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Community Broadcaster: “Google, Play Me Community Radio”

A new news initiative holds much promise for community media

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

For years, radio and digital have been considered rivals. Could there now be the start of a new alliance, particularly for community media?

The growth of smart speaker audiences has been covered exhaustively by many outlets. NPR and Edison Research issued a joint report in the summer. And, throughout noncommercial media, there is a quiet anxiety about the Echo Dots, Google Home Minis and other appliances … well, dotting many an American home. Why?

Attitudes about smart audio among radio professionals vary. Some people see smart speakers as an existential threat to radio. Other people see smart speakers as privacy encroachments they’d never use. But increasing numbers of Americans — well over 70 million units are in U.S. residences now — say smart speakers are essential devices they can’t live without. Such ubiquity indicates smart speakers are here to stay. Community radio only eschews adaptation at the steep cost of relevance.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: All-Podcast Radio]

Through apps like Stitcher, iHeart and TuneIn, most community radio stations are already present on smart speakers, thanks to integrations Apple, Amazon and Google have with such tools. But smart speaker innovation is fast, and the devices do far more than stream radio stations these days.

That’s why Google’s latest announcement could invigorate community media organizations nationwide. Many of these local institutions have fascinating local coverage, but do not have the technical muscle.

Enter Google with an intriguing proposal.

In a Nov. 19 press release, Google unveiled a new initiative using its Google Assistant framework, available through its Google Home family of smart speakers as well as its operating system built into millions of Android smartphones. When you tell your smart speaker or enabled smartphone to play the news, you will get a blend of news stories tailored to your location, user history and preferences. News stories are all just a few minutes long.

The game-changing endeavor has been led by public media veteran Brenda Salinas Baker. Many people know Salinas as a dynamic leader in the noncommercial media system. Her passion for an informed public and educational broadcasting has shone brightly for years. With a variety of commercial and noncommercial content providers baked in at launch, the commitment to providing users with a diversity of media choices shines just as brightly.

Ostensibly, you’ll get more local media served up to you, and far more options as this initiative grows. A Google blog post reads, “Over the past year, we worked with publishers from around the world … to think through the future of audio news. Together, we built a prototype that brings the artificial intelligence of Google News to the voice context of the Assistant.”

Here is where community radio may come in.

Google has opened up the platform for community and other media news producers to join in this endeavor. You can visit the Audio News experience form to submit a feed or feeds for consideration. Note the guidelines for publishers. Your news submissions must adhere to length and other guidelines. For community media organizations already producing local news, these rules should be easy to abide by.

There may be radio loyalists who would blanch at the suggestion that Google curating short-form, location-based audio for users is good news for stations. Yet the tide has been shifting on from-the-box radio listenership for awhile. Ultimately, community radio stations are the content and engagement business. The platform is less relevant to the audiences, and donors, we hope to create relationships with.

A virtually no-cost entry into the devices people already love with a company many trust is an offer that does not come around often. Are community radio stations willing to reshape their fortunes? Those decisions are now in the hands of our most courageous local media leaders.

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