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Audio is in its second golden age, and Spotify is about to win it all

The future of audio is bright, even though it may never be as dominant as a hundred years ago.

Social audio or drop-in audio chat has become the latest tech trend frenzy in Silicon Valley and beyond. Almost a hundred years since the golden age of radio, players like Spotify and Clubhouse are reinventing the audio game.

A lot has changed since commercial radio broadcasting first appeared in the early 1920s. Video took off and became the bigger market. People still spend more time looking at screens than listening to radio, podcasts or other audio content.

But the winds are changing. As the Washington Post recently noted listening to audio content reached an all-time high during the pandemic. (Check out the March report from Edison Research, which tracks the audio industry, and digital audio infrastructure firm Triton Digital). Around 176 million teens and adults in the United States now listen to audio online at least once a week, compared with 169 million in 2020.

More from the Fix: What is your newsroom’s audio strategy? 

Locker Room acquisition, and how Spotify is winning the second golden age of audio

Social audio platform Clubhouse made a splash last year (although many question its current growth). It was enough for leading social media giant Facebook to rush to announce a future clone.

Last week, LinkedIn said it is already experimenting with audio-only chat. Twitter should launch its Spaces feature anytime now and even Slack is interested in the feature.

But if I had to bet money on who would win the next round, I would point to Spotify and its acquisition of Locker Room.

Locker Room is a live sports audio app. Once launched, the user sees a feed with live and upcoming conversations. The audio starts when the user enters a chat room and all the audience is visible, just like with Clubhouse. You can apply to get “on stage” to speak by virtually raising your hand.

What sets Locker Room apart from Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces is the possibility of a text-based discussion while the conversation is going on. The app also has a feature that allows to record the live conversation.

Spotify plans to set up regular live programming for Locker Room (they plan to rebrand as the current name suggests sports content, while future will be more general live audio).

Here is what Spotify said about its future plans for Locker Room: 

Quote: In the coming months, Spotify will evolve and expand Locker Room into an enhanced live audio experience for a wider range of creators and fans. Through this new live experience, Spotify will offer a range of sports, music, and cultural programming, as well as a host of interactive features that enable creators to connect with audiences in real time. We’ll give professional athletes, writers, musicians, songwriters, podcasters, and other global voices opportunities to host real-time discussions, debates, ask me anything (AMA) sessions, and more. 

Gustav Söderström, chief R&D officer at Spotify, told The Verge that Spotify will let anyone host conversations, not just approved creators. Also, Söderström acknowledged they want to make the process of creating a recording more seamless.

Creators on Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces are already recording their discussions and uploading them as podcast episodes.

Spotify already owns Anchor, a platform for creating and hosting podcasts for free. Now the streaming giant will have the complete stack for any creator (or newsroom) to be able to stream live, record and distribute for future listening.

More from the Fix: Podcasts in Europe: from scaling to monetization 

The future of audio is social, casual and (just like radio was) influencer-driven

Looking ahead, a couple of audio chat drop-in apps will be competing with each other. Different communities will opt for those that best align with their needs. If you’re thinking about which to choose, best to ask (or poll) your audience.

My newsroom experimented with Clubhouse, but the pushback against it not being on Android was huge. (Slovakia is, as most of Europe, Android-dominated; iPhone users are a minority.)

Also, many demanded we record discussions and publish them as podcast episodes. The problem is that Clubhouse recently upped its monitoring of discussions recording, even though it is allowed in its Terms of Service.

Then we tried going live both on Clubhouse and Discord, a popular chat and audio chat app used by gamers. It wasn’t as complicated as it might seem, though not at all comfortable for hosts.

Meanwhile, one of my newsroom’s podcasts set up a Discord server (basically a forum, Discord calls them servers). There, they interact with their audience, holding regular “conversation Fridays” (the day their episodes drop) via audio chat channels. They also stay in touch with core fans, getting feedback and story ideas.

The future of audio is likely to be increasingly influencer-driven. I suspect to get their own Clubhouse clones going, platforms will strike deals with influencers to use their app. Once the money dries up, influencers will migrate to platforms with the most users (current or potential).

Unlike, say, TikTok, I don’t see platforms figuring out algorithmic ordering in audio based on the most engaging content. Rather this will be determined by the hosts speaking. 

That means platforms will favor influential speakers. So don’t expect to break out in such a space without a prior audience from another social media network.

More from the Fix: The ups and downs of Clubhouse 

How newsrooms can use audio

Let me just sum up some of the most popular ways your newsroom can use audio for your journalism or to interact with your audience

  • Audio for enhancing multimedia stories – take this piece from The New York Times Magazine, where sound takes to the places around the globe. It’s just one example, but you get the point of using the audio
  • Podcasts – probably the most popular audio content nowadays in journalism. If your newsroom isn’t producing your own podcast, look into it (also, you can use podcasts to help your membership or subscription strategy)
  • Audio articles – a more recent trend, featuring audio player options at the beginning of an article. Some websites use an automated voice to read the text. Others ask authors of stories to read them and attach the audio version
  • Audiobooks – not so widely used as I thought, although many media publish books of their writers. Few turn them into audiobooks, even though the audiobook market is more than three times bigger than podcasting
  • Chat rooms – think of all the above-mentioned apps. You can use them for community building or even for online live events

If you know of other forms of using audio in journalism, let me know.

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

Hi! I'm David Tvrdon, a tech & media journalist and podcaster with a marketing background (and degree). Every week I send out the FWIW by David Tvrdon newsletter on tech, media, audio and journalism.

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