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Storytelling tips and best practices

You made good radio — now make good internet

This post was written as a companion guide to a session at the 2016 Audio Storytelling Workshop in Washington, D.C.


You’re probably here because you’re about to embark on a new, exciting audio storytelling project. Whether it’s a radio series or podcast, you likely have hours of recording, writing and editing ahead of you.

But before you get started — and to make the most of your time — you need to do a little planning. I recommend you begin by working through this audio storytelling blueprint. While you’re answering important questions about your audience and success metrics, consider another big one: How will you tell your story online?

It’s not easy to translate audio stories to digital ones. The standard “webify” method of turning radio scripts into web text is a bad approach that results in boring, confusing stories that often have major reporting holes.

Thankfully, there are a couple of effective, low-lift ways to tell your stories online. I’ll walk through a few examples below, along with some ideas for how you might use social to engage your audience.

The biggest takeaway in all this?

Be decisive. Declare right now that you will make strategic choices about your digital plan at every step of the project. Do not put off thinking about the digital version until you’re done with the radio reporting. Do not try to do all the things at once (e.g. build a page for every element of your 30-part radio series). Do not think engagement = sharing links on Twitter and calling it a day.

If you commit to this type of decision-making you will end up with both a more focused digital product and a lighter workload overall. Trust me!

Consider this guide a living and non-exhaustive document. Do you have other ideas? What has — or hasn’t — worked or you? Let me know — sgraslie@npr.org. 

10 website ideas for audio projects

The easy versions

These sites are all about listening — and don’t pretend to offer anything else. They’re also fairly easy to put together.

It doesn’t get much simpler than what the Millennial podcast does, with a headline, image, one-sentence description and audio link. Even though it’s pretty minimal, the visual and headline are still important. Both send a clear signal as to what the episode is about.

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The Gimlet podcasts use a similarly stripped-down approach. You have all the basics, plus a pull-quote, links mentioned in the episode, credits and a transcript. If you have the resources to do so, it’s nice to include a transcript for accessibility and transparency purposes. But don’t try to convince people to read it.

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You can also eschew individual episode pages and include all of the pieces for listening on one page. The WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money does this (so do NPR and Limetown, among many others).

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The semi-easy versions

If you have compelling material and a little time, you can flesh out the page a little bit more. Serial created beautiful animated graphics for their second season, but you can get a similar effect with a great static visual. They also included source documents, including maps and photos.

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Member station WWNO built pages for episodes of their podcast Katrina: The Debris, but kept them simple with a strong visual and a few paragraphs summarizing the story. Note how they templated the headline to make it obvious that this is part of a podcast — it’s an important part of branding when you’re sharing something on multiple platforms.

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If you have lengthy episodes, considering doing a This American Life-style treatment, where you offer the full episode but also split it up into smaller sections if there are natural breaks.

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The “go big or go home” versions

The previous examples were fairly low-lifts. Like I mentioned earlier, you should skip the “webify” middle ground that requires a lot of work and yields an unsatisfying product. The following examples are bigger productions, but they’re very distinctive and effective.

The podcast 99% Invisible strikes a nice balance by writing full web stories supported with graphics, videos and, in this case, archival material. The stories stand on their own as reading experiences, although you can still listen to the related episode if you want.

 

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Alternatively, you can throw text out the window and build it beautiful*. When All Things Considered aired Radio Diaries’ Teenage Diaries Revisited a few years ago, they built a single page that relied mostly on images and audio. There is a little text up top and in each profile, but the page presents a listening experience.

*(Obligatory Squarespace joke)

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It’s also totally okay to acknowledge that people may not be in the mood to listen. Sites like On Being and Nerdist do a good job of catering to their audience in this way. While both have audio available, they also provide a lot of other related material that fans of the podcasts might find interesting.

In the case of Nerdist below, they use icons in the top left corner to preview the type of content behind each link (reading, video or podcast), so you know what you’re getting into before you click.

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Or, you can throw the whole playbook out the window and do something entirely different. StoryCorps has produced a series of lovely animated videos for some of their interviews. The biggest benefit? They instantly make the interview more shareable.

Social

It should be obvious but it bears repeating — the social plan for your project should not begin and end with sharing links to your stories. I won’t get into the best ways to do that kind of promotion here. Instead, the rest of this post will focus on social audio, audience-powered projects and newsletters as engagement tools.

Social audio

If the first item on your audio project’s social media agenda is “share clips on Twitter and Facebook,” pause for a minute and read this disclaimer: Sharing audio on social media is really hard to do well, for a number of reasons. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! But level your expectations. And don’t build your entire social plan around audio. 

There are a couple of reasons why it’s tough to create shareable listening experiences:

  • Multitasking is hard for a listener who can’t read and listen at the same time
  • You have to be in the mood and position to listen (i.e. probably not while standing in line at Chipotle)
  • Silent auto-playing videos on Twitter and Facebook have changed user’s expectations
  • It’s tough to pitch a listening experience to a digital consumer
  • Listeners can’t “play along” and share their own favorite clips easily
  • There is no “YouTube for audio”
  • Every social platform does audio differently

You can read more about why it’s hard to share audio in this Nieman Lab write-up of an NPR social audio pilot with Facebook.

wnycaudiogramBut there are still some really interesting social audio experiments floating around out there, including “audiograms” (videos where a waveform just wiggles in the background as the audio plays) from WNYC, looping Vines from Serial and social audio apps like Anchor and Bumpers.

Audience-powered projects

You should always look for ways the audience can play along with your stories — and become voices in them. The podcast Note To Self has done this remarkably well with series like Bored and Brilliant and Infomagical. Both projects provided ways for listeners to be actively engaged with the podcast and share their own experiences with disconnecting from devices.

Another way to use listener voices in your project is through audio callouts. A number of podcasts (and NPR) have used Google Voice numbers and voice memos to capture audio submissions in the past. Before you head down that path, read this post on 10 things to think about before composing an audio callout.

Newsletters

Newsletters are growing in popularity — and a great way to intimately connect with your listeners. But you should be really thoughtful about why you’re making a newsletter and who you’re trying to reach before you get too far into the process. This post, which includes a thorough “Newsletter Identity Exercise,” is a great place to get started.