AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Whether it's cute cats or the latest political gaffe, viral videos on the Internet are a feature of modern life. Much to our chagrin here at NPR, it's rare for audio to go viral. Recently there have been a few exceptions and NPR's Laura Sydell looks into whether they're a fluke or the beginning of an age of viral sound.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: About three weeks ago the European Space Agency shared what it called the singing comet, sounds collected by the Rosetta spacecraft 300 million miles from Earth.
DANIEL SCUKA: You're listening to something that is primeval. You close your eyes, you've seen the pictures of the comet and now you're actually hearing its telltale signature. It's like, wow.
SYDELL: Wow, indeed. That's Daniel Scuka of the European Space Agency. Scuka says that the singing comet has been listened to over 5 million times. He says that they've never had this much interest in their audio.
SCUKA: We had such huge media coverage basically worldwide for our Philae landing, that publishing it at the time that we had this really allowed it to go viral and take off.
SYDELL: The clip was posted to SoundCloud, a German-based company that has tried to position itself as the YouTube of audio. It's got 175 million monthly listeners. A lot of them are musicians and music fans sharing tracks, but SoundCloud's head of audio, Jim Colgan, says recently they are getting a lot more listens of people speaking.
JIM COLGAN: I think you will see - and I actually think we are seeing - that each time it happens, people are kind of used to it enough for the next time so I think it is a starting to snowball a little and that's it.
SYDELL: And technologically, it's getting simpler to make and share audio. Anyone with a smartphone has a recorder in their pocket. SoundCloud recently worked out a deal with Twitter so you can listen to SoundCloud audio on Twitter and the latest iPhone software lets you text voice messages.
COLGAN: That technology was around before, right, but now they're adding in audio as a key component of text messages? Like, that just shows the value of audio, I think.
SYDELL: Though Colgan believes certain audio is more likely to go viral. A New Zealand comedic team, Fletch, Vaughan and Megan, found a text message conversation quoted on the website BuzzFeed and read it aloud. It was from a woman to a man after a one-night stand.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZFEED AUDIO, "THIS IS WHAT CRAZY LOOKS LIKE VIA TEXT MESSAGING")
VAUGHAN: (Reading) Please text me back.
I'm so messed up and I'm so sorry, Kevin. You're an amazing man and I don't want to lose you out of my life.
So this is goodbye.
Look, I'm on my way over to your place to apologize, Kevin.
SYDELL: What's interesting about this clip, which lasts for eight minutes, is that there was a written version on BuzzFeed and a video on YouTube, but only the audio clip went viral. It got nearly 7 million listens. Colgan thinks it hit on one feature of certain audio that has mass appeal.
COLGAN: I think you are closer to kind of the intimacy of the text message with audio, right? Like, audio is a very intimate medium so I think that was the best way to replicate it.
SYDELL: But not everyone is certain we're entering a golden age of audio, including some professionals. A company named Audioboo was founded as an audio social network in 2009. It made it easier for users to record and share homemade clips. The company's COO, Amanda Brown, says it didn't quite work.
AMANDA BROWN: A lot of people wanted to kind of record stuff that was personal to them. It didn't actually generally make that great listening to others.
SYDELL: The company rebranded - it's now audioBoom - and changed its model. It's got deals with professional audio partners like the BBC and Sky Sports. Since the shift the company has grown fast, up from 8 million listens in October of last year to 20 million this past October. Brown thinks it's really hard to make audio that a lot of people want to share because it's a very personal medium, compared to say, a video.
BROWN: That intimacy and that cerebral kind of recognition of a voice or of voices, it's a different brain activity to a quick flash of something funny that runs across your screen and runs off again.
SYDELL: AudioBoom still has the ability for people to easily record on their phone and share audio and Brown thinks as it gets even easier, we are likely to see more viral audio, even if it isn't the kind of massive sharing that say, kitty videos get.
So I'm about to sign off here, but I have one request - please, share this story and make it go viral. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
CORNISH: So what's your favorite piece of audio? It can be something you've recorded or found online. Well, share it with us on Twitter. Maybe we can get it to go viral. We're @npratc and @npralltech.
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