Review: Medium Moves Into Audio (in the Most Conventional, Boring Way Possible)

Andrew Littlefield By Andrew Littlefield May 19, 2017

If you get paid to make things for people to read on the internet, you know how challenging it can be to get an audience to stick around for a few thousand words.

I’m not talking about the whole “attention span of a goldfish thing,” which, for the record, is completely fabricated. It’s just that the internet is a crowded place, with lots of great stuff all vying for your attention. It’s hard to stay focused when there’s another RompHim hot take just one tab away.

Personally, I can’t read long-form content online. Whenever there’s an article from a magazine that I want to read, I head down to the newsstand and buy a paper copy. The distractions are harder to access when you’re holding an article in your hand. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any stretch—it’s the same reason we can easily watch a movie in a dark theater but often find ourselves channel surfing at home.

The medium dictates the experience. But it only works when you’ve produced something worth investing your time in.

And that’s the problem I have with Medium’s new audio feature.

Medium has been stepping up the features offered to their premium members (those who pay $5 a month, which is pretty damn cheap), and this week they released audio versions of articles from some of their most popular writers. The feature was launched with over 50 articles already with audio tracks, embedded at the top of the article. The tracks are professionally recorded, often with professional voice actors, but a few feature the writers’ voices.

They don’t replace the written version of articles, but rather augment them. The player sits at the top of each article, giving users the option to read or listen, the idea being that those who don’t have time to sit and read a 4,000 word analysis of gender roles in The Bachelor could instead listen to it while doing something else.

Plenty of publications have tried this. We’ve experimented with audio versions of articles (with varying degrees of success). The Atlantic releases audio versions of their long-form pieces via Soundcloud as well. Audio can be a powerful storytelling tool. But it can also just be straight up boring if you just treat it the same as the written word.
The audio feature on Medium (at least as structed right now) misses the mark. It’s boring.

So far, every audio version of articles I’ve listened to on Medium is just that, and nothing more. It’s a voice reading the article, word for word. No sound effects, or atmospheric noise, or interview clips, nothing. Just a voice reading words.

That’s a terrible waste of a powerful medium. It’d be like announcing video versions of articles, only to then make videos of a dude sitting in a chair reading an article word for word off a page.

It’s tremendously boring.

Granted, a lot of this hinges on the writer themselves and what kind of rapport they have with their audience. Undoubtedly, some people will devour audio articles from their favorite writers. But it could be so much more.

Try this little experiment: go listen to this audio story on Medium (if you’re a paying member, that is. Can’t help you otherwise). Now go listen to this short piece from the NPR show Marketplace. Which one is more engaging?

The Marketplace show is hands down better in every facet. This is not even a matter of opinion. I hear the voice of the writer, and he speaks to me like someone explaining something they’re passionate about. I hear the voice of the person the story centers on—not just speaking, but singing! I hear from experts. The story moves and has emotion and the pacing is just right.

The Medium story? The professional voice actor, though his voice is deep and smooth, reads it like he’s performing some Shakespearean sonnet. The cadence is awkward, the emphasis feels forced. I don’t feel like someone is explaining something to me naturally. It’s uncomfortable.

Not only that, but it’s the bare minimum required to make audio content. There’s no creativity added here, it’s just the most obvious solution. NPR has decades worth of experience over Medium, true, but why not look to that model and attempt to emulate it rather than just do the bare minimum?

And it’s not just the way the words are spoken—it’s the words themselves, too. Just because something works as a written piece doesn’t mean it will work as an audio recording. In fact, they’re often diametrically opposed. The language, tone, and pacing you might use to keep a reader engaged is completely different than what you would use when speaking to someone. It’s not a direct translation.

Doing audio the NPR way takes more work. It takes more planning and creative consideration. It requires brutal editing and an ability to be succinct in your storytelling. But the product is far and away superior. And if you’re trying to use that feature to convince users to fork over a few dollars, you’d better make sure it adds value.

But instead, it feels like Medium made a decision to try something, then immediately did it in the most predictable and boring way possible. They’re doing audio just for the sake of doing audio, and not to tell a more compelling story. I love seeing publishers push the envelope, but when they just move forward with the first and most obvious answer, it’s a bit of a letdown.

If you’re going to move into a new medium, make sure you give it the respect and attention it deserves.