Flipboard starts integrating audio into its app

By Laura Locke
Technology reporter, San Francisco

image captionSo far, Flipboard has had eight million downloads, with 1.6bn "flips" through its content per month

Flipboard, the popular social news magazine, has started integrating audio into its app for Apple's hand-held devices.

The move makes it the first mobile reader of its kind to do so.

Flipboard's partners in the deal are SoundCloud, National Public Radio and Public Radio International (PRI).

Readers will now be able to "flip" through content while listening to music or radio programmes in the background.

The Flipboard app creates a magazine out of real-time social media content , as well as news.

A "personal soundtrack" to the social reading experience is how the Palo Alto-based start-up describes it.

"This is really going to change the entertainment experience of Flipboard," Marci McCue, head of marketing, told the BBC.

Podcast potential

Other social reading apps such as Google Currents, Pulse and CNN-owned Zite have random audio elements on their free services - mainly through video links and YouTube clips tied to news stories.

The Daily, the paid social reading app from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, offers spoken audio versions of select news stories, but Flipboard is the first to make sound omnipresent throughout its social magazine.

For users, this is achieved by an audio control window that pops up whenever the musical note icon is clicked on the lower left corner of every page. It makes sound easy to turn on, off, pause, favourite, or share via Twitter, Facebook, or email.

Curated audio is also part of the updated app. To access hand-selected picks from Flipboard, SoundCloud, or NPR and PRI, users tap on the red ribbon or magnifying glass found on the top right corner of any page.

Editorial selections include interview programs like Fresh Air, All Things Considered, Science Friday; songs from the Atlantic Records catalogue or original beats from rapper Snoop Dogg - one of the most prolific artists on SoundCloud - he regularly shares his latest work on the service and solicits his audience for new producers or extra verses on his latest tracks.

Fans can comment right in the audio timeline, making SoundCloud an unusual, crowdsourced, immersive experience.

SoundCloud has emerged as the "go-to-place for anything audio", said Adam Curry.

He is a former MTV video DJ who created the world's first podcast and founded Podshow, the start-up that developed the technology for iTunes' podcasting platform.

Mr Curry told the BBC he is particularly intrigued by the creative possibilities brought on by the tie-up between SoundCloud and Flipboard.

"If producers can now link their podcasts to show notes, background articles, news stories, or fan tweets, etc - that could be highly interesting," Mr Curry said.

Unproven model?

SoundCloud, the Berlin-based "social audio platform", with 15 million users, is helping to bring sound of all kinds - not just recorded music - to the broader web.

An in-app microphone provides recording capabilities that can easily pick up ambient noises on the fly, let users make their own podcasts, do live interviews, and assemble their own tracks.

image captionSoundCloud count the likes of US rapper Snoop Dogg among their ranks

"Un-muting the mobile web," is how Alexander Ljung, founder and chief executive, SoundCloud, sees it.

"It's a win for consumers without a doubt," Mr Curry noted. "You now have a very interesting model which surpasses what traditional media organisations are doing."

But he questions the business angle. "I don't know where the money comes from yet, other than a typical advertising play.

"With Spotify or Pandora, or any music service… it's apples to oranges," Mr Curry added.

"Both have yet to prove their model actually works. Right now everyone is losing money."

Mr Curry co-hosts his own podcast, No Agenda, with technology pundit John C Dvorak.

The show is 100% listener-funded and it is profitable despite there being no ads, Mr Curry says.

For Flipboard, adding audio is an attempt at reeling in users and keeping them around longer in a bid, ultimately, to attract brand advertising.

Today, Flipboard has had eight million downloads. There are 1.6bn "flips" through its content per month. On average, users spend 90 minutes a month on the service and the majority - over 70% - connect through a social network.

Once brand advertising - which is being tested now with publishers such as Conde Nast and Sports Illustrated - is rolled out, Flipboard anticipates the addition of audio will further increase engagement and ad revenue.

"We put the content first," Flipboard's chief executive Mike McCue has said.

His start-up, not unlike Facebook, is fixated on user growth and getting its product design and user experience right before fully exploiting its advertising strategy.

With $60m (£37.5m) in venture backing, Mr McCue and his team have some time to tinker.

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