S2:E1 – Podcast Technology (Brenda Salinas)

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Digital journalism enables us to reach a wider audience that traditionally we might not have been able to reach. Brenda Salinas, Audio Content Strategist at Google explained what digital journalism is and its impact. We talked about advancements in audio technology particularly in podcasting. Brenda explained how artificial intelligence can be used to index podcast topics an allow people to discover content. We also talked about several software systems in podcasting and how the field has improved. Brenda also gave an overview about her trajectory in digital journalism.

Brenda Salinas
Brenda Salinas

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Transcript

ES:¬† I’m Edaena Salinas, software engineer and host of The Women in Tech Show, a podcast about what we work on, not what it feels like to be a woman in tech. For more information about the show go to wit.fm.

Digital journalism enables us to reach a wider audience that traditionally we might not have been able to reach. Brenda Salinas, Audio Content Strategist at Google explained what digital journalism is and its impact. We talked about advancements in audio technology particularly in podcasting. Brenda explained how artificial intelligence can be used to index podcast topics an allow people to discover content. We also talked about several software systems in podcasting and how the field has improved. Brenda also gave an overview about her trajectory in digital journalism.

Brenda Salinas Baker is joining us today. Brenda, Welcome to The Women in Tech Show.  

BS:  Thanks for having me.  

ES: You have a background in journalism, in digital journalism. You’re currently an audio content strategist at Google. First I want to begin with your opinion of what digital journalism means. 

BS: When I hear digital journalism for me it’s the ability to reach listeners in audio readers in text to reach audiences that in traditional journalism, we wouldn’t be able to reach right? So before if you were a newspaper Reporter. 

Your newspaper circulated in your city and every once in a while maybe you’d get a syndicated article in the national paper, but that was rare. And in radio, if you were a local radio reporter, your voice only carried as far as that FM or AM signal. And now with podcasting. 

With digital platforms, you’re able to reach audiences all over the world on their own time, and I think it really amplifies the power of our voices. 

ES: Throughout your career your held various roles. One of the early ones in your career began with being the recipient of the NPR Kroc fellowship. Can you explain a little bit what this was? 

BS: Sure, so growing up all I ever wanted to do was be a storyteller. I come from a very rich oral storytelling tradition and I started listening to NPR when I was about 14 or 15 because my teachers at school would talk about a story that they heard and I always wanted to be in the know. So I made my mom. My mom was a teacher at my school and we would always listen to the radio together on our way into school. And you know, instead of listening to the pop station I made us, listen to NPR. And when I heard the voice of women who sounded like me. Lulu Garcia Navarro Maria Hinojosa, Latino women who pronounced their names the way that I pronounce my name and told stories about their communities that really lit a spark in me and I thought, you know, I’ve always wanted to tell stories I’ve always wanted to write. I think I want to tell stories on the radio. 

And when I was in University, I studied economics and during the summers I interned at my local public radio station in Houston, Houston public media, and I loved every second of it. I would beg reporters to let me carry their kits so we could go out on stories. I got to report a couple of my own stories as well. 

And the general manager at Houston public media told me, hey, there’s this fellowship for recent graduates at NPR at the national level, I think you should go for it, and we’ll make sure to recommend you. And so I applied. I applied in December. I got the call in April that I was one of ten finalists. 

And we all went to NPR from all over the country. So after I did a yearlong fellowship at NPR, which was really, it was kind of my Graduate School. It was kind of my journalism school. I went to New York to work on a national show with my Idol, Maria Hinojosa. The show is called Latino USA and I was a producer and Reporter there. 

So after I left KUT to be a Reporter, I did it for about 10 months and it was going really well. And then Steve Henn, that Reporter that senior Reporter that I had met at this training, called me to say that he was starting his own company, and by then I was thinking of starting my own production company in Austin. 

And he said, well, why don’t you come help me start my company? It’s a personalized radio company. I want you to be the founding producer so you know he sold me on the idea. The company was called 60dB and it was a personalized radio app where you would get an onboarding where you got to say you know who are your favorite radio broadcasters. What are your favorite topics? And then you would get a playlist of short stories. So not podcasts length. You would get like the NPR newscasts and then you would get what we would call traditional news magazine packages. So stories that are from 2 to 7 minutes long and you would get a long playlist of those. And then if you want it you could do like a podcast at the end of that experience, and then when I was at 60dB at this personalized radio company where I was filing stories. You know every day we had this platform and it actually inspired the Google Podcast Manager Platform. But more on that later. So we had this platform where I could see a graph. 

And see where my listeners had dropped off and skipped the story that I was telling. So I could see bad tape. I could see when I wrote something badly when something wasn’t clear I could see a dip in that graph and through filing stories every day and then looking at the audience retention graph 

I was able to improve dramatically as a storyteller, like for example, my completion rates, my average completion rates were like at 80%, and I wanted them to be higher and Steve, my editor told me, hey, like, why don’t you try this breathing technique that I learned back in the day? I think it might really help you. 

So I was like OK, I’ll try it for a week. I did that in every single story an my completion rates shot up by 7 percentage points. So I was really able to AB test my stories, be able to use that editorial muscle, but then also combine it with data analysis to improve as a storyteller, and there’s a through line between that and the work that I do at Google because that company, as you may know, spoiler that company got acquired by Google in 2017 and we became a part of the Google Podcasts family, and so many of the product’s that we made now sort of influence the things that we do at Google and I’m able to use that same data analysis with editorial content insights to help partners on our platforms reach their audiences in in better ways. 

ES: You are talking about very interesting points about leveraging technology, data science, data driven decisions in journalism, to craft stories, to evaluate how your stories are being listened. Another thing I saw that you worked on was crowd sourcing through social media stories. Can you explain the idea behind crowd sourcing stories via social media? 

BS: Yeah, absolutely. So this is more popular now than it used to be. But back in the day when Twitter and Facebook were new, journalists would mostly used those social media platforms to promote their own stories. So you would see a lot of tweets from journalists saying hey, I just filed this story, check it out, and then people would retweet or comment or whatever. And so it was very much an afterthought, and I started particularly at Latino USA when we had this very strong brand. This very strong platform figuring out that we could actually use social media in the reporting process to find sources and find stories and have that conversation. Not just be omni directional right? Not just be hey, here’s this voice on the radio telling you a story, but actually we’re real people and you can tell us stories and maybe they’ll make it on to the show. Or maybe they’ll just influence our decision making. And so I started Latina USA being in charge of the social media there and thinking of it, not just as an afterthought to promote our work, but actually to build a community that helped us source information and now that’s becoming a lot more popular throughout digital media, I would say, but particularly in the audio space, there are a lot of podcasts who have voicemail setup. You know where you can call a Google. It’s usually Google number, but we can call a phone number. And leave a voicemail, leave a story, and sometimes those stories make it into your favorite podcasts and being able to influence a content maker directly like that really helps you feel like you’re in a community of people who understand you and who see the world in a similar way than you do, and I think that’s really powerful. I think the best podcasts create these worlds around them that really help people feel like they found a spiritual home. 

ES:  

Earlier you were talking about working in freelance for some time, then later working on this company 60dB, which eventually got acquired by Google an A lot of it became part of the Google Podcast Manager Program. Can you talk about this platform? 

BS: Yeah, so Google thinks of audio in a really comprehensive way and it’s kind of different than other tech companies that are experimenting in the audio space. So let me explain it to you this way. The way that podcasts are distributed you know this, but maybe your listeners not all your listeners do is through a standard called an RSS or Real Simple standard. 

So it’s basically like a really ugly looking script on the back end and it’s open so that different, we call them podcatchers, but different podcast apps crawl all the RSS feeds and then index them, right? 

So you know, there’s a bunch of different podcast apps you know, and Google podcasts is a pod catcher. In that way we crawl RSS feeds that unless they’re blocked, we surface them on our platform. It used to be that within an RSS feed, you know, it has all this information. It has meta tags, it has title, it has an image, and there’s always an MP3 file. 

And that’s the audio file that gets distributed. Well, it used to be that a company like Google had no way of knowing what was in that MP3 file. It was virtually a black box, so the only way we had of organizing that information was through the meta tags. You’d say: this is a comedy podcast. This is a religion podcast. This is a sports podcast. 

Because of AI because of machine learning, automatic transcription software has gotten so good and so cheap that a company with the computing power that Google has can use that automatic transcript to figure out what exactly is being said in that MP3, an index it. 

The way that we would index a web page on Google search or a news article on Google News. So we’re using that automatic transcript that happens almost instantly. 

ES: And this transcript, like you’re saying, they’re mostly used to get more insight into what people are talking about in the podcast. The transcript itself is not published, right? 

BS: No. You can kind of see the transcript if you are YouTube user and you turn on captions, you can get a transcript of those captions on YouTube. But on the podcast, honestly, the transcripts are pretty messy. They’re not super readable, they make mistakes. You know if you say things with a certain accent, it might not catch it. 

But what it is really good at is in what we call entity detection, so it knows what Kardashian you’re talking about. It knows what sports event you’re talking about, and that helps us match like with like and see how different entities how different you know nouns are related to each other. In this web of worldwide information. 

ES: Exactly, I don’t know how it happens behind the scenes, but I could see how you are transcribing words with machine learning, and I’m guessing there’s probably like a probability of how confident the system is that certain word was said . And then based on that we get more insight into the content than just metadata that people manually put, so I think it’s really good. 

BS: Correct, so it’s exactly it’s the same technology that Google News uses to index information. It’s the same, but there’s this added step where we go from the MP3 file to this transcript that almost acts like a dummy web page on our back end and then that is what’s indexed on our internal infrastructure so that we can really understand what is being said and you can see this in Google podcasts, but you can also see it in another product that we have called Your News Update. So Your News Update is the evolution of 60dB, that company that we had that got acquired so it’s a short form playlist of news that’s personalized to you, mostly on your location and some of your interests so you know, Google probably knows what sports teams you like, ’cause you look up the scores constantly. Things like that. 

So in this product, the way that you access it, anyone can access it. You tell the Google assistant play me the news and you can do that even on an iPhone if you download the Google Assistant app, I think it’s pretty cool. It’s a different way to get the news. It doesn’t sound quite as like cohesive as if you were listening to the radio because you’re getting news from all different sources, but you might be surprised what you get to listen to. 

ES: So you were just talking about using AI to transcribe podcasts to have a better idea of what they’re talking about. Earlier you also talked about this company 60dB where you’re getting more insights on how your story is doing in terms of listenership where they’re dropping off. Potentially brainstorm why that might be and make improvements. Are there other examples of useful analytics that can help drive future story development? 

BS: Yeah, so if you have a podcast you automatically have access to a product called Google Podcast Manager, so it’s kind of similar. If you ever go to Google Maps and you look at an address and it says claim this business, have you ever seen that on Google Maps? It’s the same thing, but you can claim your RSS feed using the same email that you have to that you use to set up your RSS feed on whatever hosting provider so you can claim your RSS feed on Google podcasts and automatically get 30 days of data on how listeners engage with your content. So it tells you where they listening on a Google Nest at Google Smart Speaker. Or were they listening to it on a mobile device and that kind of information I think is really useful, but for me the most useful thing is getting that second by second drop off rate and Aggregated Drop off rate so you can see you know did I have a good introduction or maybe the story was too long and people only listen to half of it and you can use those analytics to tell better stories so? 

I really think as a storyteller you should be able to make interesting content about whatever story topic you’re interested in, because there’s a reason why you are interested in it and it’s just about communicating to your listener that passion. 

ES: At the beginning you touched a bit on having diverse voices on radio. I could definitely relate to that. I’m also a Latina and even I hesitated launching this podcast because I thought my accent had to be perfect, like the people on TV that I had. It’s always this, I think certain type of American English that I had seen in the media in the US, I hadn’t been exposed to more Latino voices. Can you talk about how this is changing, particularly in podcasting radio? 

What are some of the things that are being done or can be done to improve this? 

BS: I think in traditional broadcasting there is still a lot of gatekeeping, and it might be that if you wanted to work in radio, someone would have told you no, you you can’t be on the air with your accent, which is absolutely horrible because you’re not just an accent, you’re a person who’s telling stories from your point of view. And you’re coming from a different point of view. That would be highly beneficial to the listeners of that radio station. So I remember, you know at that public radio station in Texas we had an intern that she was Japanese an she was very understandable. But you know, English was not her first language, but she was a great Reporter. 

And she filed the story and I went to bed for the night, and somebody actually retract the story so literally took the words off her script, took her reporting, reported it in a white male voice, and that’s the voice that got aired on the radio. And I just remember being so angry and so disgusted. So that was a couple of years ago. I would hope that the conversation is starting to change in broadcasting. I don’t think it’s changing fast enough and I think that’s why podcasting is such a valuable medium because you can prove your own worth with a microphone and a computer. 

You don’t have to wait for someone to give you an opportunity. You can make that opportunity for yourself and you can find an audience and you can find people who love your accent or maybe have the same accent or it reminds them of their sisters accent. And that’s a beautiful thing. I think as long as the way you’re speaking is clear and you know mostly grammatically correct, or at least you know a listener is able to follow what you’re saying. That’s enough. You don’t have to be a cookie cutter person like you don’t have to sound the way you think you would have to sound to be on at NPR and more and more, we’re seeing that reporters are being given an opportunity to sound more like themselves. 

That’s something that I really like about coaching people in the radio space because you’re never telling somebody a good radio coach never tells you to sound different, they just help you sound more like yourself. And that’s something that we do with the Google Podcast Creators Program, we help people find their voice and. 

It’s not just a metaphor, it’s really finding your voice in your body and talking the way that you talk. For example, when I was a Reporter in Texas, I had this one editor, you know this, this older white guy who’s really sweet, a really good editor and he kept trying to get me to put the word folks in my script. 

Because he said you need something to change it up so you don’t see people all the time and he actually taught me how to say folks he was like you don’t say it with an L. It’s f-o-k-s, folks and I like tried a million times but ultimately like I would never in my real life say folks yeah, so it’s like that shouldn’t really go in my script if it’s not something that. I’d say in my real life it’s not something that I can say convincingly and I’m I just need to speak the way that I speak and be authentic to my own voice in my own experience. 

ES: You briefly mentioned the Google Podcast Creators Program. Can you talk a bit about this? 

BS: Yeah, the Google Podcast Readers Program is my favorite thing that I do at Google. 

So we have partnered with PRX, which is a public radio distributor to create a program that seeks to empower the next generation of podcasters. We’re going to be launching our application for round three, so it’s our second year, but we were doing a third round of applications so if your listeners have a podcast that they want to take to the next level, please please look for that on line. We really want your application and what we do is we pair emerging podcasters and merging storytellers with a team of producers. And mentors who can help them really think through the marketing of their podcasts. Like how do you reach an audience. How do you determine your audience? And then also the production? You know whether it’s a chat cast or a narrative podcaster. A fiction podcast? We want to make sure that people have the skills and the craft to take their production to the next level. So in our first year, we focused on emerging podcast creators, so people that were just getting started. 

And we created a video series. You know, we realized we had 10,000 applications for two cohorts, so there were. We realized there were so many more people who wanted this knowledge than we could possibly reach in this small group setting. So we created this series called podcasting 101. You can Google it. 

And it’s basically a video series of the fundamentals of podcasting from production to marketing to distributing, to selling ads, and monetizing so every lesson has a very specific point to make, and if you have a podcast, even if you think you know everything, I promise that there is something in that series that will help you grow. 

ES: And who is this program going to be targeted for? because you’re mentioning your bout to lunch round three or about lunch round three in a couple of weeks.  

BS: We really want to see stories that we haven’t heard before. Everybody is open to apply, but we really want people to think about. You know what stories do I have inside of my heart that the world really needs to hear? 

BS: And what will I get from this program? We’re looking for people who want to grow and learn and be coached so they can reach the new Heights that they’re striving for. 

ES: Well, Brenda, thank you for taking the time to come on the show. It’s been great chatting with you. 

BS: Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed our chat.