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NPR experiments with viral audio

On the heels of radio journalist Stan Alcorn’s inquiry into why web audio does or does not go viral, the Nieman Journalism Lab lets us in on a little experiment that NPR has been running to see if public radio stations can create viral audio segments.

Though the report says there’s too little data to draw firm conclusions, the main takeaway is that very short, easy to understand and sonically interesting clips can rack up a few thousand listens. I’m not sure that those kind of numbers qualify as “viral,” and there’s no indication that NPR claims they are. But this little exercise nevertheless provides food for thought for anyone producing online audio.

All the proto-viral clips were taken from longer pieces, intended, in part, to draw listeners to the full story. With over 5,000 listens, the most popular clip mentioned contains 1:42 minutes of San Quentin prisoners describing and reproducing the sounds of prison life. It also comes from a station in the biggest market of the bunch that participated in the project, for whatever that is worth.

The bit of data from this experiment is pretty consistent with the lessons I’ve learned from working in online media. If you want a story or information to find a broad audience, it’s good to make it accessible in a variety of forms and formats. Podcasters like Marc Maron put short preview clips of episodes on YouTube, while think tanks create infographics based on research reports. And, by the way, Maron’s WTF teasers typically rack up 3,000 – 6,000 views, which are actually listens since there’s no real motion video content, just a couple of title cards and a photo of Maron posing with his guest.

I’m glad to see NPR trying out some techniques. Controlled experiments will only help us understand online audio better. And we can be sure that the commercial radio industry isn’t up to the challenge.

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