How The Economist is using Facebook for live audio

Facebook hasn’t made a big deal of it, but it has a live audio broadcasting feature for publishers.

Since January, The Economist has streamed six audio posts, mostly in the format of discussions between two journalists. The first five featured economics correspondent Soumaya Keynes and columnists Callum Williams or Ryan Avent. These were based on their weekly articles on topics like American employment rates, free-trade agreements, migration in post-Brexit Britain, and whether taxing robots could help struggling workers.

Last week, it streamed audio from Nigeria, discussing the country’s state of leadership while its president has been absent for six weeks. The stream prompted 198 comments and just under 150 shares, and reached an early peak of around 250 live listeners within the first few minutes, which fell to about 140 listeners for the remainder. The publisher said this is fairly consistent with the other live audios, although the total reach was lower than average. For now, it’s far from a scale play.

“Overall there are many positives to draw from our Nigeria broadcast,” said Archer Hill, a social media writer at The Economist. “For one, we held a 30-minute discussion on a fairly niche subject that doesn’t normally get broad coverage. The quality of questions also suggests that our listeners were engaged and interested. We also overcame the technical hurdles of having a correspondent successfully call in from a country with unpredictable connectivity.”

Live-streaming video takes up more bandwidth than audio, so the latter is better suited for broadcasting from places with lower connectivity. While streaming from Nigeria, The Economist received just one negative comment about the audio quality. “As Facebook still forces us to broadcast from a makeshift studio through an Android phone, it was as good as one would expect and on par with our previous broadcasts,” Hill added.

The publisher stresses it’s in the experimental phase (similar to how it treated Facebook Live video, which it hasn’t streamed since early November) and trying to work out which topics do the best on live audio, and whether it’s worth doing them weekly. There’s no road map for revenue yet or for how this can fit in with driving subscriptions. Instead, the plan is to build community and engagement, rather than chase reach.

For now, discovery of live audio streams is still a problem: They live within Facebook posts, rather than in their own tab, as video does. (The Economist does have an Economist Radio tab on Facebook where it keeps downloads to its podcasts.) Android users can keep listening to audio streams when they leave the Facebook app, but iPhone users have to keep within Facebook to continue listening.

These niggles could be why few publishers are using the feature at the moment. Facebook gave access to a handful of media partners last December, a mix of broadcasters, book publishers and authors, including BBC World Service, Global Radio-owned LBC and Harper Collins. Earlier this year, it opened up access, yet adoption is still low. Data from SocialBakers, which tracked the phrase “shared live audio” in the post description, found the most audio posts came from Peruvian broadcasting company RPP Noticias (19 audio streams), followed by The Economist (six audio streams), BBC Arabic (three audio streams) and NPR (one audio stream).

Image: courtesy of the Economist, via Facebook.

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