Media in Full Circle: Audio Listening Explodes

What’s old is new again. The first broadcast mass medium, radio, is back again — this time as personalized, targeted audio for audiences on the go. From books to long form text articles, audio-only programming is gaining listeners fast in a constantly evolving media world.

Consider these recent facts. Sales of paperback books this year are up as e-book sales have tumbled. However, the strongest 2016 sales categories in publishing are digital audio books, which rose by 35.3 percent. Today, more and more people are listening to books rather than reading them. If this trend holds out, audio could become second to print publishing.

Apple’s iTunes, sensing this new upward trend in audio consumption, is focusing on “Spoken Editions,” a new audio programming format. These will be short-form programs that offer listeners an audio version of a publisher’s written content. According to news reports, various tests for the service by Apple have used media content from Wired, Forbes, TIME, TechCrunch and Playboy. The new format is expected to launch in October of this year.

Amazon, an Apple competitor, has introduced a new feature for its Prime members that offers access to short-form audio programs through Audible Channels. This includes spoken-word recordings from publishers like the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, Charlie Rose, McSweeney’s, The Onion and other periodicals.

What this trend means is listeners can hear their favorite websites or news articles while doing other things — like walking a dog, commuting to work or working out at the gym. It is the culmination of the prediction by former MIT Media Lab head, Nicholas Negroponte, who said in the 1990s that audio would thrive because people have more “ear time” than “eye time.” He was dead-on right.

Third party companies are arising to help publishers get ready for services like Spoken Editions. One is SpokenLayer, launched in 2012, that offers audio creation, distribution and monetization services to media brands.

The company currently creates podcasts for a number of publishers, including Forbes, Huffington Post, TIME, Reuters, Smithsonian, Scripps and others. Those recordings are then distributed on platforms like Apple’s iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, AudioBoom and Live365.

SpokenLayer claims on its website that text engages users for less than 12 seconds per session, while audio engages listeners for over 18 minutes per session. Unlike standard podcasting, Spokenlayer ingests the written word, then turns it into audio content that becomes the “voice” of the brand. The company uses a network of voiceover talent matched to each client’s image.

Will Mayo, CEO of SoundLayer

Will Mayo, CEO of SoundLayer

“We have a distributed network of voice-over talent that is tagged and managed,” Will Mayo, SpokenLayer’s CEO, told TechCrunch. “We make sure Wired sounds like Wired and any other publication sounds like those publications. The voice and style of any brand is in its writers and the reporting it does. That’s unique for every publication, and that uniqueness is honored,” Mayo said.

The explosion in audio content has been added by another category of new product, led by Amazon’s Alexa, a personal computing device that responds to an owners voice. Alexa, at a simple verbal request, can broadcast audio programming to an entire home. It is hands-off, instant access that can tune into virtually any audio content on the internet. Apple and others are competing to bring similar technology to users.

Edison Research, in a 2016 report on the popularity of podcasting, found that over half of Americans are now familiar with the term — “podcasting” — and 98 million people now listen to podcasts. Fifty-seven million people responded that they listened to a podcast in the past month.

The study also found that nearly two-thirds — 65 percent — of podcast listeners are more willing to consider purchasing products and services they learn about during a podcast. Sixty percent also said that given equal price and quality they prefer to buy products from companies that advertise on favored podcasts.

Tom Webster, vp at Edison Research

Tom Webster, vp at Edison Research

“These results quantify for the medium that we’ve seen in much of our client work,” said Tom Webster, vice president of strategy at Edison Research. “Podcast listeners not only don’t reject advertising in the medium, they are actually very receptive to the right message, delivered in the right environment.”

Today, there are now over 25,000 active podcasts with 12 million episodes in over 100 languages. Based on data so far, listeners are expected to hear 10 billion podcast episodes via iOS, iTunes and tvOS devices for the entire year of 2016.

Due to this rapid growth in audio, businesses are expanding their use of podcasts and other audio programing. Many are increasing to daily programming, rather than weekly or monthly segments done previously. Not only is the medium inexpensive, but is proving more effective than expected.

Equipment manufacturers, ready for this trend of increased audio production, have podcasting gear and software available for a range of applications — from inexpensive single podcasting set-ups for personal computers to full blown radio studio set-ups for multiple guests.

What began as radio broadcasting in the 1920s, is back in a totally new form. This time the audio can come from anywhere via a device as simple as an iPhone. What goes around, comes around.

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