By Team SoundStir
Last month Team SoundStir won the grand prize at the University of Missouri’s eighth annual Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) Student Competition, where the goals of this year’s competition were to make PMP data “smarter and more accessible.” They wowed the judges with their app that gives pubmedia lovers a community where they can connect over the stories that move them. Along with Team Turnip, who was given a Technical Innovation Award, Team SoundStir is headed to DC this week to meet with PMP staff and partners. What follows is a behind-the-scenes look written by Team SoundStir at how they developed their app and what’s ahead. Read more about the competition, watch a short video of SoundStir’s pitch, and follow them on Twitter.
In January 2015, a designer, a PR student, and three Android developers sat down to create an innovation for the Public Media Platform in hopes of winning a competition at the Missouri School of Journalism. Five months and a lot of cups of coffee later, we presented a mobile app that we are extremely proud of: SoundStir.
SoundStir is the only mobile community for public radio listeners. As users listen to audio content in the app, they are connected with other people who share their listening habits. Essentially, SoundStir is a social medium for pubmedia.
How SoundStir Works
As a user listens to news audio or podcasts from any of the five PMP providers in the app, the SoundStir database keeps track of the providers, topics, and user-assigned ratings. The most exciting and “flashy” part of SoundStir is our matching algorithm, which uses data from a user’s listening habits to generate and suggest connections with other users who listen to similar content. Once SoundStir users connect with each other, they can chat one-on-one about the news audio and podcasts they’re listening to, and even share individual pieces of content with each other. As users make more connections over time, they build a mobile community around the pubmedia content they love. Instead of having to shuffle through various social media or news apps to build said community, SoundStir users get that authentic, social experience without having to exit our app. The catch is that people can’t interact with each other in our app unless they interact with PMP content first.
The exciting part for the PMP is that SoundStir’s database and matching algorithm provide the PMP with information it hasn’t yet been able to generate on its own. The database stores any and all user actions and interactions, such as rating, access time, listening history, and content skips. SoundStir’s database will ultimately provide the PMP’s partners with new insights into the pubmedia listening audience.
We knew from the start of the competition that pubmedia could benefit from its own mobile community. We sifted through three or four other ideas—a coffeeshop-esque community app partnering with local businesses and a dating-specific version of the current concept, to name a few—before settling on SoundStir. We ultimately decided on the concept of SoundStir because it uses technology similar to that of popular dating apps, but builds a broader pubmedia community for its users.
SoundStir is an audio-only app because we wanted it to fit the on-the-go lifestyle of our target, 18 to 24 year olds. We plan to first market the app to current public radio listeners, and then leverage those users, who are already excited about pubmedia, to expand the PMP’s audience further into that demographic. SoundStir fits into the compulsive sharing habits of our target in a way that will only boost the app’s growth.
As we worked on the app, our mentors—an interdisciplinary group of MU faculty as well as PMP representatives Kristin Calhoun and Ryan Cavis—consistently said the things we didn’t want to hear, but needed to. We would come into meetings with new ideas that needed to be either scaled down or fleshed out, and our mentors pushed us to do just that. They helped us tame the “fancy” aspects of SoundStir that were too much too soon, and they also helped us develop the logistical aspects that needed to be figured out before we could proceed to the fancy stuff.
When you’re developing an app like this, it’s easy to sit around with your teammates and think of these grand ideas that you personally believe are amazing and worthwhile and important—but sometimes (more often than not), you’re wrong. Our mentors reflected those missteps back to us, and helped us turn the corner to something much more worthwhile and important. We were treated as professionals gaining wisdom from professionals. More than anything, our mentors pushed us to think about the future of the app and not just the competition, and for that we are immensely grateful. As a result, SoundStir continues to exist outside of the RJI Student Competition, and we owe a majority of our determination and persistence to the rallying of the mentors alongside us.
A Learning Experience
A major takeaway for us throughout this process is the value of a multidisciplinary team. Every member of the SoundStir team worked on every aspect of the app—Android developers helping with design features, a designer working on a business plan, a journalism student suggesting programming features. Early on, we learned that just because something is in your area of study doesn’t mean someone from outside that department can’t provide valuable insight. We learned an immense amount from each other as people. We learned about the importance of pubmedia and its contribution to intellectual conversation among all age groups, not just 18 to 24 year olds. We learned the value of teamwork, flexibility, networking, and communication. And Google Drive. And coffee. Lots of coffee.
One of the coolest parts of the competition was getting to work with our concept from the start to where it is now and hopefully on to whatever it will become. From ideation to development to branding and marketing, and after a lot of rethinking, reworking, and revising, it’s really amazing that something that was once just a few paragraphs in a Google Doc is now a functional mobile community. It’s also been awesome to see people at various conferences and showcases get excited about SoundStir. We feel like we’ve really tapped into something special here, a niche of the mobile app market that hasn’t existed, but obviously needed to, so that’s exciting to us.
When it comes to expanding the pubmedia audience, especially to a younger demographic, it’s not the content that’s the problem; it’s the method. Through our research, we discovered it’s not that 18 to 24 year olds aren’t interested—it’s that pubmedia hasn’t fit into their lifestyles. College students and young professionals need convenience more than anything. They aren’t likely to break out of their fast-paced, multi-tasking routines to access content—they need it to be delivered to them in a convenient, authentic way. We think that detail alone is one of the most unique aspects of 18 to 24 year olds, and is a valuable notion to build upon in terms of pubmedia branching out to new demographics and new technologies. Pubmedia should look for and embrace new technologies that change the way audiences interact with its content.
To be honest, most of us were not pubmedia fans before starting to work on SoundStir. Some of us had dabbled and listened to some Serial or Marketplace episodes, but that was about the extent of our exposure. Now that we’ve interacted with PMP content and met some of the people behind the scenes, we’ve gained a real interest in and respect for pubmedia.
Like any proud parents, we obviously want SoundStir to succeed. Our next step is a trip to DC this week to present to pubmedia executives regarding the technology behind and future of our app. So far, SoundStir has been an incredible experience, and we can’t wait to see where it takes us.