The 51st Block: The audio pivot

Tap, tap, tap... mic check.

Podcasting: Let’s start with its real origin story

Artur Lorkowski sitting across the studio from me for an interview.
In 2018, I interviewed Ambassador Artur Lorkowski, then Polish Special Envoy on Climate, in the lead up to COP24 in Katowice for the radio show and podcast series, Earth Matters on BFM.

“Apple more or less invented podcasting. Now it’s finally going to try to make money from it,” writes Peter Kafka in what John Naughton considers a “lazy piece” for Vox, because the “first sentence is completely wrong,” as the latter points us to Dave Winer’s retort.

Winer, by the way, is widely credited as one of the “inventors” of podcasting – the other being NPR’s Christopher Lydon. Indeed, a software developer and a veteran presenter produced what Winer then called an “MP3 audio file that can be syndicated,” two decades ago. Here’s a 2017 podcast of the two speaking on CBC about their chance meeting. And if Winer’s name sounds familiar – yes, he is the same person who invented blogging.

Now that we have all of that podcasting history out of the way, we’re back with what’s unofficially the third part of the ‘Digital Audio Era’ series on The Starting Block. Read the unofficial part one and part two on audio moderation and accessibility.

So, what’s the deal with Clubhouse?

Earlier this month, we learned about the Clubhouse data leak or data scrap (depending on who you heard it from) (The Verge) and later, we found out that the app’s download rate is plummeting (The Wrap $), even as its value balloons (Reuters).

Ed Zitron shares his view on Where’s Your Ed At:

There’s also the Feature Not A Product problem. Twitter Spaces and whatever Facebook builds are basically the same thing as Clubhouse, without the need to create an entire new app and do an entirely new thing. The ease in which Twitter has created an almost identical product on top of a social network people actually have a reason to use suggests that Clubhouse has a real problem - and the fact that they have to keep raising such insane amounts of money at huge valuations suggests they are spending it somewhere while making exactly zero dollars. The ability to do live audio streaming is something that has a use case, but as a company with a built-in social network I fail to see where it’s going to go.

Is Twitter Spaces is the place to be?

Fellow journalist and The Wilds bestie Cris Cordova shares his foray into Twitter Spaces, comparing it to how fandoms such as The Wilds’ use Reddit, Discord and Twitter to discuss their favourite shows.

Five takeaways about Facebook’s pivot to audio

The title of this week’s newsletter is taken from Casey Newton on Platformer, where he explains that “the idea of a ‘pivot to audio’ refers to the pivot to video, a mid-2010s phenomenon whereby Facebook paid big publishers to create-short form videos for the News Feed.” Facebook’s audio investments, he says, “could follow a similar path.”

Read the rest of his Platformer article, listen to his Sidechannel interview with Mark Zuckerberg’s about Facebook’s pivot to audio, or read the transcript of the chat.

Sign of the Times: Caliphate and the perils

James Harkin’s reports for Harper’s Magazine about the that infamous NYT podcast episode, Caliphate:

They had treated the podcast like a story in the daily paper, relying on the reporter to check her own work, instead of like a major magazine feature or investigation, which are more carefully vetted.

What I read, watch and listen to…

  • I’m reading Elitsa Dermendzhiysk’s essay on the misinformation virus on Aeon, and a detailed piece on the practice of fact-checking by Viviane Fairbank for The Walrus.

  • I’m listening to Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson as he and his guests (including Dave Winer) walk us through the evolution of podcasting from radio and blogs all the way up to 2020. I wonder if this episode will be revisited to account for the rise of Clubhouse and its clones.

Chart of the week

The UK’s Office for National Statistics released a report based on a study to understand what influences people to follow the government’s COVID-19 guidance, which IFF Research was commissioned to carry out. Of interest (to me), adults aged under 35 years, and in the high income group were more likely to say they did not have enough information about government plans to manage the pandemic:

The Starting Block is a weekly collection of notes on science and society with an emphasis on data, democracy, and disinformation. Read the archives. Find me on Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. Send questions, corrections and suggestions to