Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The powers and problems of the audio slideshow

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 1, 2009

Match the absorbing power of a beautifully crafted photograph, with the intimacy of some crisp, clear audio and you have a potent force.

Yes, the audio slideshow has fast become a rising medium for multimedia journalists, and it’s unique because it’s been born from the digital revolution and not threatened by it. It only exists in digital form.

If you haven’t heard of an audio slideshow, the name pretty much gives it away: a sequence of photographs, soundtracked by audio, usually of a person speaking, plus music and “actuality” where possible.  I’ve been making them for about a year now, and spent last week both in meetings with radio producers about them and in classrooms teaching students about them.

I figured it’s time to give them some blog-respect.

The powers of the audio slideshow

I decided to show my photojournalism students some audio slideshows last week as an introduction to the medium. Most of them had never seen one before, but they were completely engaged by The New York Times’ sublime “1 in 8 million” and Duckrabbit’s new MSF project. Why?

01. the powerful combination

For nearly a century each, the mavens of both radio and photography have raved about the immense power of their particular medium.

Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers and infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution

Ansel Adams

A great advantage of the aural medium over print lies in the sound of the human voice – the warmth, the compassion, the anger, the pain and the laughter. A voice is capable of conveying much more than reported speech.

Robert McLeish

On their own great radio and great photographs pack a real punch. Think of the famous images of the D-Day landings, the Vietnam War or 9/11. Think of the lush vividness of Ed Murrow’s This is London reports, the intimacy of This American Life and the solemn colour in Richard Dimbleby’s report from Belsen.

Put together they hold equal if not greater power. Either through being able to see something you’re hearing, or to hear the richness of the voice of someone you’re looking at.

02. it’s not video #1

We hear all too often how video is the medium. How moving pictures are the ultimate way to tell stories and how film is more arresting that anything before it.

Now this may be true. But let me tell you if you don’t know already: video is also really hard to do. Don’t get me wrong, radio, print, podcasts, flash interactives, photography – they’re all really hard to get right. But video is another beast, and you can sweat piss, and still come out with a ropey product.

I’m not saying audio slideshows are easier…they’re less time consuming, less brainpower consuming – meaning you can focus on getting it really good, rather than just getting OK pictures.

03. it’s not video # 2

Equally, video is not only demanding on the sanity of the artist, but on the story too. Video stories have to be told in certain ways. We need sequences and visual grammar, and so storytellers must usually bend or break their craft to fit it into a 720×526 screen.

Again radio and photography are more flexible. And as a result, the audio slide show is not bound by the same rules and formulas which TV finds so hard to break free from.

04. cost of production

In terms of the kit you need, audio slideshows are cheaper to produce. A good enough Digital SLR camera will set you back hundreds, sure. But an audio recorder of a good standard need only cost you just over a hundred. And the editing kit – well the standard seems to be the Soundslides Software, which goes for just over £50.

And that’s a snip of your video costs.

The weaknesses of the audio slideshow

Now we’re seeing lots of audio slideshows being made. And some of them are pretty awesome. Websites like the New York Times and The Guardian have their own online sections dedicated to them. Hoorah. But they are still not gaining huge traction. How come?

01. it’s not video

Aha, this again. Well, sort of. Video’s popularity relies on several things: the fact we were all brought up on television and crave the moving picture, the glamour associated with television production also rubs off on video; we’re led to believe video is more real. And technology is forcing video to be popular with more and more smaller cheaper cameras.

This instantly gives the audio slideshow a disadvantage.

“What? The picture’s don’t move? This sucks!”

02. it’s slow

Video and television are a bit like crap magicians. If their trick is no good, they can stun you with a quick flash or spark. They do this with fast cuts, fancy transitions and montages.

Audio slideshows aren’t like that. They’re a lot slower. One image will stay on screen for 5 or more seconds, before slowly dissolving into another. In video, we see images lasting just a matter of frames.

To some, this lack of visual ecstacy makes audio slideshows appear duller, when really they’re not.

03. saboteurs

A lot of audio slideshows, especially in the mainstream media, aren’t very good. I wondered for a long time why this was. Why did the audio and pictures not match up? Why was the editing so bad?

Then I heard one photojournalist at an expo in London. He’s been trying audio slideshows out, and I asked him why more generally, many slideshows out there weren’t very good. He said he knew cases of newsroom journalists resenting being given multimedia work.

“They make it shit on purpose, so they won’t be asked to do it again” he said.  Incredible, really. A relief though, because it means just because so many slideshows are dull, does not mean the medium does not have potential.

04. the name

This came up in a meeting with radio producers in London last week.

“Audio Slideshow” is a crap name. It ain’t web 2.0 that’s for sure, and conjours an image of your aunty and uncle showing you their holiday snaps. Worst of all,  if people have not heard of one before, they can tell straight away what it is from the name, and draw their own (usually negative conclusions).

Compare that to the emergence of the podcast. It’s name is unusual and not self explanatory, so you’re forced to listen to one to investigate.

So here’s the deal: audio slideshows need a new name. Let’s find one.

I’m creating a poll to vote on a new name. It starts with the first idea I came up with, and you can add your own suggestions too. If you have an idea, put it in the comments box and I’ll add it to the poll manually. Everyone can then vote on the best ones. Ready? Here goes:

And while you’re thinking, here are some awesome examples of [INSERT NAME HERE] out there:

New York Times: 1 in 8 Million

Duckrabbit: Praying for the Rain

Ciara Leeming: Born Free

Eileen Mignoni: Facing Deportation

John D McHugh: Memorial

Adam Westbrook: Hirst v UK

BBC News/Paul Kerley: Tommies’ Tales

Nick Hand: Slowcoast

Resolve Blog’s coverage of audio slideshows

15 Responses

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  1. machiko said, on December 1, 2009 at 2:58 am

    hi adam! i am a college newspaper online editor in california, and although it’s my first time commenting here – i truly enjoy your blog.

    i whole heartedly agree what audio slideshows need some kind of slick, short & simple name.

    and onto some of the weaknesses, the best part about the Soundslides people is that they keep on adding these features on their site. for one, we can convert our hard to embed SWF files into podcast/youtube ready formats (http://video.soundslides.net/converter/). secondly, although i’m not a huge advocate, we can now pan in/out of photos as well. so in some ways, they’re becoming a bit more video-like.

    i think another weakness would be that there are no established rules quite yet. we really shouldn’t have a photo that runs for more than 4-5 seconds. we really shouldn’t have soundslides starting with the boring “hi my name is X and i do Z” type intros. (i guess those work sometimes, but not always).

    lastly, i’d like to add two more audio slideshows to the list of exemplary ones from the LA Times.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/photography/la-population-package,0,7767099.htmlstory#/A_body_larger_than_life – probably the best i have seen ever.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/photography/la-population-package,0,7767099.htmlstory#/A_goose_that_gets_more_than_a_gander – good example of changing the rhythm and pacing of photos

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/photography/la-population-package,0,7767099.htmlstory#/Waiting_for_death_alone_and_unafraid – another brilliant one.

  2. paulbalcerak said, on December 1, 2009 at 4:39 am

    Barring the invention of something truly awesome, I say we just stick with audio slideshows. It says what it is and if you think it’s boring, you’re not going to watch it when we call it something else and you find out it’s an audio slideshow anyway.

    That said, nice post. I hadn’t really thought of “audio slideshow vs. video” before. My attitude with multimedia is usually just “do whatever the story calls for,” but an audio slideshow is more of an editorial/artistic call. Whereas videos can just tick by, slideshows require more of an investment on behalf of the viewer because, as you said, “One image will stay on screen for 5 or more seconds….” In that regard, they’re perhaps more difficult than videos because the burden to keep your viewer interested is greater, the less images you have.

    That said, I think that when they’re done well, they’re gorgeous. I once heard an artist say that between drawing something realistic or drawing a cartoon, he’d rather try and draw something realistic because there are more lines in the drawing and thus more opportunities to get away with mistakes (a drawing of Mickey Mouse has maybe 15-20 lines total). Videos can be good; photos have to be great because there are less of them. But a great photo freezes time, while a video just lets the moment pass.

    Two more awesome video slideshows to add to the nice collection you’ve got going: seattlepi.com’s “Sights and Sounds” from a party for Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 and Richard Koci Hernandez’s “The Fifty Four,” an ode to his bus route.

  3. David Berman said, on December 1, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Soundslides is the best name although some on my newsdesk have difficulty with that😉 SS are a gift to photographers who are tired of just a headshot being used after shooting a feature. I have done quite a few over the past 3 or so years and I like to think of it as a way to shooting documentary like our forefathers did with the likes of Picture Post. I love them and Joe Weiss’s soundslide program.

  4. mikewhills said, on December 1, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I went with Soundslides – it’s nice and Web 2.0-y. Oh, and one other great example is Dan Chung’s ‘Le Pen’s heartland’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/slideshow/page/0,,2032618,00.html

  5. Alexandre Gamela said, on December 1, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    I tend to use both audio slideshows and soundslides, though i prefer soundslides better. But i always avoid it so people don’t confuse it with the software’s name. I disagree when you say video is harder, audio slideshows are a huge challenge, because of the quality we need in the pictures and if you’re working solo, how to get the best out of the audio interviews. With text we can paraphrase, edit the statements; in video people are aware of the camera and know when they’re being recorded, so i think it feels more plastic. Audio slideshows provide a level of intimacy (the details, the hesitations in speech) that video usually doesn’t.Maybe I have the idea that people are more emotionally detached from video storytelling. Anyway, it’s a great view on the genre.

    PS:pros doing shit on purpose? Seen that more than once. And they all got away with it.

  6. Jon Moss said, on December 3, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    I really enjoy audio slideshows. Certainly Nick’s are the ones I have watched the most, your one the other day and a couple from the NYT.

    They have so much potential and can be very “raw” delivering a very personal experience. Also they are less bandwidth hungry in general.

  7. Ryan Egan said, on December 4, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Hey Adam,

    Great article! The ABC in Australia has been experimenting with audio slideshows, especially at Triple J (the youth media network). They produced a great series on the suburbs which can be found here: http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/hack/features/suburbs/

    As you can see they are also using some video content in their productions too, which I think works very well. Here’s another example: http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/hack/notes/s2758372.htm

    Cheers for the links above as well.

    Ryan

  8. […] what way? Well, we’ve already seen the power of the audio slideshow demonstrated time and time again: the combination of audio and photography is hugely potent and […]

  9. Ajay Jain said, on December 10, 2009 at 7:58 am

    How about PhotoTalkies?

  10. The Future of the Photo Book | Lulu Blog said, on January 26, 2010 at 12:16 am

    […] creators to connect with their readers in new ways, including combinations of text, images, audio and, ultimately, video. And as the quality of on-screen reproduction continues to improve, […]

  11. […] tips for journalists Multimedia: Think about using images and audio to create audio slideshows. Adam Westbrook has some great advice in this post on the power and the challenges of creating them. Tipster: Laura Oliver. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link – we will pay a fiver […]

  12. Austin Beeman said, on February 5, 2010 at 3:07 am

    How about just a slideshow. The non-audio stuff can be called a photo montage or something.

    But really it IS just another form of video. It doesn’t matter whether we see 24 still frames per second and perceive motion or 1 frame per 5 sec and don’t perceive motion. This is just still imaged arranged in an order to suit the needs of the filmmaker.

  13. […] The powers and problems of the audio slideshow « Adam Westbrook A British journalist discusses the pros and cons of audio slideshows as an online media format and provides links to some good examples. […]

  14. That’s Not My Name « Audio Journalism said, on January 30, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    […] video, social media and blogging. He bloody loves a good photo/sound combo. Not only has he written some lovely stuff singing its largely unsung warbles of praise, but he also took the time to chat to us about […]

  15. […] social media and blogging, bloody loves a good audio slideshow. In fact, not only has he written some lovely stuff singing its largely unsung praises, but also took the time to chat to us about alternative names, […]


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