Growth in devices and podcast listening continues; BBC calls for "re-invention" of radio

VIENNA — “Alexa” was the rising star of this year’s Radiodays Europe conference. The rapid uptake of the Amazon device and other smart speakers featured in several sessions, along with the continued growth in podcast listening.

Speakers at the three-day conference in the Austria Center explored how radio and audio producers could reflect the growth of these devices, with Staxx Williams, Creative Services Director at Z100 in New York noting that his on-air promotions now featured celebrities and listeners asking “Alexa, play Z100 on iHeartRadio”. Nicky Birch from the United Kingdom’s Rosina Sound explained how the interactive science-fiction comedy story “The Inspection Chamber” was made specifically for navigation via voice-controlled speakers.

Tom Webster from Edison Research presented findings from its recent “Infinite Dial” research, which showed that 18 percent of Americans over the age of 12 now live in households that have at least one smart speaker. This has more than doubled from seven per cent just one year ago, with adoption growing at a faster rate than any other technology, including even the early days of the smartphone.

[“The World Is Listening” at Radiodays Europe 2018]

Other Edison research conducted with NPR found that 71 percent of respondents were listening to more audio since getting a smart speaker, while 66 percent used it to entertain family and friends. Webster reported that families were gathering round the smart speaker to listen to audio, saying “they haven’t done that since the 1940s.”

Webster also presented updated podcast consumption figures — 26 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast in the past month, with those who listened weekly now consuming seven podcasts per week, up from five in 2017. The research also found that 80 percent of podcast listeners listened to most or all of a podcast. James Cridland from Podnews brought similar data from Australia, to show that podcast listening is growing around the world. As most people stream podcasts rather than downloading or subscribing, Cridland also suggested that a change in the language used around podcast listening was needed.

The connected car also featured, with Audi showing its latest A8 model in the main exhibition hall, fitted with a Hybrid Radio. This includes a single intelligent station list, which picks the best way to receive the station, and removes the need for the driver to decide between FM, DAB or streaming. Reception switching between broadcast and IP can be seamless as the car drives in and out of broadcast coverage, with the receiver adjusting time delays and audio levels to create a transition without interruption. Station logos are updated automatically using RadioDNS standards, and are displayed in high quality on the large high-resolution touchscreen display used for station navigation.

[WorldDAB Calm About BBC Statement to Retain FM for Now]

These trends in audio consumption were reflected in the event’s opening address from the BBC’s Director of Radio, Bob Shennan. He noted the popularity of the BBC’s audio voice app, which had now received more than one million unique requests, and said the U.K. public service broadcaster would be launching news, food and children’s skills in the coming months.

However, there were challenges facing traditional radio: “the global media giants are closing in,” he cautioned. “Our most recent audience figures show fewer 15 to 24 year olds listening than ever since records began. Spotify has announced that radio is in its sights. Podcasts are booming. The internet is both a lively enemy, and a considerable friend.”

Shennan called for a “re-invention” of radio. He announced an updated player for BBC audio, saying: “We aim to combine all our linear radio stations, an audio streaming offer, and our on-demand content in a personalized product, building relevant easy-to-access content onto our deep archive. With new consumers in mind, we want to create a new listening habit.”

Shennan also addressed the prospect of a possible digital switchover in the U.K., stating that he believed any change must be audience-led. “We are fully committed to digital”, he said, “and we believe we should review the landscape again in a few years’ time. Great progress has been made but switchover now would be premature. For now, we believe audiences are best served by a mixed economy. Radio is better served by a mixed economy.”

However, a further challenge to the Radiodays audience came from the global futurist and Contributing Editor for Wired, Ben Hammersley, who stood on stage boldly in front of a slide stating “Radio is dead. Sorry.” He said: “We know from our own behavior, let alone consumers, we’re going to buy an iPhone 12 — we’re not going to buy a DAB radio.”

“As we constantly move toward the future, radio itself is probably dead, but audio is not,” he added. “We are living through a golden age of audio — more people are listening than ever before, and the diversity of programming is better than ever. So, what should broadcasters do to take advantage of this golden age”, he asked. “We need to adapt legacy-free technology and re-invent our processes — the world is ours for the taking!”

Radiodays Europe 2019 will take place from March 31March to April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland. A special Radiodays event focused on podcasting will be held in Copenhagen on June 12.

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