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Soundslides and the rise of the audio slideshow
Tuesday, October 10, 2006 | by Eamon Hickey

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On the Job: Soundslides creator Joe Weiss. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy Joe Weiss/The News and Observer)

In the fall of 2002, Joe Weiss was headed for a place called Cave City, Kentucky, thinking about the mound of digital pictures that he would soon be buried under, and wondering if somehow he could avoid the crush.

Weiss was part of the website production team for Western Kentucky University's Mountain Workshops in documentary photojournalism, and it was his team's job to produce and post the picture stories that would be shot by about 50 workshop participants.

The picture stories would be posted as slideshows in Adobe (then Macromedia) Flash format, and the complex and time-consuming task of programming Flash was a big hurdle. So Weiss wrote a little application that automated some of the Flash programming.

After several mutations and more than two years of fiddling, that little program emerged in August, 2005 as Soundslides. (A license costs US$39.95.) In less than a year it seems to have taken the newspaper photojournalism world by storm (at least in the U.S.) and helped to spark what looks like, at least anecdotally, a sharp upsurge in multimedia journalism. Suddenly, everybody's doing audio slideshows.

Soundslides is a simple utility for making slideshows with audio in Flash format. It's been compatible with the Mac OS since its inception, and has recently emerged for Windows. You feed it JPEG photos and a sound file in either AIFF or MP3 format, and it outputs your slideshow as Flash files, along with the HTML files necessary to display the Flash files, in a single folder that can be uploaded to a server without additional work. Your audio file is your timeline and the program has simple, intuitive controls for timing each picture individually. It automatically picks up IPTC captions; you can add or edit captions and credits in the authoring window; and the finished shows allow the viewer to hide or display the captions.

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Flashy: The Soundslides interface.

The program's features and user interface reflect Joe Weiss's background. A journalist since 1996, he has worked at two daily papers, first at The Herald-Sun, in Durham, North Carolina, where he was both a staff photographer and, later, the director of photography and multimedia, and then at The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was an interactive producer until recently. Weiss is now doing freelance multimedia work and continuing to develop Soundslides.

From its limited scope and customization options to its emphasis on caption handling, "this is an application that's really built for a niche," says Weiss. "Soundslides is made for journalism."

"The format that I think is easiest for photojournalists to make the first step into multimedia is to gather audio, and then put their photographs to audio," he continues. "It's the easiest way to pick up the concepts and skills of linear -- in other words, time-based -- storytelling and editing. My hope is that [Soundslides] will make stepping from still photojournalism into multimedia and into audio just a little bit easier."

It seems clear that Soundslides was born into a world very much ready to receive it. By mid-2005, broadband Internet connections were commonplace, and more than 80% of Internet users worldwide had Flash. But most important by far, at newspapers, where print circulations have been declining for decades, the drive to exploit the Internet, and the idea that this was necessary for newspapers to survive, had been gaining force for several years. Multimedia presentations, impossible in print, are an obvious option to experiment with if you're a newspaper hoping to hook readers on your website. This business imperative dovetailed nicely with the desire of many photographers to get play for their images, and to do more photo stories, and so Soundslides found a doubly receptive audience.

Audio slideshows existed long before Soundslides, of course, and many newspapers continue to rely on custom Flash programming to display their multimedia projects. Some use Soundslides for smaller stories done on deadline and do custom Flash presentations for large, high-profile story packages that are not deadline driven. Many others use Soundslides but tweak it to partially customize the appearance of the shows.

What was new about Soundslides, and what fueled its quick acceptance among newspaper photographers, was that it freed them from Flash and the time-consuming collaborations with the Flash programmers in the paper's online department that were previously required.

At The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Photographer and Photo Coach Brian Peterson had been doing a multimedia column called Witness, in what he calls "painstaking" cooperative efforts with The Star-Tribune's online department, for some time when he heard about Soundslides from a colleague soon after it was released.

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Witness: Brian Peterson of The Star-Tribune. Click any photo to enlarge. (Photos courtesy Brian Peterson/The Star-Tribune)

"I immediately downloaded it," Peterson says, "and within half an hour I realized this was a great tool and something that all of our photographers could use if they wanted to. It just seemed so simple that it was hard to believe it hadn't been done before. Word spread pretty fast among photographers who had been doing multimedia the old way. It was kind of a godsend."

"The problem with the way we were doing it before is that we were spending most of the time behind a computer tweening pictures and making them fade," says Josh Meltzer, a staff photographer at The Roanoke Times in Virginia. (Tweening is an animation process available in Flash.) "Soundslides has allowed us to spend more time on reporting and editing and storytelling, which is what we're supposed to be good at."

With Soundslides, a single photographer can produce a Flash-based audio slideshow from beginning to end in an hour or two (one shooter told us that, using canned music from Apple's GarageBand for audio, he had done one in two minutes). Once any necessary editorial checks are passed -- at some papers a photo editor and/or a copy editor (who checks the captions) must sign off on the show -- the finished piece can then simply be presented to the online department for posting.

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