Expandable Audio Journalism: The next frontier for podcasting

For my Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship project I’m working on creating expandable audio journalism (EAJ).  The idea is to leverage smart speakers (Alexa, Google Home, Siri, etc.) to give news listeners the ability to dig deeper into the stories that interest them.  

News story listeners will get prompts to decide if they want to learn more about a person, topic, or place.  If they say yes or “that’s interesting” or “tell me more about this,” the story will expand to go deeper into that specific point.  

I’m building a prototype story that will be expandable from 5 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how much depth the listener asks for. Currently, I’m in the process of determining a good sample story for the prototype. I’ve been working closely with four journalism students at the Missouri School of Journalism. Together we have been looking at specific stories, shows, and series to see what would make a compelling prototype. 

A few strategies have emerged for types of stories that could work for expandable audio

  1. Decider POV: a story that naturally involves choices: i.e., the stages of frostbite based on decisions one man made.  
  2. Complex issue: a complicated issue that can be summarized succinctly but also contains the possibility of going deeper  i.e., climate change causes and solutions.    
  3. In-depth profile: a profile of a person with many different shades and phases to their life.    
  4. Investigative:  a post-mortem angle on a big event trying to figure out why it happened:  i.e., what radicalized the couple who executed co-workers at a Christmas party in San Bernardino? Or storytelling like the hit podcast Serial

Our initial focus was on the “decider POV” because it gives the listener a lot of control, similar to a “choose-your-own-adventure” style story.  

The Outside podcast (based on articles from Outside Magazine) seemed ripe for this type of storytelling because they have a whole series called the “Science of Survival” told from the second-person point of view.  

For instance, “Frozen Alive,” tells the story of a man walking to a winter cabin and, through a series of decisions, ends up dying of frostbite.  The narration puts the listener in the shoes of the man: “The process begins even before you leave the car, when you remove your gloves to squeeze a loose bail back into one of your ski bindings. The freezing metal bites your flesh. Your skin temperature drops.” 

This type of story is very immersive for audiences, but we realized it would require a lot more production to allow the audience to truly make decisions. We would have to produce numerous endings based on numerous decision points. (Do you fix the skis? Do you turn around? Etc.)  Re-recording the narration, re-writing the story, and doing the research on all the options would be too large in scope and challenging to scale across podcasts. Such a story would work best if the reporter were gathering all potential outcomes for this type of expandable storytelling from the start of the reporting process.

Next we are learning more about the complex issue type of story. We’re looking at the coronavirus as a possible current storyline. With a story like the coronavirus, listeners would hear a summary of the latest developments but at certain points they will be able to dig deeper into subtopics like the quarantining process, the doctor who discovered the virus, or the details on its arrival in the U.S.  The main summary story might change day-to-day, but many of the subtopics could remain consistent, creating loops that bring the listener back to the main storytelling narrative. 

Thus the narrative isn’t truly a choose your own adventure, but rather a straight-ahead story with sections that can unfold based on audience interest level.  Such an approach was tested with online print articles with many publishers, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC.  They called it the “expander” and it was the most popular feature they tested with their print pieces. 

We are also researching an in-depth profile story about Benjamin  Netanyahu. This has been a complicated year for the Israeli leader who is now campaigning for prime minister for the third time in the past 14 months.  In the backdrop of his campaign is a U.S.-backed two-state plan that calls for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and corruption charges by the Israeli attorney general. With Expanded Audio Journalism,  we might present audiences with an Israeli election story that can unfold to reveal the nature of the corruption charges, the conservative shift in Israeli politics over the last decade, the proposed peace agreement, and possibly the reporter’s evolving experience over this past year full of twists and unprecedented challenges to Netanyahu.  

What newsrooms might find appealing about this type of storytelling is how it can turn a collection of short reports into a longer, deeper story as they build upon each other.  Reporters who are filing regular short pieces may also value the ability to take a long view on a story or pull some of their best moments from the past year. 

And, finally, for an investigative story, we are looking at some of the longer stories from NPR’s Planet Money.  For instance, their much-loved 2016 series “Planet Money Buys Oil,” could make a great expandable audio story in which the short form version walks listeners through the process of buying crude oil, refining it and selling it.  But the longer version would feature all of the characters, complex economics, and additional issues the reporters covered.

We plan to finalize the first story we’ll use in February and have a functional prototype by May. Hopefully the next time you hear more about EAJ will be through your smart speaker.


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