here.)

Augmenting existing content with audio extras is emerging as a revenue-boosting strategy for music outlets too. Sony recently debuted its new 360 Reality Audio technology, which gives audiences an immersive listening experience. In a press release on the rollout, Sony said its plan is to “distribute 360 Reality Audio compatible content on the premium plans offered by music distribution services.”

Although some music streaming services like Spotify already earn revenue through a subscription model, many streaming services and online publishers grapple with the thorny issue of how to monetize content that’s currently free.

There’s the traditional ad sales route, with its welldocumented issues.

The donation model, where publishers ask users to support the mission (think Wikipedia and The Guardian).

The subscriber model, in which publishers like The New York Times and Washington Post offer a limited number of free articles each month before a paywall prompts readers to subscribe for continued access.

And the premium extras approach, particularly favored by B2B industry publications, wherein publishers offer white papers, case studies, or audio playlists of their stories that subscribers can access by providing personal data or paying a fee.

No single model has emerged as the perfect revenue driver for online publishers, but given the high engagement Americans have with audio, and the increasing number of devices and platforms through which we can stream it, giving your publication a voice is emerging as a best practice for keeping audiences tuned in.