One in a series on the impact of smart speakers and voice-controlled devices.
Radio people watch long-term design trends in dashboard design nervously; but in the meantime the medium has maintained a relatively strong listener base in the car, research tells us, holding up against satellite broadcasters and online media.
But radio has been steadily losing ground in the home and work environments. A recent report by Jacobs Media, commissioned by the Public Radio Program Directors Association, revealed that many millennials don’t even own a radio.
The addition of screens to smart speakers, as with the Echo Show, can only increase their involvement in our lives.
While tabletop AM-FM receivers seem unlikely to make a comeback, “personal assistant” systems such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home and other voice-activated platforms hold the possibility of radio returning to the home and office in a big way and a new form.
This has been a topic of much discussion in radio lately. Radio World is exploring the implications in a series of articles. Here, we talked with several experts about how stations can take advantage.
Steven Radley is senior vice president, product innovation at iHeartMedia; he and his team spearheaded the launch of iHeartRadio on Amazon Alexa devices two years ago. Robert Meisse, president and general manager of Mid-State Multimedia Group in Mansfield, Ohio, recently spoke at the Texas Association of Broadcasters conference about how he uses Amazon’s Echo and Alexa devices to serve his stations’ viewers and listeners. Pat Higbie is CEO and co-founder of XAPPMedia, a developer of voice interactive radio strategies and custom skills; his company has created skills for more than 400 radio stations.
Although we are still early in the overall game for voice-activated technology in the home, there are strong indications of its positive impact on radio listening habits.
Of the top 100 most reviewed Alexa skills, music and audio lead with 4.38 out of 5 stars, according to recent data from voicebot.ai.
“Since launching iHeartRadio on the Amazon Alexa properties in July 2015,” Radley said, “we have seen an unprecedented 300 percent increase year over year, with 3X growth to date in 2017 listening hours. The exciting thing for radio is seeing how the ease of voice control brings the radio experience back into the home with long extended listening sessions.”
Meisse observed positive changes at his stations, and noted how it has changed radio listening in his own home.
“Our TSL and sessions on our streams are up significantly over the last two years. This represents a much larger growth than before these devices were on the market,” he said.
“Prior to purchasing a smart speaker, my wife would be listening to Pandora when I got home for work; now I come home and she is mostly listening to broadcast radio on the devices via the stream. It has totally changed our listening habits. I now have five of them, and it is neat to see how it has brought broadcast radio back into the kitchen, living room, etc.”
Higbie emphasizes an urgency in getting started with voice as quickly as possible. Not only is this the time when listening habits are being formed with a new medium, but it is also important to claim your brand.
“Many brands are repeated across the country. For example, there are four B95s. Only the first to launch on voice can be B95. When the others migrate, they will have to rebrand themselves as B95Albany, B95.1 or B95 Country.”
On this point Radley disagrees: “Amazon and Google will always try to give back the most relevant response based on the information provided to them, and it is our responsibility to make this as intuitive as possible to the user,” he said. “Station names from the ‘Play’ intent can be duplicated because the rest of the data — frequency, call letters, location or combination of all of these — will not be.”
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Gartner and Edison Research show that just 7 percent of U.S. households owned a smart speaker in 2016, but that ownership is expected to explode over three years, reaching 75 percent in 2020.
Optimizing for voice platforms such as Alexa takes organization, planning and skill.
“One of the quicker development options is a feature from Amazon called Flash Briefings,” said Meisse. “It allows you to publish local news content on Alexa devices. You can feed RSS feeds into Alexa and have her read them, or you can setup audio files that she plays. We have a ‘WMFD Skill’ that plays local news, sports, weather and the pollen count along with sponsors. Amazon allows you to monetize the content with commercials and keep that revenue. Amazon understands that we need to be able to monetize the content we provide.’’ Meisse’s team has also developed skills for several other stations.
Radley notes that iHeartMedia has been an early adopter of smart speaker technology, his team has set it up so that each of the 850 iHeartRadio stations is automatically integrated into smart speakers, without having to individually set up a skill. But, he adds that there is still much work to be done.
“Our goal is to secure a place and grow listenership on every platform where users expect us to be. iHeartRadio stations were built into these platforms based on station name, call letters, frequency and location. We have also built support for a majority of our affiliate broadcasters that are available on the iHeartRadio app such as NPR, Cumulus, Cox and Greater Media.
“Voice-based software detection has a success rate of roughly 95 percent and keeps improving with demand and usage. However, there is still work to be done to improve returns and make the phrases required to access these stations more natural intents.”
Higbie said smart speakers are much more than just another streaming channel; stations need to plan for the amount and kinds of interactivity that they want.
“For example, you may want to create a custom skill that changes the welcome message by daypart. Then, listeners are greeted by the voice of the personality who is on the air at that time.”
Another option is time-shifted listening. “Not everyone is on a 9 to 5 schedule,” Higbie said. “That means that stations are losing drive-time listeners who would like to hear their morning or afternoon personalities. Now they can break out of the linear broadcast constraint. The best Alexa skills for radio provide listeners with multiple listening options, and on-demand access is an easy place to start.”
Deciding what you want to do with smart speakers determines the technical savvy necessary to create the skills.
“You need to have someone who has a strong technical background to create the skill,” Meisse said. “It’s not hard coding, but it is also not simple. You will need your content — news, sports, weather — as MP3 files on a secure server. Those then get coded into the skill via the developer account with Amazon. Once your skill is built and approved, you basically just keep those MP3s updated and promote to your listeners to get the WMFD Skill.”
Higbie echoes that the expertise required depends on the interactivity. ”A decent programmer can build an average skill, but more advanced suites of interactivity usually require someone with a great deal of tech savvy.” (To that end, his company now offers a “self-serve” portal, called Voice Radio, that is intended to let radio station staff who lack programming expertise build skills quickly.)
Smart speakers and voice-activated technology appear to be here to stay, and smart broadcasters should anticipate what is next.
“I always look at these new technologies as opportunities, not threats,” Meisse said. “They are additional ways that we as broadcasters can do what we are in the business of doing, reaching people. The great thing is that you can also monetize them.”
Radley said broadcasters should keep up with the Amazon development documentation that is available publicly and changes that will emerge on the Music Skill Kit over the next year as it becomes more of an open source platform for supporting media content providers. “The shift of technology from broadcasters that have already committed to digital and now to voice is just at its infancy, and we are already seeing amazing returns.”
Higbie says that while smart speakers are a home-and-office phenomenon now, they won’t be confined there for long. “Amazon Echo is rapidly building a big audience for the Alexa voice service. While this is predominately in the home today, later this year it will include 15 million Ford vehicles and millions more from other auto manufacturers. This is not an audience of millions, rather an audience of hundreds of millions in the U.S. alone.”
Finally, it is important for stations to take the long view on the smart speaker market. Amazon Echo holds about 90 percent of the market share, but that is likely to change, as Google Home, Microsoft Cortana, Apple HomePod and others jockey for position. That means stations must envision voice interactive radio as a multiplatform phenomenon.
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