When we were discussing ideas for our annual predictions piece, one suggestion we were bouncing around was that Facebook would make a move on audio. On-demand audio is a strong growth sector, and has been for the past few years.

The tech giant has moved aggressively to strengthen its position in video distribution in an attempt to take on YouTube. It has also established itself as an article distribution platform with Instant Articles over the past two years.

Audio was the string missing from its bow. In terms of potential advertising dollars, there are numerous opportunities to offer podcasters and music producers the chance to directly reach its 1 billion-strong user base, as it has already done with articles and videos.

It therefore came as no surprise when, just five days before Christmas, Facebook quietly released details of a new addition to its Live capabilities: Live Audio.

The statement from Facebook is quite clear about the opportunity it has spotted:

“We know that sometimes publishers want to tell a story on Facebook with words and not video. We’ve even seen some Pages find creative ways to go live and reach audiences with audio only by using the Facebook Live API or by adding a still image to accompany their audio broadcast. Our new Live Audio option makes it easy to go live with audio only when that’s the broadcaster’s preferred format.”

Live Audio in a nutshell

So, in simple terms, what is Live Audio? Like Live Video (known simply as ‘Facebook Live’ at present), Live Audio does exactly what it says on the tin. Anyone with a Facebook account or page will be able to go live, but without having to have a visual aspect.

Many publishers are already using the Live Video format to do audio broadcasts by having a static image instead of a live video. Live Audio is currently just a move to formalise existing usage, and the ability to react, ask questions and share the broadcast will remain the same.

But isn’t “Live Audio” basically just radio broadcasting? Well no, in the same way that live video is not the same as channel broadcasting. It gives publishers another way to get content out to their audience as little or as often as they like. In some ways, this could be seen as the next evolution of radio; live broadcasting with instant feedback. 

The audio format has had a major resurgence in recent years as people increasingly use their phones to multi-task and this is something Facebook acknowledge in their statement.

“We know that people often like to listen to audio while doing other things; people…will be able to continue listening to a Live Audio broadcast even if they leave the Facebook app or lock their phones”

Although there are no firm dates on roll-out, it shouldn’t be technically difficult to achieve. Expect to see Live Audio experiments popping up on pages from their initial partners, who include BBC World Service , LBC and Harper Collins early this year. Like Live Video, it is likely to be available to normal users as well as pages.

What next?

Of course, now Facebook have turned their attention to audio, we can assume that this is just the beginning of their developments with it. One could argue that they have jumped over the basics in order to get Live Audio out – for example, there is still no way to directly upload audio files to Facebook – and it is almost certain that they will add these basic capabilities before we reach the summer.

The final jewel in Facebook’s audio crown would be support for podcasts. If they can nail episodes and discoverability, it would be hugely disruptive to platforms like Soundcloud and even Spotify.

Kurt Wagner, writing for Recode, sees this as an exciting opportunity for podcast producers.

“The podcast industry is growing, but it doesn’t have the same virality that videos and news stories do. Facebook might be able to change that, though, and if it decides to push live audio in its News Feed algorithm, it could be great news for podcasters.”

The potential of Facebook offering real audio support should (as with all things Facebook do) concern and excite in equal measures. For bands and musicians with a strong following, being able to demo music straight into newsfeeds would offer both tantalising potential reach and worries about revenue. Soundcloud would be finished – and Spotify’s decision to back out of talks to acquire them looks like an increasingly wise decision.

A stronger audio proposition from Facebook is no longer a question of if, but when. For publishers who can see early opportunities, it offers a new world of untapped users who may not otherwise consciously tap into audio platforms. But for anyone dependent on audio revenue, this will be another disruptive wave in an industry that has only just found its feet again.