Leaps and sounds: 6 product categories creating the future of web audio

In our "Why web audio can’t grow up" article, we presented the case for moving away from “podcasts” as the de-facto definition of web audio, to create new audio platforms and new ways to experience interacting with audio on the web. Quick summary: Podcasts are difficult to share, tough to discover and not inherently suited to community building. They just feel old!

Luckily we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed the problem, innovators of all stripes are getting fed up with the podcasting status quo. Here are some of the most amazing ideas and products these great minds are working on as they attempt to redefine what it means to find, make and consume web audio.

1. New networks for podcasts

PRX's Radiotopia is just one of about a half-dozen networks trying to create a sustainable model for high quality podcasting.
If you still haven’t heard about the recent surge in ambitious visionaries trying to bring more high production value long form audio to the digital airwaves you’re not alone – but no worries, we’re here to help. PRX and Roman Mars’ Radiotopia is getting awesome results funding through Kickstarter,  now finishing up its third successful campaign with no signs of slowing down. They’re not the only public radio network betting on podcasts - PRI joined the network fray back in May with Soundworks and its collection of thoughtful shows. WNYC is adding more narrative audio to go along with the always amazing Radiolab, and Infinite Guest has an impressive selection of shows to call its own.

Meanwhile, in the for profit sector, Alex Blumberg of This American Life and Planet Money is already rethinking old podcast advertising clichés in his new startup, Gimlet Media. Blumberg may have had a bit of an embarrassing start learning to pitch, but he’s now got some funding and some momentum. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Blumberg soon begin work on his own podcast distribution system, as initial reports on the startup suggested - especially now that Marco Arment, creator of Tumblr, Instapaper and Overcast is on board with funding

Risks: Aside from the challenges brilliantly outlined by billionaire Chris Sacca in the first episode of Blumberg’s Startup podcast, there’s some push back on the entire concept of podcast networks from smart people in the industry. Arment might be on board with Gimlet Media now, but just a few months ago he explained why he thinks the time for audio networks has already passed in his blog piece, “Podcast Networks are the Wrong Model.”

Rewards: Sustainable, high-quality long form audio on demand now and forevermore – and maybe even better ways to find it.

They said: “I was thinking exactly what you think I was thinking … I’m totally fucking this up. And also, I’m nowhere near ready to be doing this yet,” - Blumberg to John Biggs of Techcrunch on Blumberg’s early pitch to Chris Sacca.

2. Social networks for audio content

Yappie is one of a collection of social-focused audio apps.
On the other side of the coin, there are countless companies trying to find new ways for the everyman to get involved with audio production and distribution. Yappie, Twitter, and Bubbly are all offering their own takes on systems that make it easy for users to find and share audio with their social networks.

One of the most interesting features in this realm belongs to Overheard, which embraces audio recording’s unique ability to go on in the background of the user’s everyday life. With Overheard users can open the app and rewind back to hear the sounds that just happened, so there’s no need for users to constantly hold down the record button in hopes of grabbing awesome sound.

Risks: Similar products based around sharing pictures and sound together have largely been busts. There’s no guarantee the public will ever be interested in sharing short audio clips when the big screens on our computers and smart phones make it easy to check out images and .gifs without bothering the people around us.

Rewards: A world filled with successful, “OverHeard” type products is a journalistic gold mine. Imagine if we had loads of audio from the Ferguson protests to document what was happening when people didn’t know they were being recorded. Free access to sounds all over the world could even make written stories much richer thanks to tools such as our own Soundcite JS.

They said: “OverHeard is perhaps trying a little too hard to be like Vine, insofar as it’s attempting to create a social network around short-form recorded content. I’m just not sure there will be the same demand for (up to) 3-minute audio clips as there is for genius 6-second looping videos,” – Paul Sawers for The Next Web.

3. Mobile OS in cars

Google and Apple have both announced plans to release in-car listening experiences.
We’ve talked a lot about startups so far, but I hope you’re not getting the impression that tech’s big boys intend to sit this one out. Apple and Google have both set their sights on taking over the open road with Apple Carplay and  Android Auto, respectively. With a focus on voice control and special attention paid to audio apps such as Apple’s “Podcasts,” Stitcher, and iHeartRadio anyone looking to innovate in audio would be wise to pay special attention to the dramatic changes the medium might experience in the car over the next few years.

Risks: Michael O’Shea, president and CEO of Abalta Technologies, laid-out his critiques of the OS in the car model shortly after Carplay’s announcement. Among the biggest hold-ups to getting a mobile OS into every car: complications in dashboard architecture, safety concerns for third party apps and the potential for competition between Apple and Google hamstringing both companies. Not to even mention the expense – the first car to offer Carplay rings in at a cool $300 grand.

Rewards: If the tech giants succeed in taking over the vehicle in could mean big innovations in how we interact with audio, and plenty of room for podcasting companies to get a jump on dominating the space by offering the best car-ready experiences. If tools like the aforementioned social audio apps end up working out, and they’re integrated into the car, journalists could potentially have access to a live stream of amateur audio collected from big news events during their drive to work.

They said: “As handy as Siri’s natural speech recognition is when you’re just walking around with your phone, it really comes into its own in the car. Siri makes it easy to choose music, get directions, and read or send text messages—all by using your voice with natural speech, rather than menu-driven, formulaic commands,” – Jim Travers for Consumer Reports  after taking Apple Carplay for a spin.

4. Integrating audio into maps

We all know and love Google Street View, but if the idea is to get us to feel what’s it’s really like to be on street it’s still missing two ingredients: motion and sound. Products like Soundcloud app Tracks on a Map and Amplifion’s super cool Sounds of Street View hope to correct that with their takes on how we can hear not just what’s next to us, but across the world.  Either tool allows people to add sounds they picked-up at ambient locations, and listen in on what was happening in a given place at a given time.

Risks: As short-term projects these are already very inspiring, but without easy to use interfaces or built-in virality these seem destined to remain just what they are now, novelties.

Rewards: It’s not hard to imagine a product combining Google Maps with access to the sound of every nearby phone. The result would be a product that allowed journalists to listen in wherever they think there might be news, all from the comfort of their own couches.

They said: “If you move to one spot, you'll hear pigeons cooing, while another spot gives you the sound of people clinking glasses as they dine. The noises are all short, looping clips, so if you stand in one spot too long, the illusion of reality is broken,” – Carl Franzen for the Verge on Sounds of Street View.

5. Producing audio collaboratively

Splice is envisioning a world where communities across the world quickly and easily collaborate to get web audio ready for primetime.
In this piece, we touched on how Splice and other collaborative music production platforms show how music on the web is growing-up after years of rebellious youth. Features like version control represent a big upgrade for musicians used to passing files back and forth via Dropbox and email. Searching for a tech metaphor for what Splice does? Think of it as a musician friendly GitHub. In the hands of spoken-word snobs these apps could be the key to getting people thinking about audio iteratively, the same way Radiolab does.

Risks: Though early Splice reviews are positive and musicians are basically collaborators by trade, startups are always a risky enterprise. A quick Google search for “collaborative music apps” quickly calls up a digital graveyard of collaborative music platforms that couldn’t quite nail it and competitors that haven’t achieved mass popularity.

Rewards: Despite the music focus of the current crop of collaborative audio apps, this breed of technology could have big impacts for newbies striving to emulate soundscape-driven podcasts like Radiolab. With community so heavily built into audio production, amateurs can get better by working directly with masters and save loads of time going down the wrong path. Not everyone has the resources to work 45 minutes for a single, brilliant minute of audio.

Radiolab Behind the Scenes from Radiolab on Vimeo.

They said: “Splice also aims to help artists better understand the building blocks, or DNA, of a song. Splice lets musicians see and analyze each specific element of a track, be it a MIDI, a clip, a musical instrument, etc.” – Megan Rose Dickey for Business Insider on how Splice plans to educate its audience about audio’s intricacies.

6. The “Pandora-for-news” apps

NPR, Rivet News Radio and - maybe soon - Apple are all betting on automatic audio recommendations.
We’ve already covered this category fairly extensively in the history of web audio and the problems with audio on the web, but it’s worth at least one more visit. People love the idea of having the perfect music delivered to them with minimal input, and big  and small companies alike are betting that people will also love the idea of having news and narrative audio automatically delivered. Apple might enter this space soon too - they bought Swell back over the summer, an app that automatically called up talk radio content without much need for input from the user. When Apple bought LaLa back in 2009 it took them about two years to roll out their own similar product,  iTunes Match. If the pattern holds Apple’s entry could be just around the bend.

Risks: The granddaddy of this idea in music, Pandora itself only recently became profitable after years in the public eye. Rivet News Radio’s creator says it’s an entirely different ballgame for the spoken word, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. Additionally any company looking for a quick, easy way to make recommendations as precise as Pandora’s music predictions might be disappointed – Pandora’s founder has called their methods for categorization “profoundly unscalable,” though initial reviews suggest NPR One and Rivet News Radio are doing a pretty good job.

Rewards: Here’s a case where the rewards are obvious. The perfect audio delivered at the perfect time – what’s not to love?

They said: “That’s right: Real, live people are suggesting stories for you. In the tech world, this kind of craziness is pretty rare.” – Katherine Boehret’s review of NPR One for recode.net.

More podcasts and audio on the Web stories:

About the author

Neil Holt

Graduate Fellow

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