What will get people to “tell” us their story?

Michael Caputo
Engagement Manager - Public Insight Network
American Public Media

We’re told journalists must adapt to technology. Not only that, we’re advised that technological advances should make it easier for the journalist to collaborate with the audience.

But as public radio journalists, do you wonder if all this technology and engagement talk leaves out the element that makes our work the most distinct: Sound?

Audio contribution interface from <a href="http://soundcloud.com/" target="_blank">SoundCloud</a>. Users can record their contribution and stations can receive and download the audio files.

This is what SoundCloud‘s audio contribution interface looks like. Users can record their contributions — and stations can receive and download the audio files.

For years now, the web has elevated visual presentations, making videos and video streams a means of trading information on sites like YouTube, Skype and Google Hangouts. They, and thousands of similar services, have turned the seen into the shared, and helped make video an important mode of engagement.

But it seems like audio has lagged behind, likely because the vast majority of audio platforms cater to music creators. They enable us to hear the songs and even pass finished pieces along to someone else. But where’s the engagement in all this?

Public broadcasters do podcast, but those efforts still aren’t interactive. Asking people to upload audio files requires users to know how to create a .wav or .mp3/.mp4 on their own and transfer them. Not exactly a one-click experience on machines and software built to exploit webcams over microphones.

That’s what attracts me to SoundCloud. The website’s designers make it simple: Push the ‘record’ button and speak. You can talk into your laptop microphone or, better yet, into your mobile phone (we’ll get to why that might be better in a second). Then SoundCloud makes it easy to upload the files to a newsroom’s account. And for the journalist in that newsroom, it’s rather easy to set up a way to collect those sounds. (We’ll talk about all of this during our July 25 webinar.)

KPCC survey to Public Insight sources that includes a request to give an audio response.

A KPCC survey to Public Insight sources includes a request to share an audio response.

But let’s face it, people aren’t as used to sharing by speaking. They are more comfortable typing insights on news sites and comment forms. Laptop video cameras and easy image sharing tools have smoothed the path for visuals.  So public broadcasters have to do a bit of selling to ease users into making and sharing audio.

One bit of advice: Coach the audience member on just how they can use the SoundCloud tool.

KPCC’s Sharon McNary uses our Public Insight Network survey forms to  interact with sources, and she includes very easy instructions on those forms in hopes that people will submit their insights through SoundCloud.

Carolyn Adolph of KUOW practices what she’s preaching by giving an audio tutorial to users. She makes the message quick and clear:

Something else to consider: The way that people interact with the web matters. A recent study suggests that users increasingly use their smartphones to access email. Return Path, an email marketing firm, conducted the study (so apply whatever size grain of salt you think is appropriate). But their report suggests mobile phones and tablets have nearly surpassed PCs and laptops as the primary means of checking email.

Now imagine that your newsroom has sent out an email message asking people to share their experience on an issue, and you want them to give your these insights vocally, using SoundCloud. Imagine a user getting the message by phone and not wanting to thumb-type a whole reply to your question. Wouldn’t that source feel more emboldened to speak her mind when the device she is using is the same one she uses to speak to her spouse or make dinner reservations? The smartphone could be the public broadcaster’s secret ally in engagement.

So public radio journalists shouldn’t shy away from using the web to interact with audiences. Let’s use platforms like SoundCloud to fulfill the laudable goal of engagement through our unique tool of the trade: Audio.


Michael Caputo Engagement Manager - Public Insight Network
American Public Media
A belief that journalism could better connect with those who need the information led Mike to the Public Insight Network in 2006. He served as a PIN journalist for the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom, then he coached and counseled newsrooms around the country on the PIN tools and the PIN approach.

Now as engagement manager, he focuses on the sources in PIN by designing strategies to grow the network, directing engagement with sources and assessing the source experience. He specializes in planning and convening forums that serve journalism, from roundtable discussions to events that can fill a hall.