CIR and SoundCloud hosted about 80 technologists, audiophiles and journalists for TechRaking Four, a conference held in San Francisco on Nov. 16 to discuss the challenges facing digital audio.

What can journalists learn from the audio world? “The applications and potential for news is still largely untapped,” said Jim Colgan, who heads the audio content team at SoundCloud, a platform that reaches 250 million people a month.

Here are some highlights from the day’s conference.

Three innovative uses of digital audio

TechRaking Four kicked off with an introduction by Colgan and Jaymeson Catsouphes, content manager at SoundCloud. The two talked about the lessons drawn from innovative ways content producers are using online audio:

  • Bring listeners and content creators together: The Read, a hip-hop and pop culture podcast, first used SoundCloud hoping for an RSS-like feature for distribution. It quickly tapped into a two-way stream of listeners commenting directly on its audio waves.
  • For better distribution, make your content shareable: It sounds simple enough but don’t overlook the power of discovery and usability that comes from offering embed codes and easily accessible playlists. The Paul Mecurio Show took advantage of these sharable features in a particularly popular episode featuring Stephen Colbert after he was stood up by Daft Punk. 
  • Make your audio content discoverable by breaking up your podcasts: Snap Judgment, an hourlong thematic storytelling show, breaks individual segments into separate tracks to make them sharable and searchable.

Legacy vs. digital storytelling

For musicians, journalists and producers, some challenges of harnessing digital audio can be overcome by trying nontraditional approaches to audio storytelling. This includes experimenting with sound effects and cutting back on narration, instead letting emotional, first-person voices carry the story.

“The way you get people to listen to audio is to make it interesting and make it cool,” said Stephanie Foo, producer for Snap Judgment.

But it’s not for every newsroom to readily embrace.

Snap Judgment’s “use of strategically placed sound effects is not traditional news at all,” said Rachael Bale, a researcher at CIR and a freelance producer at KQED. “(That’s) OK, but (it’s) so very different.”

Foo also said featuring minority voices and young people attracts new audiences. “If you have a minority reporter, it’s not just about the sound of their voice. It’s the subject matter they’re going to tackle,” she said.

Listen to the discussion from the morning panel, featuring Bale, Foo and musician and former music writer Dominique Leone.

The age-old audio archiving problem

For a decade now, people have been conditioned to search keywords in Google, but we couldn’t do the same for audio, said Anne Wootton, who helped found Pop Up Archive, an audio management tool. During the keynote address, Wootton and co-founder Bailey Smith described how Pop Up Archive improves the workflow of an audio file and makes it searchable. Listen to Wootton and Smith explain how it works and follow along by viewing their Prezi presentation:

Design challenge

In the afternoon, TechRakers divided into six teams to come up with the next best fix for digital audio, addressing such questions as: How can we properly feature audio on an online story page? What do we want out of a second screen experience for podcast listeners? Can we create a DocumentCloud for audio interviews?

After the teams presented their ideas to a panel of judges, the winner was announced. Congrats to the team that proposed SoundBits, a mobile app that would run on user-generated content and user preferences in order to surface the highest quality – and best moments of – audio.

Stay tuned as we announce details for TechRaking Five.

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Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.