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Voice Solutions Can Restore Radio’s Relevance

"It’s time to put Alexa, Google Voice and Siri to work tapping into the untapped treasures spilling out of automotive speaker systems."

Radio World’s “Guest Commentaries” section provides a platform for industry thought leaders and other readers to share their perspective on radio news, technological trends and more. If you’d like to contribute a commentary, or reply to an already published piece, send a submission to [email protected].

Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media writes in his daily column today, that’s right daily column, that Amazon’s Alexa appears to have lost its way with layoffs and cutbacks and an existential reevaluation of its reason for existing. Amid privacy concerns and other marketing fumbles, enthusiasm for Alexa smart speakers has fizzled, he says.

Fred’s own research shows that interest in smart speakers generally has plateau-ed but that – interestingly enough – the pre-eminent function for Alexa smart speakers today is radio listening (using the smart speaker to access the streaming radio station feed). Google’s Echo may be gaining or surging past Alexa in the smart speaker category, but the overall impression is one of flat-lining consumer interest in these devices.

With consumers experiencing smart speaker indifference it is no wonder that Amazon – and maybe Google too – is reconsidering its focus on these devices. As Fred tells us, Alexa devices were originally conceived to facilitate Amazon purchases – but consumers became leery of sharing financial information with their Alexa devices. So now we use smart speakers for timers, looking up recipes, playing music, or telling jokes.

What Google and Alexa ultimately achieved with their smart speakers was a separation of the search function from the essential advertising monetization. Initial consumer enthusiasm for smart speakers reflected the enticing value proposition of search without the ads.

This is precisely the kind of value proposition that makes Alexa (and Google Voice and Siri) so attractive for auto makers. Voice-based search without the advertising. Perfect for a non-distracting in-vehicle tool for locating charging stations, reserving a parking space, or ordering tickets or a coffee.

In fact, outside the car, both Google and Amazon have come under fire of late for cluttering up their search results with advertising. A recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast was titled: “Is Google Getting Worse?” Meanwhile, Amazon shoppers, too, are complaining of sponsored results slowing and skewing their online purchasing.

Shorn of sponsored content, Google, Siri, and Alexa in a car are valuable tools – vying with Cerence to capture in-vehicle search results. In fact, the car itself is a browser and speech is the logical search solution – while radio provides the distraction-free advertising element.

That’s right. The brilliance of radio in the car is its ability to deliver location-relevant content (traffic, news, and weather) with music and talk without distracting the driver.

Now that radio has transitioned to digital (HD Radio in the U.S., DAB+ in the E.U.) broadcast sources are themselves searchable – on demand or even in an automated fashion. Tesla has hinted at plans to follow the lead of several German auto makers and introduce a function called Radio Traffic Announcement (RTA) for alerting drivers – automatically – to important local broadcast traffic updates without requiring driver engagement.

Further, the Federal Communications Commission is weighing the authorization of new broadcast signal segmentation technology – called Zonecasting – from GeoBroadcasting that will enable more localized transmissions carrying even more relevant traffic and weather information to drivers (i.e. only receiving traffic or weather alerts that are actually nearby not just within the entire station’s reception radius).

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With new tools like Zonecasting and even Xperi’s DTS AutoStage, Alexa, Google Voice, and Siri are poised to find new relevance in automobiles. Availability of all of these voice solutions – including Cerence – are nearly universal in new cars. It is now up to auto makers to craft the user experiences, user interfaces, and applications to capitalize on the evolving radio content consumption experience in the car.

Broadcast radio advertising is a $14B business in the U.S., but with new digital tools and enhanced location relevance radio has the potential to deliver much higher returns. With some broadcasters near bankruptcy or deeply in debt the industry has strangely gotten the reputation of a stagnant, no growth, no innovation space.

The reality – which will become clearer in a few short weeks at the CES show in Las Vegas – is that radio is more vibrant and valuable than ever – especially as sources of information from Facebook to Twitter become increasingly suspect. Radio is real and relevant and, now, digital and therefore searchable. In fact, digital radio listening in the car is more readily measured – just ask DriveTime Metrics.

It’s time to put Alexa, Google Voice, Siri, and, yes, Cerence to work tapping into the untapped treasures spilling out of automotive speaker systems. It’s time to recognize once and for all that radio owns the in-vehicle advertising and marketing experience.  There’s nothing like it. Digital even enables interactivity! It’s all worth a fortune if we tune in to the tools that digital radio has handed us. Alexa – and Google and Siri – may have found their reason to exist at last … in cars.

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