A year ago, a pair of New York entrepreneurs released Anchor, an app for recording short-form audio snippets that they hoped would “democratize radio.” “As popular as this medium is we feel it’s really hard for regular people to contribute to it,” co-founder Nir Zicherman told TechCrunch. The initial version of Anchor let you record “waves” of up to two minutes, and anyone could add on with a minute of their own. I appreciated the democratic impulse, but the results sounded less like radio and more like extremely long voicemails. I recorded a couple of posts on Anchor but never found a reason to return; the app struggled to gain traction.
But today Anchor is back with a new version, and it’s much more compelling than what came before. Anchor 2.0 is a kind of Snapchat Stories for audio, with users encouraged to create digital radio stations where content disappears after 24 hours. But the tools for audio creation are much improved, with features for easily adding full songs, professionally recorded transitions, and “call in” responses from listeners. The result is a service that ditches the voicemail vibe of the original in favor of something much more entertaining.
“While Anchor 1.0 proved to us that non-professionals would be willing (and excited) to record their voice, it also showed us that the quality bar for user-generated audio needed to be much higher than content on visual mediums,” co-founder Michael Mignano told me in an email. “One of the ways we tried to ensure that audio in 2.0 would be interesting and fun to listen to was by providing lots of creative tools for our users. We’ve also found that the stories format helps create a consistent tone for each station, and encourages people to choose a topic instead of just saying whatever’s on their mind.” More creative tools are coming, he added.
Anchor opens to the home tab, where you’ll find updates from all the people and stations you subscribe to. (Anchor has signed up a number of professional publishers to create radio for it, including IGN, Gizmodo, and The Outline.) Tap on a station and it will begin playing with the most recent segment you haven’t heard. Tap the skip button to move on to the next one if your bored, or the applause icon to express your approval. (As on Periscope, Facebook Live, and Medium Stories, you can send an unlimited number of likes on Anchor.)
Once the station runs out of segments, the next one will autoplay. Anchor also has categories for you to browse and discover new stations: news, tech, life, music, “funny,” and so on. “The Rundown” is a personalized station that offers you the day’s news, plus weather from Dark Sky.
But the app’s best touches are in the creation tool, which you’ll find by tapping the big red plus button at the bottom of the screen. You can record by tapping the button and dragging up, or by holding the phone to your ear, as if you were making a call. Swipe left and you’ll find several tools to spice up your recording. “Clips” lets you insert audio from newsmakers, broadcasters, and other Anchor users into your own station, giving you new voices and events to react to. Music lets you insert full songs into your station, though your listeners will need to be subscribers to Spotify or Apple Music to hear them. (Non-subscribers will hear a short clip.)
Interludes let you punctuate your broadcasts with the kind of professionally produced bumpers you hear on the radio, and “call ins” let your audience record audio responses and submit them to you directly. If a caller makes a worthwhile point, you can tap a button to add it to your station.
On one hand, we’re living in a glut of audio. Thanks to services like Spotify and an ever-increasing number of podcasts, few of us feel like we’re short of things to listen to. And yet Anchor appeals to me for some of the same reasons Twitter and Periscope did: it offers the promise of timely, compelling broadcasts from smart, funny people who have an authenticity that more professionally produced content sometimes lacks.
The odds against any social app gaining traction are long, and audio clips don’t go viral the way text, photos, and videos so often do. But Anchor has some bold ideas and a handful of genuinely delightful touches. (You can knock on the back of your iPhone to send applause.) And South by Southwest, which helped bring us Twitter, Foursquare, and Meerkat, starts in three days. If a social app were going to break out this year, this could be the time.