Is Clubhouse the new frontier for podcasting?

The Second Pod Culture Newsletter

I’m always wary when people talk about a ‘new tool’ that will ‘change podcasting’, because, let’s face it, very few (maybe even none) have had any impact in the past decade. But I’m extra wary when the product that’s going to ‘change podcasting forever’ isn’t even a podcasting product.

I’ve been on Clubhouse, the new audio hangout app, for a couple of days now, which makes me an expert. It’s currently in some sort of mysterious invite only beta (thank you Bethany!) and is only for iPhone, so it’s hardly a pluralist tool. But it’s getting a lot of attention in the podcast community — one of the professional podcaster mailing lists I’m part of has been inundated with requests for golden ticket invites. It’s not clear whether podcasters want to get on Clubhouse in order to broadcast or to listen, but what is clear is that it’s a sexy new piece of kit and you look like Nicky No Mates if you’re not there.

Ok, so what is it? Succinctly, it’s a social network, constructed very much along the follower/following lines we’ve seen finessed over years at Twitter and Instagram. You can start rooms and clubs (not sure how to do the latter, but when I work it out I’m going to start a club for Bad Podcasters, please join) and engage in friendly audio-only chat. 

If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s really just Discord but targeted at LinkedIn users rather than gamers. At present, it’s full of self-promoters and multi-level marketeers; success aphorisms abound and one of the key interest groups is ‘Hustle *flame emoji*’. It’s a product that has long existed, only now it has that polish that VC money provides. It’s not even reinventing the wheel, it’s just another wheel. Flashier rims, perhaps.

Now, none of that matters if it’s a tool that gets picked up and used. If the audiences for my shows switch from Apple or Spotify and start only tuning in to live broadcasts via Clubhouse, then no-one will be saying, sniffily, “this is just Discord with better branding”. They’ll be snapping pool cues in half and fighting for their audience share with the savagery we’ve come to expect. Which is why I, for all my cynicism, have signed-up for an account (@nickhilton) and would encourage you to follow me.

But fundamentally I do not believe that Clubhouse is a podcasting app. It drinks more of live radio’s milkshake than it does podcasting’s. And more than anything else, it’s a social network (far more so than media platforms that straddle the publisher/social divide, like Twitch or YouTube) and Twitter has not replaced journalism, it’s augmented it (or destroyed it, depending on your preferences). Clubhouse, I suspect, will become a networking platform — in the podcasting space that means that some journalists, producers and publishers will use it, but they’ll use it to talk about podcasting, not to tell stories or do interviews. 

I’m sure something unique — a Clubhouse broadcast — will emerge in some shape or form. The problem with Clubhouse, as far as I can see, is it recreates the tedious dynamics of a Zoom call (which we’re all exhausted with) if you want to actively participate — and if you don’t want to participate then I’m not sure why you’d opt to use it over podcasts, where you can consume at your leisure. (Or if you wanted to hear celebrities chat to one another, surely you’d just stick with Instagram which is swamped with that content currently). Fundamentally, the problem with this approach (for me, and I am not a genius) is that it misunderstands how internet audiences work: they want to be more anonymous, not less. The idea of throwing your actual real voice into a public discussion would make most sane people anxious; it’s totally different from a few bla bla bla words on social media.

So I suspect that Clubhouse is not the tool that will change podcasting. This blog might look very foolish in a couple of years if Clubhouse is a roaring success and I’m spending my professional life persuading clients that they need to invest BIG in opening their own Club. Honestly, I’ve no idea if anyone will be talking about Cluhouse in 6 months time, but what I can’t see is a path for what is quite a basic VoIP tool to siphon audiences from podcasting.

One last thing: regular readers of my blog will know that for the past couple of years I’ve said that the big change for podcasting will come when it meets streaming (that the stream will be the A method of delivery and the podcast the B one). So isn’t that what Clubhouse is? Well, partly. But I think that Clubhouse is too focused on being an audio social network, rather than an audio streaming platform. There’s a reason why people don’t use the voice notes on Twitter, and I don’t know that the current mass meeting rooms on Clubhouse solve that problem. Once the app is rolled out for Android, desktop and smart TV/speaker then it’ll be easier to see what its long-term ambitions are, but for me it seems to have taken more lessons from the success of LinkedIn than from Discord. And that’s why I think ultimately we’ll talk of Clubhouse as a networking tool (almost like co-working for the WFH generation) rather than an audio broadcast tool.

For more like this, do follow me on Twitter. Feel free to email me at nick@podotpods.com, if you have any questions. I am ,of course, also on Clubhouse.