The Download on Podcasts: Will podcasting force Facebook to allow viral audio?

The Download on Podcasts is a weekly feature sponsored by PodcastOne.

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As Nicholas Quah points out in a recent issue of Hot Pod, In the last 22 months there has not been much progress in making audio an Internet-viral content type.

Why is 22 months the window for examining this? Because it was 22 months that Stan Alcorn published his (pretty darn viral) article (“Is This Thing On?“) lamenting that audio doesn’t get viral distribution as articles and videos do.

That window of time fairly neatly encompasses the resurgence of podcasting, a decade-old category that has surged forth thanks to mobile listening and hit shows like Serial (which set download records in iTunes) and WTF with Marc Maron (which guested President Obama).

So one question now becomes, how does podcasting participate in the quest for viral audio?

Serial became a crowd sensation with the help of broadcast radio. The show was spun off public radio program This American Life, and benefited from over-the-air promotions. Pure virality, which is really social sharing on the Internet, might have played a role, but that part of the equation is unknown. Marc Maron’s show has been building for a long time, well known by solid podcast adopters for its consistency, humor, and authenticity. When Obama sat in Maron’s garage to record a show, the faux-virality of global news organizations drove widespread awareness.

What about audio on social platforms? Twitter has tried and failed (so far) to incorporate audio in a way that users eagerly embrace. SoundCloud started as a collaboration site for musicians, became a vibrant social network for audio, and the stylized orange audio waveform could be seen on other social platforms and embedded into web pages just like YouTube videos. SoundCloud called itself “the YouTube of audio.” Recently, Soundcloud changed how its API works, so that sharing to Facebook now forces Facebook listeners to click back to SoundCloud to hear a track. That friction works against virality, especially with Facebook which is home to many citizens of the Internet nation. They don’t want to leave home to hear a track.

This brings up Facebook, and brings us back to podcasting. Why on earth does Facebook not have native audio playback, like its video player? The fact that Facebook video is now being transformed into a live video platform, like Periscope, underlines that Facebook thinks video is much more valuable to the platform than audio. But with podcasting on the fast rise, is that assumption true? Is Facebook simply missing the boat?

WNYC thinks so, or at least it wanted to jab Facebook in the ribs when it put an episode of Alec Balwin’s WNYC-hosted podcast, Here’s the Thing, onto Facebook. The producers had to embed the audio into a static video for the post to work. A photo of Jimmy Fallon, the episode’s guest, shows throughout the post. Using YouTube also makes the episode easily shareable — perhaps WNYC would have used SoundCloud if not for the recent change. The post shows 59,000 “views” (listens).

Recently-launched Clammr operates the premise that poor audio virality is a platform problem — the right tools just aren’t there to easily distribute audio socially, without friction. Accordingly, Clammr has launched a service for clipping and sharing 24-second audio excerpts. For this to work, podcasting platforms need to use the “Share to Clammr” button which makes the clipping/sharing easy for listeners to accomplish. From Clammr, sharing an audio clip to Facebook and Twitter is easy.

The central question about viral audio is whether consumers want it as much as they want shareable cat videos and shareable articles about Donald Trump. The fact that music is more consumed than spoken-word complicates things because of complex music licensing bottlenecks. YouTube facilitates viral music because Google handles the licensing. Most podcasting doesn’t have that issue, so the challenge falls to software architects.

We’re looking at you, Facebook. Don’t make WNYC post videos of audio. Get native audio onto the platform, and let’s see what happens.


Brad Hill