Tech Tent: The audio revolution?

Rory Cellan-Jones - Technology correspondent
·4 min read
A woman listens to something off an iPod in this photo illustration set against the Tech Tent orange brand colour
A woman listens to something off an iPod in this photo illustration set against the Tech Tent orange brand colour

An audio start-up without revenue gets valued at $4bn (£2.8bn), Facebook is launching what it calls social audio experiences, while Twitter has a new feature called Spaces allowing users to start an instant chat room.

What's going on?

This week's Tech Tent explores whether good old-fashioned audio is the hot new thing.

Podcast available now
Podcast available now

The arrival of Clubhouse has suddenly made social media giants suffer a severe bout of Fomo - fear of missing out.

They watched the app, which allows users to start audio chatrooms on any subject they fancy, acquire lots of enthusiastic users and an enormous amount of Silicon Valley buzz.

Then came the validation any hot start-up requires - a funding round, this week led by the ritzy venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which is reported to have valued Clubhouse at $4bn.

But the app is still only available to invited iPhone users, so what makes it so attractive?

One early adopter, Rachel Lankester, explained why she had become addicted.

"I've enjoyed the inclusivity of it and how it provides access to people that I usually just simply wouldn't have," she said. "I've connected with women from all over the world on there."

Whereas video streaming apps demand a focus on your appearance, Rachel says she enjoys "the intimacy of audio".

She describes how it has provided her, an amateur broadcaster, with a simple way of running a radio chat show with guests and audience participation.

"I had one woman who got up at 04:00 in the morning in Australia, just so she could speak directly to my guests. I think that's pretty cool!"

Social media consultant Matt Navarra has a theory that the pandemic, which has seen millions locked down at home searching for entertainment, has provided an opportunity for services like Clubhouse.

"We wanted something new and interesting. And so audio provides that, a new medium for people to experience content with," he said.

On repeat?

But even though the likes of Facebook and Twitter seem to be convinced that audio is going to be important to their audiences, Matt is cautious about its mass appeal.

He points to the story of Meerkat, a video streaming app that in 2015 was "poised to take the tech world by storm", according to one blog.

"We all thought it was going to be amazing. And then quite quickly, we all realised that most people don't produce that much exciting live content," Mr Navarra said.

And that's the problem which Clubhouse and its rivals will have to confront - while they will attract small communities passionately interested in talking about their specialist subjects, many people may tune in a couple of times, get bored by what they hear, and never return.

While live audio discussion may have limited appeal, recorded audio content may be more attractive - as the popularity of podcasts has shown.

And strangely, it has always been much easier to share a video on social media than to post an audio clip, so there is a big gap waiting to be filled. Or is there?

In researching this episode of Tech Tent I came across an article of mine from 2009 with the title "Time for an Audio Revolution".

It was written by me and describes a range of audio apps, including one called Audioboo, which allowed users to post clips - or "boos" - on social media. I went on to be an enthusiastic user, with my boos including a message from Stephen Fry about his admiration for Steve Jobs just before the Apple founder's death - and an account of spotting a bear on the path ahead during a family holiday in Yosemite.

Audioboo never became the YouTube of audio.

It shed its founder, changed its name to Audioboom, and became a podcast platform which just this month announced its first-ever quarterly profit, benefitting from the boom in listeners over the last year.

The audio revolution, which failed to arrive a decade ago, may be staging a comeback. But don't be surprised if it turns out to be quite a muted affair.