Latest research should spur your smart speaker innovation

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

Recently National Public Media and Edison Research released their latest research on smart speaker adoption and consumer habits. The study is quite revealing.

Among its findings, about 60% of smart speaker owners intend to purchase another speaker to listen to news elsewhere in their homes. Music listenership also is quite popular. However, more first adopters are using these devices for even more: research, ordering food and shopping.

The adoption rate for smart audio, tracked in previous surveys to be quite brisk, is still astonishing. Nearly one-third of Americans own a smart speaker, with many more expected to purchase a device before the end of the year.

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That smart audio is coming right in radio’s house and grabbing hold of our audience's music, podcast and streaming attention may be at least mildly alarming. Community radio, which often functions on the slimmest of margins, should be doubly worried.

Rather than wait for these round gizmos to roll over you, though, this week’s findings might give you pause to fight back. Fortunately, the smart audio ecosystem is young and is also more accessible than other technologies before it. A community radio station still has time to get into the game. Such requires ingenuity and planning, but there is no shortage of ideas for an enterprising organization.

Three areas in particular are seeing lots of growth in smart audio. Each section of apps and skills presents a bounty for community radio.

News/Music Explainers. You can get a variety of podcasts, topic briefings and more from smart speakers. Rather than compete with the news cycle, more and more content providers are opting to become curators of information, guiding audiences through the busy world. This is an area rich in opportunities for community radio. Look no further than Marketplace’s “Make Me Smart”or Amazon’s “Today in Music”for inspiration.

Could your station call on a producer to create a weekly or even daily guide for your local music scene, community history or other segment on local arts and culture? Bear in mind, if you are not familiar, that these smart audio apps/skills are intentionally short — think two to five minutes — so they fit in people's busy schedules. Undoubtedly, these endeavors take a great deal of planning and support in order to be sustainable. The rewards include being present for your longtime audience as well as being a destination for new audiences curious about your town. In the long run, establishing strong content can be a strategic pivot for community radio, while continuing to tend the transmitter and not undercutting your broadcast.

Games. What has emerged quickly in the smart audio space is the use of these appliances for entertainment. Google Home’s plethora of trivia, memory and math games are indicative of how much interest there is in gaming on smart speakers. You can find similar and other sorts of diversions on Apple’s HomePod and Alexa, too. Along with traditional game companies, independent producers and media organizations are making games part of their content mix.

Community radio’s best prospect in the gaming area may lie with those too young to donate. Children's smart speaker content is rapidly growing. Like kids’ podcasts, which got a great deal of attention not so long ago, smart audio skills present a nice option for parents who want an educational moment that they can share with their children. In a world where no one disputes the noncommercial radio audience is graying, appealing to core audience’s kids and grandkids is essential. Community radio can fulfill not only its educational mission, but in addition foster new relationships.

Accepting donations. What if making a pledge to community radio was as easy as saying, “Alexa, donate to my favorite radio station”? This grand idea could be a reality before the end of 2018. Radio station KUOW and NPR made waves with news that the Seattle station was testing out donations via smart speaker. Donation functionality was introduced earlier this year, using Amazon Pay, the giant’s alternative to PayPal. For noncommercial radio, donation via smart speaker could prove to be a powerful way to shore up support from old fans that have moved away from owning radios but still enjoy the programs on their connected devices, as well as new listeners who enjoy what the station does and want to enable it to continue. Keep an eye on this, though. Rollout of donation by smart audio is still a work in progress.

Once you set up your station’s content streams for smart audio, you can always create an app/skill like Vermont Public Radio, which allows you to hear its multiple broadcasts, podcasts and more. Or you can pursue your smart audio strategy in other ways. Whatever you do, don’t wait around for your biggest fans to wander elsewhere. Now is the time for community radio to make its presence felt.

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