The N.Y.-based company have a mission to "make free speech safe"
LONDON — For the past year, radio stations worldwide have continued to serve audiences, demonstrating both the extraordinary dedication of radio people and the flexibility of the medium.
We’ve missed friends and family, as well as those coffee-machine moments with colleagues, when we formerly shared our jokes and crucially developed ideas. That’s difficult to replicate on Zoom.
The cult success of Clubhouse, growing so rapidly in the last months, may have materialized from the vacuum in which we’ve been living. You can access conversation with like-minded people whenever you want in a way no social networking platform has previously offered.
Zoom hosts scheduled experiences with known colleagues or members of interest groups. Clubhouse, on the other hand, provides for more random encounters, which you could normally experience by calling in at the pub (remember that?) or during conference coffee breaks — frequently described as the most interesting part of any conference!
One feature of Clubhouse is the speaker-led sessions. These might mirror the intimacy of the small-group conversations, but the app’s ethos means you feel close to the speaker. The session with Ritesh Agarwal, the young Indian billionaire, which I’ve just attended, had more than 8,000 audience members and some had the chance to ask questions.
But Clubhouse is not the place to chill. You are constantly challenged to become more successful, better informed about every emergent trend, and to work more effectively. It’s rarely recreational, and potentially exhausting. You can learn to manage your Bitcoin, monetize your podcasts, launch a startup, improve your résumé or consider new business models.
After that, you should probably head for one of the silent rooms; as with a meditation retreat, it’s encouraging to know other people are there. And yes, there are brief guided meditations. There are more reflective conversations too. You can find sessions about mental health during lockdown that show empathy or join conversations which bring together people who don’t identify with conventional religion. The overall mood is earnest, nonetheless. You can practice your languages, share your music or join communal singing.
By concentrating on audio, you can relax about your appearance, leaving your Zoom shirt in the wardrobe. Like radio, it can become a secondary medium.
How will this conversational miscellany develop? The obligation to use your own name encourages politeness, and indeed the civility is remarkable. Of course, you must receive an invitation from an existing member. The participants therefore currently represent a completely atypical cross-section of society, based around tech companies, marketing executives and media innovators.
Given how polarized many conversations have become in the Trump-Brexit world, sustaining the pleasing tone might be challenging once the network reaches beyond the “liberal elite” consensus. The Clubhouse idea is smart: With a few clicks, anyone can initiate a discussion, perhaps involving a well-known speaker.
By concentrating on audio, you can relax about your appearance, leaving your Zoom shirt in the wardrobe. Like radio, it can become a secondary medium. For continued success, Clubhouse will need to address the security issues, which have already been raised widely elsewhere.
Repercussion for Radio
Assuming Clubhouse continues to thrive once we can finally meet colleagues and friends, what does it mean for the radio world? Clearly, it’s another call on our attention, when media provision already massively exceeds available hours. It comes as a reminder to listen to our audiences, know their interests and needs, and maintain their curiosity.
Clubhouse shows that people want to be involved; they want to spend time with speakers, who express themselves with commitment and passion. For that reason, anything radio does to promote community is valuable. Success lies in fostering interactivity, hearing the public, not just experts on air, and giving people the space to voice their own concerns. Even with its current restricted demographic, the sheer variety of conversation on Clubhouse underlines the diversity of people’s interests; as audiences become more demanding, it’s impossible to serve them exclusively through linear channels.
Success lies in fostering interactivity, hearing the public, not just experts on air, and giving people the space to voice their own concerns.
Having a varied offer permanently and easily available, so there is always something available for diverse listeners, is essential as we move from stations to brands. When the Clubhouse demographic grows more representative, it could provide useful soundings about people’s concerns, feeding into programming themes and on-air discussions. It also raises the possibility of continuing on-air discussions within informal groups.
However, with even a small proportion of listeners joining, that might still mean a “discussion” involving thousands. It’s perhaps too early to experiment with using Clubhouse as a supplementary platform since, being invitation only, you would not make listeners happy by excluding a sizeable group of them!
In the end, radio and Clubhouse are probably complementary platforms, with different public expectations — radio has its own strengths, trusted information, distinctive entertainment and live experience. However, it’s a valuable reminder to radio about the need to nurture listeners as part of a community, a radio community where their voices are heard and needs addressed, both informational and emotional.
Graham was Head of Radio at the EBU until 2020, and before that Managing Editor of one of the BBC’s national stations. He currently advises media organizations, such as Radioplayer and the European Digital Radio Alliance.