Interactive documentary making for smart speakers #RDE19

Thanks to smart speakers, audio documentaries are about to evolve to the next level.

Newspapers are rapidly moving into the audio documentary space, previously dominated by radio.
At a session on smart speakers and podcasts at Radiodays Europe, Steve Ahern heard from two major British newspapers who showcased their audio offerings. Then he tried out one of offerings and was blown away by the experience.
There were good simple ideas, such as the Guardian’s Voice Lab offering, a sports quiz for smart speakers based on the year’s sports news. Included in the quiz are replays of audio grabs that were used in the original story, for example, “who said this about their winning goal.”
The smart speaker listener answers questions, gets their score, then is asked if they want to listen/subscribe to the Guardian’s sports podcast.
The Guardian’s Jeremy Pennycook had two tips for those getting into smart speaker driven audio:
“It is difficult to get people to say the exact phrase so that the speaker recognises the command… There is more work to do on discovery so that people can find the content.”
The Guardian offers a short radio bulletin each morning, with a robot voice reading new text from the newspaper site, linked by real human voice links.
In analysing what people want from their service, The Guardian has discovered that there is no perfect length for a bulletin. Some people want “transactional content” which they can tailor to their own interests, while others want longer form content more like a news bulletin or podcast.
The Financial Times has been producing audio content for ten years as part of its transition from print to digital. What excites the FT is that there is a large listenership for their audio and that many of those listeners are young people who they may not have reached by their traditional text based outputs.
The FT is focusing on three areas of interest:

  • Lean back and listen audio content
  • Engagement with ‘native’ commercial content
  • Interactive audio (Q&As and interactive documentaries)

The FT’s Hidden Cities is “an entirely new form of storytelling,” according to the FT’s Alistair Mackie.
I tried it out. You can try it too here on the web, but it is best experienced on your smart speaker.
Saying “OK Google, talk to Hidden Cities Berlin”  takes me to a segmented audio guide which combines a travelogue to different places of interest in the city.
The German accented voice of ‘Caroline’ guides me through the interactive audio documentary. She tells me where I can go and then lets me ask for the places I want to learn about. When I choose one location, the narrator sets up the location then takes me to the locations, complete with interviews and location sounds.
When I went to the rebuilt nightclub area I was told about the history of the area, then asked what I want to do. “Do you want to meet some people on the street?” Yes, I replied, so Caroline introduced me to Sophie, a local resident who is a DJ at dance parties.
You have to interact about every 2 minutes. You can shape the 90 minute documentary any way you want to and jump in and out anywhere you like. The full experience is only available through interactive Google smart speaker systems.
Here is my interaction with Caroline and Hidden Cities on my Google Home speaker, with some of the longer explanations telescoped for brevity so that all the interactive commands can be heard.
It’s two and a half minutes long, listen to it all to understand the evolution that is happening for interactive audio documentaries.

Once you’ve listened, now imagine how this interactive documentary is put together. It is not a linear experience (although the whole 90 mins can be listened to in one go if you want), it is recorded in segments, then a series of interactive logic steps is overlaid on the audio segments. Then a range of interactive questions are planned, which trigger different audio segments as requested. There are also questions and jokes to interact with the listener. After the audio was recorded and edited, there must have been a lot more additional work done to overlay the interactive elements. It’s a very impressive piece of work.


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