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Making Audio Social: A New Tool From This American Life

Say you’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter one day when you see a friend has posted about an episode of her favorite podcast. “It’s so funny,” she says, “You’ve got to check this out!”

If her post is interesting enough (and it certainly might not be—aren’t podcasts for geeks and your weird comedy friends?), you may click on the link. The link takes you to the podcast’s website, where you can stream an HOUR-LONG episode. If you do hit play on the podcast (and again, this if is a strong one), you’re subject to two minutes of ads and an intro to the show.

As this all unfolds you’re likely on the train, in line at the coffee shop, or procrastinating at work. You probably don’t have time for this hour-long podcast nonsense. You hit the back button. You never hear the show.

Compare this to how people discover video and print online—by way of little segments that are easy to share on social media, whether it be in gifs, images with captions or highlighted and screen-capped sections of text. Users can perform their fandom by spreading samples of the work they love and drawing their social network in. That’s how content goes viral: it’s how a video can garner 22 million views.

If we want audio storytelling to reach similarly wide audiences, people have to be able to sample it in the same way. We believe the fact that podcasts can’t be easily snipped and shared online is inhibiting the growth of the podcast industry. So our team has been attempting to change that.

Over the past few months, with funding from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, This American Life has hired a team of developers and designers to solve the problem how to share audio online. We currently have a functioning prototype that allows a user to easily access the entirety of This American Life’s 20 years of content, scroll through it to find their favorite clips, convert those audio clips into beautiful, transcribed .mp4 videos, and share those videos on social media. We’ve worked hard with our UX and UI designers to make this process intuitive, fast, and fun.

We hope that if social media users are inundated with moving, funny or tragic audio snippets from our episodes shared by their friends, they will feel far more compelled to listen to our podcast. Maybe their narrow ideas about podcasts will be challenged. Maybe they will even become new fans of our show. We also hope our tool will allow listeners to meme-ify and play with audio—again, performing their fandom.

Our project will be open-source, so any podcast creator can adapt this technology to their own website and their own catalogue. We don’t just want to make it easier to share This American Life audio—we want it to be easier to share all audio.