At SoundCloud, it's presidential candidates or bust (Day on the Job)

For Manolo Espinosa, head of audio at SoundCloud, a typical day can involve chasing down presidential candidates and trying to get journalists to use his popular service. CNET spent a day with him.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
SoundCloud head of audio Manolo Espinosa (standing) explains his vision for how the audio hosting and sharing service would be a perfect fit for San Francisco mayoral candidate David Chiu. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--As Michelle Bachmann walked briskly into the room, everyone trained their cameras on the Republican presidential hopeful. But not Manolo Espinosa.

A lot of people had come to hear Bachmann speak to the august Commonwealth Club here last week, but Espinosa had a very different agenda. He was here to buttonhole a Bachmann staffer to pitch SoundCloud and its audio hosting and sharing tools. He wanted a photo because he needed to be sure he approached the right person after the speech.

Espinosa is Berlin-based SoundCloud's head of audio, and as Election Day approaches, he's spending a lot of his time reaching out to political candidates and campaigns trying to sell them on the idea that the service, which allows anyone to easily make and share audio recordings on the go, can be extremely valuable for getting their messages across clearly and succinctly to the public.

I'm also here with a different agenda: I've come as part of my Day on the Job series, shadowing Espinosa as he races around town, doing his best to spread the gospel of SoundCloud.

And for Espinosa, getting a chance to try to convince the Bachmann people to use SoundCloud is just one step toward a major goal: to establish the service as a substantial player in American political campaigns for now and in the future.

CNET Day on the Job with SoundCloud's Manolo Espinosa by Daniel Terdiman Candidates and journalists

Though he's spending significant time prior to the November 8 elections getting in front of politicians, Espinosa's day began at SoundCloud's offices in San Francisco's Mission District. He's been on the job only two months, and one of his first mandates is to recruit journalists and politicians.

Already, he's signed up several San Francisco mayoral candidates, and SoundCloud is fast becoming a darling of national reporters like MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan and those at Public Radio International's The World. But Espinosa is thinking bigger: Bachmann would be a major score.

The Tea Party favorite is scheduled to speak at noon, but before that, Espinosa has a couple internal meetings to attend. The first is a call with Mark Dewings, SoundCloud's brand and marketing communications manager. Sitting in a tiny box of a room, Espinosa, wearing white slacks, a white button down shirt with colored stripes, and leather lace-up shoes, puts Dewings on speaker and the two spend about half an hour talking about a number of rock stars on SoundCloud, including Moby, Imogen Heap, and others, and the company's desire to sign up some of the country's better known speaker series and creators of "spoken audio" content.

Espinosa told Dewings that he had his eye on a New York organization with an archive of thousands of pieces of content, but that he'd yet to get in front of any decision makers. Dewings offered to help through some of his own contacts.

But Espinosa was also aware of the calendar. He knows his real goal is to bag enough journalists and politicians in the coming weeks to be able to "get as much headway [as possible] before the Iowa caucus and then New Hampshire" early next year: SoundCloud is aiming to work with at least one presidential candidate prior to the national elections next fall. "We want to have use cases," he said to Dewings, and "there's a clock for that type of activity. Trying to come in in March and April, that's really difficult....So let's prioritize [politics] and storytelling maybe comes after that."

Briefing the CEO
Before heading over to the Bachmann event, Espinosa had one more task: a sit-down with SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung, who's in town from Berlin.

Espinosa began by explaining his journalists and politicians game plan. Ljung said he was impressed by how San Francisco mayoral candidate David Chiu had recently begun interacting with voters by taking questions on Twitter and recording answers on SoundCloud.

Ljung is interested in the contrast between this approach and that commonly used by entertainers and politicians on Twitter, where staffers tweet in the name of their famous bosses. Sound, he added, often scares entertainers because there's no way to hide behind a staffer.

Espinosa told Ljung about an idea he'd proposed to Chiu's campaign staff. SoundCloud has a "dropbox" feature that allows Web site owners to invite users to submit recordings of their own, and to have them geo-tagged. Espinosa's idea was that the Chiu campaign could collect thoughts on political issues from San Francisco voters and then present them all on a Google Map of the city. But he worried that with less than three weeks before the mayoral election, the campaign was wary of trying "anything scary."

"It's about showing them it's not complicated," Ljung said, and Espinosa agreed, adding that he'd love to see a presidential campaign use the same feature in the run up to the Iowa caucuses. "I would love to show Des Moines versus Sioux City" on such a map, he said of those two Iowa cities.

By now, it was time to head off to the Bachmann event. As we get to his red Prius, he opens the center console between the front seats and shows me what Ljung had left there the other day--a Snicker's bar and a note that reads, "Thanks for letting me borrow your car--Alex."

Waiting for Bachmann
Signing up the Bachmann campaign would be a huge coup for Espinosa and SoundCloud, and he knows it. So in the days leading up to her appearance here, he'd been pounding the digital pavement trying to make a connection with anyone on the candidate's team.

He's worked some magic on LinkedIn and found contact information for a staffer named Molly and reached out to her. But so far, he hadn't gotten a commitment to meet. He's found pictures of her online, but official portraits often have little in common with what someone really looks like, so he's not sure he'll recognize Molly when--and if--she shows up.

Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann arrives for her speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on October 20, 2011. But Manolo Espinosa of SoundCloud was not there to take a picture of the candidate. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

We arrived at the Commonwealth Club a bit early, and without an appointment, Espinosa has already begun downshifting his expectations for the event. "I'm having to shift from This is going to be an easy connection," he said, "to How do I get myself in front" of Bachmann's people.

The Bachmann crowd would have to wait to hear her speak. Her entourage was about 20 minutes late coming in from the airport. But Espinosa was hardly one to let something like a little delay get him down.

As everyone waited, he gave San Francisco Chronicle politics writer Carla Marinucci a SoundCloud demo, explaining how the service is an ideal tool for journalists looking for a new way to enrich their online stories. Almost immediately, Marinucci was captivated. "Is it possible for you to come down to The Chronicle to give us a tutorial," Marinucci asked. Even if he couldn't get Bachmann, he was in good with a major news organization, and Espinosa looked excited. "Could I come on a Wednesday, when the food trucks are all outside?"

Espinosa explains SoundCloud to reporters, including Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco Chronicle. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

27 minutes
Finally, Bachmann arrived. Appearing from a side door into the Commonwealth Club's reception hall, the candidate moved swiftly toward the meeting room. But Espinosa had his iPhone out in hopes of getting a picture of Molly. Instead, the woman alongside the candidate was Bachmann's communications director Alice Stewart.

As Bachmann began speaking in the main meeting room, Espinosa retreated to an overflow area and held his iPhone up to a speaker for her entire 27 minute speech, which he then uploaded to his SoundCloud page. As soon as it was live, which took just minutes, Espinosa tweeted it, hoping that Stewart might see the post and be primed for a SoundCloud pitch.

Whether or not that worked, Espinosa joined the gathered press corps when everyone moved to a nearby room for a press conference. Stewart stood up front to explain that Bachmann would join them shortly answer some questions. Espinosa raced up to her and handed her his business card, and then moments later, shouted out a question, hoping Stewart would connect his face and his card.

Moments later, Bachmann arrived, took about five questions and was gone. No one knew whether she'd left the building, though, and so Espinosa sprinted to the building's lobby, hoping for one more chance at a quick pitch. But Team Bachmann never materialized. He'd have to hope his business card and his tweets would carry the day.

David Chiu
By now, we were late for Espinosa's next meeting, with mayoral candidate Chiu's staff. We hustled back to his Prius and across town to a slightly scruffy campaign headquarters a few blocks from City Hall. The idea here was to get Chiu's staff on board with the idea for the Google Maps project. Espinosa was hopeful, since he'd already discussed the concept with Chiu's new media director, Candice Dayoan.

Espinosa also had another agenda for the meeting. He pointed to the front page of Chiu's Web site, where the icons for Twitter and Facebook invited visitors to check out the candidate's social media efforts. "I want an icon," Espinosa said. "You could say you're the first campaign that put a SoundCloud logo on" their page.

Dayoan and Chiu spokesman Addisu Demissie were non-committal. "My thing," said Dayoan, "is people might not know what [the logo] is."

But Demissie was also complimentary, saying that everyone he'd sent Chiu's SoundCloud links to had been impressed. Still, it didn't look like the logo conversation was going anywhere.

Instead, Dayoan said that she was more interested in the Google Maps idea, and so the group discussed how that might work. Espinosa said he realized that the campaign's staff had their hands full at the moment and that SoundCloud would be happy to build the maps integration. "If you're committed to it," he said, "we can do some of the work."

"We wanted to have something [on the site] with maps on it anyway," Dayoan said, "so this is perfect."

But one sticking point was how to geocode voters' submissions. The worry was that no one would volunteer their address, so Addisu suggested asking only for their zip codes and then dividing the recordings on the Google Map by neighborhood.

It was time to go. As we left, Espinosa seemed unsure whether anything would come of the meeting. "I'm hopeful," he said, "but not 100 percent that they're going to do this because they're so busy. I'm hopeful, but I'm going to remind them."


The last meeting of the day was with Dan Ancona, the founder of the voting action Web site DemDash. For the most part, they talked generally about the machinations of local politics, but Espinosa explained that one goal prior to next year's elections was getting congressional candidates to use SoundCloud.

He also pointed out a local voter action group called the League of Pissed Off Voters and said he'd like to get them using SoundCloud in some way. Ancona said he knew the organizer and would be happy to arrange an introduction.

Afterward, I asked Espinosa what he'd gotten from that meeting. "You saw how [Ancona] knew this guy," he explained, "and said he could put me in touch with him? That's priceless."

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