Can Audible’s New ‘Listening Service’ Capitalize on the Digital Audio Boom?

Is it the second Golden Age of audio? Audible's new service is banking on it.

Yesterday, Audible Inc. launched Channels, an advertisement-free listening service presumably meant to bank on the enormous boom in audio-based content. The on-demand service, which features comedy, episodic programs, audio periodicals, and other original productions, will be free for Audible members, and can be purchase by subscription for $4.95.

The new service will intervene in a rapidly changing media landscape, one where the primacy of the text-based media is being challenged by live video and streaming content. Now, a robust audio service, one that brings daily news to readers by way of audio streaming, will contend with text from yet another angle.

Much has been made about the ongoing boom in streaming content, but the outsize explosion of audio-based content has largely been ignored by the media. Within broader publishing, audiobooks have grown by more than 30% over the last year, across all publishing categories. And the viability of audio has been boosted largely by digital audio downloads. Audible’s Channels, the first robust service of its kind, is sure to take advantage of what now amounts to a new golden age for audio-based content.

“[W]e have believed the quality and character of everyday life would be enhanced by delivering the culture’s most compelling and artfully performed spoken words,” said Audible CEO Donald Katz in a press release. “Channels is a natural extension of that founding premise, and we believe this new shorter-form service and the exciting original productions to come will become as popular and habit-forming as Audible’s audiobook service.”

For his part, Katz likens the “gifted creators” of Channels’ content to “the vaudevillians and stand-up comedians who helped define the creative burst when radio began.” It’s an apt description, and one meant to signal the robustness of audio’s return by way of the digital.

Immediately accessible to listeners upon the launch of Channels are short-form audio renditions of recent news content from partners including The Wall Street Journal, The Onion, and Scientific American, among others. After ‘digesting’ the content ourselves, it’s fair to note that hearing the news read aloud by conventional audiobook readers takes some getting used to. Still, the clarity and calm of the presentation could be a boon for the service, especially if Audible, fairly alone in this market, is able to achieve ubiquity. It’s easy to see listeners getting their news this way.

Some of Channels’ original programming is still rolling out, but available programs include “Presidents Are People Too,” which examines the very human lives of past presidents. The show is hosted by Elliott Kalan, a former writer for The Daily Show, and Alexis Coe, a noted American historian.

Otherwise, comedy diehards are likely to enjoy The Onion’s “Limelight,” which features “the best new stand-up performances from comedy clubs across the country.” The show will have a cast of rotating guest hosts, including Silocon Valley’s T. J. Miller and the ubiquitous Sklar Brothers. Also in comedy, “Hold On with Eugene Mirman,” an interruptive-comedy with special appearances from Jim Gaffigan and “Weird Al” Yankovic.”

Other content includes  “Hot Mic with Dan Savage,” a “true confession” sex program, and “The Great Courses,” an “exclusive” — who else even has such a service? — from McSweeney’s, Harvard Business Review, and Smithsonian Magazine. The show presents lectures on various subjects in way that is loosely reminiscent of Lewis Lapham’s audio work alongside Lapham’s Quarterly.

Forthcoming original programs, including Jon Ronson’s “The Butterfly Effect,” can also be heard in snippets. And other “channels” — for example, “Classical Fiction” — that feature non-exclusive audio content are available now.

Will Audible’s Channels succeed? It has the advantage of being first, more or less, to a booming market. And it’s one that shows now signs of slowing.