Open your ears to digital audio's exciting potential

Blindfold on, headphones on. Get ready for "Oculus Rift for your ears".

That was how Jo McCrostie, creative director at Global, introduced her presentation to a roomful of agencies at last week’s Goodstuff Communications showcase for media owners, and it was worth the listen.

"3D" voices and sounds swooped and buzzed in different directions, sometimes stronger in one ear than the other, sometimes louder from above or below, as McCrostie took her audience on a seven-minute journey, via London taxi, to the Gutter Bar at Cannes – all in search of a glass of water to stop her coughing.

She was demonstrating the potential of so-called binaural, or "3D", audio technology to push the boundaries of the medium and the imagination through digital delivery. As McCrostie noted: "Unlike VR, 3D audio is not restricted by the display."

These are exciting times to be in the radio and audio business. News UK is buying talkSPORT owner Wireless for £220m – a full price at 20 times next year’s profits. It reflects how radio has maintained its reach at well over 90% of the population in the online age, according to Wireless boss Richard Huntingford.

UK commercial radio revenues have risen for the past three years and, as the jokes goes, you can’t block a radio ad. No wonder Sky, Amazon and Uber are keen radio advertisers. Audio is also booming. Spotify keeps growing and Apple is considering a move for Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, two years after buying headphones brand Beats.

It is a paradox that we are consuming more video online yet much of it is watched with the sound off. By contrast, audio is immersive and intimate, thanks to all those premium headphones, and it suits a world where people like to use multiple screens at once. (Most of us don’t need a blindfold to enjoy audio.)

None of this means radio has to be audio-only. BBC Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper has talked about how it can be visual by using images and video. LBC presenter James O’Brien’s impassioned monologue about the murder of MP Jo Cox has clocked up 3.3 million views on Facebook.

The challenge for the radio industry is to encourage digital listening, which is still below 50%. Adoption of DAB, radio’s digital broadcast platform, has been slow, and the industry awaits next month’s inaugural Rajar figures for D2, the new digital radio multiplex.

Advertisers care because it costs a lot to invest in "3D" audio. They need to be confident there is an audience at scale willing to listen.

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