Thoughts — 01 Mar 2021
By Cara Van Rhyn

Will Audio Kill the Video Star?

by Cara Van Rhyn

“We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far” was the famous proclamation in The Buggles hit single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, but they couldn’t have predicted the tumultuous year that was 2020 and all the ways communication has changed along with it. The famous track was the first music video to be aired on TV for the launch of 24-hour music channel MTV on 1st August 1981. From then, video seemed on track for exponential growth – and it was. Today, according to a consumer behaviour study by HubSpot, video is our most thoroughly consumed form of content. So, why in 2021 is one of most traditional forms of communication - audio - making a comeback?

A feeling that has become all too familiar since the start of the pandemic, ‘Zoom fatigue’, is partly to blame. Over the past year, Ofcom has found that adults in the UK spend an average of six hours and 25 minutes looking at their phone, laptop or TV every day, racking up 45 hours a week of screen time. So, it’s no wonder that audio is on the rise as we search for content we love without the added eye strain.

Podcasts have been one such successful example of this desire to listen rather than watch. Spotify’s earnings report from July 2020 noted a doubling in podcast consumption from the previous year. Before Covid-19 became part of our daily vocabulary, radio was predicted to decline by 21% in 2020. Instead, it saw an incredible surge in listening. During the November lockdown, radio listeners tuned in for an extra two hours each day, compared with the period before March. But it’s not just podcasts and radio that have recorded an influx of listeners, social media is even trying its hand at it.

Clubhouse, the invite-only audio newcomer, has seen a huge uptake of 10 million weekly listeners, but they weren’t the first social media app to move to audio. Back in 2019, Twitter started work on a new feature called ‘Twitter Spaces’ a live audio feature that allows for real time interaction between users, which is currently in a beta phase. Clubhouse works in a similar way; it allows you to move freely between ‘rooms’ and listen to and take part in conversations you’re interested in. Discussions around anything from entrepreneurship, marketing, the future of AI and wellness can all be found on the app made famous by celebrity drop ins from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Many people have found the beauty of the app is that you don’t need to worry about your appearance or how tidy your background is – a welcome break after a day of video calls.

Still in their infancy, these platforms have some rather daunting problems ahead regarding moderating hate speech, discrimination and abuse. Moderating real time audio conversations poses a more difficult set of problems than text-based chat. On Clubhouse, if a discussion is not reported, the recording will be deleted immediately. If they want to be successful, these apps will need to be able to promise a safe and moderated environment for its users. Perhaps as audio grows and finds solutions to these uniquely 21st century problems, we can find solace in the act of listening in a world full of overstimulation and perpetual screen time.