In 2022, 39% of the US population lives in households without any traditional radio sets. This rate was just 4% in 2008. In the same period, the number of Americans consuming digital audio, off the AM/FM dial, jumped from 21% to 73% of the population. The data is from the latest edition of Edison Research's The Infinite Dial survey.
“In a lot of ways, audio used to be synonymous with radio. And like so many things, digital changes in computing technology have really changed that and really changed how people are getting content, said Tamar Charney. She facilitated the panel “Audio journalism and social audio: Listen up, it’s a new frontier of digital storytelling” during the ISOJ 2022 conference. [This is] big game-changing because people are getting their audio in way more spaces than radio.”
According to Charney, an editorial strategist who worked for National Public Radio [NPR], the profound change in how people, particularly young people, consume the spoken word and audio has encouraged news organizations to explore the format.
During the panel, Maggie Penman, the executive producer of The Washington Post's Post Reports podcast, said that the newspaper has experimented with different audio media and formats, such as audio articles and recent social audio platforms such as Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse. According to her, efforts by the publication's journalists to reach readers where they are in the digital environment have yielded positive results.
“One of our reporters said to me, 'I love coming on Post Reports because I hear from my teenage cousin, who I know for sure has never read any of my articles, but he listens to Post Reports, and every time I'm on the podcast, he calls me.' So I think this is what news organizations are learning. Is that just because people aren't reading print newspapers or aren't listening to the radio, that doesn't mean they're not curious about the world,” Penman said.
At the San Francisco Chronicle, podcasts have served as a tool to reach a new audience that doesn't consider themselves newspaper readers, according to Sarah Feldberg, new product and audio editor. And the main podcast produced by the team, Fifth and Mission, bets on sharing the investigation process and editorial decisions behind the reports in a candid way.
“How they [reporters] find their sources, why they make the choices they do, why they're telling the stories they are. (...) So people understand that there's a human being who is producing this for you, and there are reasons they are making the choices that they are. And if we can share that with you and explain it to you, hopefully, that builds trust and connection,” Feldberg said.
Although the podcast has become commonplace in many newsrooms, an inherent limitation of the format prevents it from being used to deliver breaking news. On-demand consumption reduces the speed of updating the news, especially with developing stories.
Insider's newly launched The Refresh podcast uses new technology to overcome this barrier to deliver breaking news, like live radio, but on demand. The first edition of the podcast is made available at 7am and then updated several times a day until the final edition closes.
“With The Refresh, we think of ourselves as the home page of the newspaper with little different modules that can be plucked out and then plucked back in without really affecting the integrity,” said Rebeca Ibarra , who produces and presents The Refresh. “Every time you come to us you have the latest news and we can change it without having to go back and change this whole show thanks to new tech through a company Spooler that we're working with.”
Another technological frontier for journalists working with audio are so-called social audio apps such as Clubhouse, Spotify Greenroom, and Discord. Traditional social networks have also launched similar services, such as Twitter Spaces and Facebook Live Audio Rooms.
These platforms serve to increase the visibility of journalistic content and also establish connections with sources, according to the Washington Post's Penman. This came as a tech reporter was participating in a Twitter Spaces to discuss revelations that Facebook knows Instagram is toxic to teenage girls.
“And one of our tech reporters noticed that the head of Instagram was listening, and he was like, ‘hey, I don't know if you want to talk at all, but we probably have some questions for you.’ They actually broke news on Twitter space because the head of Instagram said live: ‘I actually think Instagram for Kids is a good idea and we should still do it. And this was a project that Facebook had shelved,’” Penman said.
Clubhouse, which has been in existence for two years, saw an opportunity to engage journalists on the platform. So much so that it hired journalist Nina Gregory, with over 15 years at NPR, as director of News and Media Partnerships with the challenge of engaging journalists and news organizations at Clubhouse.
“I’ve spent many years reading studies about what news consumers want. They want news to lighten up and go deeper. And I feel that we've been able to experiment with both of these things,” Gregory said. “[The audience] becomes part of the conversation. So, it's also a different relationship just in that you're not with linear audio. Whether it's radio or podcasting you're talking to, you're not talking with. So, I think just like you'd have a normal conversation with a person, they're more kind of like a normal human person. And people respond.”