SkySpaces is BlueSky’s answer to live audio
This is Hot Pod, The Verge’s newsletter about podcasting and the audio industry. Sign up here for more.
This week is an exciting one for the audio industry, with Podcast Upfront around the corner and awards season underway. This week, we’ll look at a new community audio project on Bluesky and Spotify’s expansion of its audio ad network in Europe. I also briefly connected with journalist Connie Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize in audio reporting yesterday.
SkySpaces is bringing live audio to Bluesky
It’s been a rough few months for live audio. Spotify shut down Spotify Live. Clubhouse cut half its staff. And Twitter Spaces seems to be at the bottom of Elon Musk’s ever-shifting priorities list (not to mention he’s fired most of the team that built it).
But at least one developer thinks live audio could still have a future — it just needs to be decentralized.
SkySpaces is developer Justin Watson’s answer to all those struggling platforms, and it’s being built to work with the buzzy, decentralized social network Bluesky. The audio service launched a standalone site last month, and an iOS app is currently in testing.
Watson’s app is easily one of the most ambitious of the third-party features currently being built on Bluesky’s AT Protocol, and a chat with its creator revealed that he very much wants to avoid the missteps of other social audio platforms. And Watson, the 29-year-old developer from Montgomery, Alabama, thinks that the fact that Bluesky is decentralized means social audio can be “built a heck of a lot better.” Or at least it’ll be easier to make changes on a self-hosted server without breaking things.
SkySpaces mimics Bluesky’s eclectic and energetic vibes
“One of the biggest problems with Twitter is their underlying tech stack, right? It’s aging. It’s written in Scala, and there’s 20 million lines in a mono rep, which is basically nerd talk for there’s this big thing that has all this code in it — and it’s very hard to make changes without breaking other things,” Watson said.
For now, SkySpaces is entirely self-hosted by Watson, who handles the servers, infrastructure, and web client. He’s currently working alongside Deavial Drake, a React Native developer who is working on the mobile apps. They hope to add more developers to the SkySpaces team in the near future.
The SkySpaces experience very much mimics Bluesky’s eclectic and energetic vibes. The very first SkySpaces had over 100 participants, Watson told me. Since then, it’s held lo-fi beats concerts and a room hosted by the creator of the ElonJet Twitter account. Musicians and producers have hosted rooms, as have podcasters. Watson’s been trying to get Mark Cuban to host a room in SkySpaces — though he hasn’t had any luck there yet.
There are no limits on either time or participants on SkySpaces, which isn’t a big deal now as only about 3,000 Bluesky users have come on board. But one can easily imagine how that might change as Bluesky and SkySpaces grows. The goal is for recording and downloading options to be available on SkySpaces as well.
“That turned into basically two days of me not sleeping as I built out a proof of concept.”
“We want the experience for content creators to be seamless. Empowering them with all of the necessary tools and features,” Watson wrote.
The idea for SkySpaces was only dreamed up about a month ago. Watson got an invite to Bluesky in April and, after seeing it was light on features, decided to take a shot at building social audio for the platform. Bluesky’s AT protocol is free and open to third-party developers, allowing others to contribute to the ecosystem.
“And so I said, ‘You know what, I’ll build Spaces for Bluesky.’ And then that turned into basically two days of me not sleeping as I built out a proof of concept.”
The influences of Twitch and other video platforms are readily apparent on SkySpaces. There’s a live chat option in every Space, allowing attendees to comment while speakers talk. One of the criticisms he’s heard about Twitter Spaces is its limited reaction capability, restricting users to a limited menu of emoji. So SkySpaces has an emoji “hot bar,” allowing people to pick and choose their emoji.
He has big dreams for SkySpaces — he eventually wants to build out monetization options for creators. The platform is currently alpha testing both screen sharing and video sharing. Watson is also thinking about moderation features that would empower both hosts and listeners to weed out bad actors.
His biggest dream is eventually letting SkySpaces integrate with other live audio platforms, like Twitter Spaces and Discord, by tapping into its decentralized nature. Of course, that relies on a couple of key events: Bluesky’s decentralized platform has to take off and become big enough to demand the attention of these other platforms — and then, all these other live audio features have to survive long enough to still be there. Hopefully, some stick around.
Spotify expands its audio ad network to France, Spain, and Italy
Spotify is expanding its Audience Network to France, Spain, and Italy. Advertisers in those countries will be able to use Spotify’s audience targeting tools for both Spotify’s podcasts and those hosted by third-party publishers.
The podcast ad market in Europe is small compared to the US. IAB Europe projects podcast ad spend will be €207.2 million in 2023, while it’s projected to hit the $2 billion mark in the US. But the popularity of the medium is growing throughout the continent, especially amongst younger listeners. A YPulse survey from last year revealed that 64 percent of Europeans between the ages of 15–44 listen to a podcast sometimes, and almost a third (29 percent) listen weekly or more frequently. Spotify is interested in appealing to that market, too: in 2021, it bought Will Media’s The Essential, an Italian news podcast that summarizes the day’s news in around six minutes.
Gimlet wins its first Pulitzer for Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s
Thanks to Canadian journalist Connie Walker, the Spotify-owned Gimlet Media has its first Pulitzer. Gimlet’s staff and Walker, in particular, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in audio reporting for Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s, a 10-episode series hosted by Walker that investigates the horrors in Canada’s residential system. For decades, priests and nuns subjected indigenous children — including Walker’s own father — to sexual and physical abuse.
In a direct message to Hot Pod, Walker said that Nicole Beemsterboer, Gimlet’s managing director, called with the news as she was getting off a plane. “She told me the news and then my mind went blank! I don’t really remember this, but she says there was silence for fifteen seconds and then I said, ‘I think I’m going to pass out!’ I was so shocked! I still am!! I’ve been walking around Seattle with this giant grin on my face ever since. To say our entire team is thrilled is an understatement,” Walker wrote.
On top of that, Surviving St. Michael’s also won the Peabody Award in podcasting this afternoon.
The dual victories are a hopeful sign for longform investigative audio reporting, which has yet to replicate the blockbuster sensation around Serial. Good investigative journalism isn’t normally a recipe for viral success — and Spotify has struggled to take advantage of Gimlet, cutting shows and laying off staff as recently as October — but the ability to wrack up accolades could justify further investments in the format.
“Above all, we hope this means that more people will listen to all of the survivors who bravely shared their stories with us,” Walker said.
Adrianna Paidas on behalf of Gimlet Media shared with Hot Pod that Walker is returning for season three of the show, which will focus on the case of two missing Navajo women.
IAB Podcast Upfront will draw in practically everyone from podcasting
Coming up on Thursday is the IAB’s Podcast Upfront, where leaders in the audio space will congregate for talks on the future of the industry. Panels will be hosted by the likes of Acast, Cumulus Media, Sony’s global podcast division, SiriusXM, NPR, Wondery, New York Public Radio, and many others. If you’re not attending the event in person, I’ll be recapping it for our Insider editions of Hot Pod later this week.
That’s all I got for you, gang. Safe travels to those who will be attending Podcast Upfront from out of town. I’ll see you on Thursday for the Insider edition.