Radio’s path to more in-home listening may sound something like this: “Alexa, play WRIF 101FM in Detroit.”
Voice-driven technology in today’s connected home is creating new opportunities for terrestrial radio broadcasters to tap a market, even as the sales of tabletop radios have evaporated in the United States, experts say. Smart speaker systems like Amazon Echo and Google Home can readily stream radio stations, via web streams like TuneIn and iHeartRadio, and can be programmed to find individual station streams. It appears broadcasters are eager to tap in to the technology.
Smart speakers use voice-recognition technology and artificial intelligence to act as a multi-purpose — and relatively inexpensive — in-home entertainment device.
In Jacobs Media’s 2017 Techsurvey 13, approximately 11 percent of core radio listeners had an Amazon Echo or a Google Home. Estimates are that up to 10 million Amazon Echo internet-connected “smart speakers” have been sold in the United States, so the numbers are substantial, and soaring sales are expected, underscoring the opportunity for the radio industry. RBC Capital Markets predicts Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa could generate $10 billion in worldwide revenues for that company by 2020.
Even FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told Radio World earlier this year that he is fond of his voice-controlled appliance. “We have an Amazon Echo at home, so one of the great things about that is you can tell it, ‘Alexa, play 88.5 [WAMU],’ and you can listen while you’re making dinner to whatever station you want. I certainly rely on that a lot. It’s pretty handy,” Pai was quoted in RW’s March 29 issue.
So the next big thing in consumer tech, it seems, is built around voice command hands-free personal assistants, and the speakers to access them constitute a fast-moving segment. Apple recently announced its HomePod; Microsoft reportedly has a speaker coming.
SKILLS WITH SKILLS
The subject definitely has grabbed the attention of radio broadcasters. The spring NAB Show presented an Alexa boot camp session featuring the Amazon Echo and Alexa interface. NAB officials told Radio World the session, aimed at developers and non-developers, drew tech representatives from numerous major radio broadcast groups.
The seminar focused on developing “skills” required to handle content as well as the distribution challenges involved with voice command technology, according to NAB. Separately there was a joint presentation by Amazon, Federated Media and XAPP that reportedly was also well attended.
NPR and its member stations, as part of NPR’s “news everywhere” strategy, have sought prominent placement of station streams on Alexa and Google Home, and there’s a new Skill for the NPR One app.
Mike Cooney, chair of the NAB’s Radio Technology Committee and VP of engineering of Beasley Broadcast Group, said his company’s digital development team has already developed a set of rules to describe each station so they can be found easier, typically involving a combination of call letters, frequency, location and slogan, as if programmed for a search engine.
“When I first began using [Echo]in late 2016 it didn’t always find our radio stations. That was before we knew much about it. We have learned it’s very important how you put your radio station information in TuneIn or iHeartRadio,” Cooney said.
Beasley — which at this writing was considering the use of third-party app developers to develop skills or the Amazon Echo and other smart speakers — expects major growth thanks to the technology. “I think it is so new, a lot of us don’t realize what we need just yet,” Cooney said.
The digital department at Beasley, led by Executive VP of Digital Steve Meyers, develops digital platforms and apps, manages streams, handles ad insertions and oversees websites, according to Cooney.
Cooney himself owns an Amazon Echo in-home appliance and does find himself listening to more radio because of the convenience of using the Alexa voice-control technology.
A slide from the Jacobs Media Techsurvey 13 captures ownership among U.S. radio station listeners of a product category that didn��t exist not long ago.
Radio futurologist James Cridland agreed with Cooney’s observation. “Many of my friends claim that their Amazon Echo has not just replaced their radio, but that they listen to more radio as a result.”
Cridland, who lives in Australia and is managing editor of media.info, compares the use of Amazon Echo in the home to that of Android Auto in his car and other infotainment systems.
“I can control Android Auto almost entirely by speech. It plays podcasts, streams radio stations and occasionally Spotify,” he said.
TuneIn and other aggregators are so far serving radio broadcasters well, but Cridland wonders if radio needs to reconsider its long-term strategy for smart speaker success.
“If the U.S. radio industry is happy about leaving the default ‘skill architecture’ to TuneIn — a company which isn’t in the radio business, doesn’t care about radio’s future, is a gatekeeper that you don’t control and one that actively sells ads in front of your streams — then I might suggest the radio business needs to take a long hard look at itself,” he said. He’d like to see radio broadcasters “work together to ensure a strong radio experience in the United States and each country.”
Other tech leaders point to the dramatic consumer shift to streaming services on mobile and other channels in-home as radio’s best chance to boost listenership quickly.
Pat Higbie, CEO and co-founder of app developer XAPPmedia, said the “space is wide open,” with consumers still establishing listening habits.
“Stations should make a push now and start forming those habits about radio listening as the default option,” Higbie said. “The market is there for radio to seize.”
XAPPmedia is working with radio broadcasters like Federated Media and its WBYT(FM) “B100” in Mishawaka, Ind., to move quickly to build Alexa skills to help leverage the platform, he said.
For example, in May, XAPPmedia client KXEG(AM) in Phoenix, Ariz., owned by Gabrielle Broadcasting, said it became the first Christian broadcaster to launch an Alexa skill. (From its announcement: “To start listening now, simply say to the Echo, ‘Alexa, enable Twelve-Eighty The Trumpet skill.’ Alexa will confirm the station is enabled and then listeners can simply say, ‘Alexa, open Twelve-Eighty The Trumpet’ to hear the live stream.’”)
Higbie says stations should start by establishing a custom Alexa skill for the Amazon Echo. “This is important because everyone needs to claim their name. Only one B95 can have that name recognized by Alexa. Everyone that comes later will have to choose an alternative name,” he said.
“It’s even more problematic than the race to grab website URLs. This is about owning that relationship with the customer and not ceding it to an aggregator like TuneIn.”
The company believes stations can monetize Alexa skills and has a page on its website devoted to that angle; it said Wendy’s, ESPN and Progressive Insurance have participated. Other reasons, XAPPmedia says, include showing a station’s personality, facilitating content discovery and offering time-shifted listening: “The best Alexa skills for radio provide listeners with multiple listening options, and on-demand access is an easy place for many broadcasters to start,” the company states in a “best practices” white paper.
Mike Bergman, senior director technology and standards at the Consumer Technologies Association, said he was not surprised by radio’s pursuit of a space on voice-driven tech, but hasn’t seen enough data to determine whether radio broadcasters are yet capitalizing on listen-at-home integration of their streams in voice-controlled appliances.
“But they are participating heavily in that space and it seems to be a viable outlet for them. The experience for listeners is not really any different than listening on any other computing device, except for the voice-control development,” Bergman said. “Radio needs to be present on these devices to avoid substitution.”
Bergman said radio’s effort to be “being found on smart speaker appliances” is similar to “search engine optimization,” with stations needing to educate listeners on the quirks of listening online.
“Voice control is very easy, consumer-friendly and convenient. It’s going to usurp the market. But the conversion of manual control from buttons and dials to voice control is very different from how radio typically thinks. Personal assistants will learn listening habits and preferences, and the smarter and harder radio works now to find a place, the more successful in the space it will be,” Bergman said.
Higbie of XAPPmedia thinks radio can go well beyond control to interactive voice engagement. “Radio has always been a one-way communication medium. Voice assistants like Amazon Echo change that paradigm. Listeners can now talk back to radio in real time and be offered a tailored listening experience.”
Major radio groups are well aware of what is happening in the home, said Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media. The consulting firm is working with several radio broadcasters on ways to maximize opportunities for potential listeners to find their radio stations on smart speakers.
“More and more devices from robots to cars to security systems are now being enabled with voice commands. The days when we type in search terms into boxes on mobile phones, tablets and computers are fading and becoming secondary to a hands-free, voice-activated environment. Radio needs to move in that direction to fit in,” he said.
Jacobs Media offshoot jacapps, a mobile apps firm that has created more than 1,000 apps for the Apple and Android platforms, is now partnering with Amplifi Media to strategize and create voice command solutions for the radio and podcasting industries. The endeavor, named SonicAi, will focus on the Amazon Echo and Google Home appliances.
“Learning the invocation for Echo and then doing the proper programming, so that when people use that command, it will go to your stream is a critical piece. If the listener can’t find you it’s not good,” he said.
But the introduction of these “hot new gadgets” creates a significant opportunity for the radio industry and podcasters, Jacobs said.
“Our research has shown the presence of radio in homes has been declining, especially among millennials. Our Techsurvey 13 showed 88 percent of homes now have radios — which may seem high, but the answer not too long ago was 100 percent. Anecdotal evidence shows it’s challenging to walk into Best Buy and buy one. But these voice command appliances can put radio back in the home. It then becomes a matter of people finding your streams,” Jacobs said.
A lot is at stake, according to Jacobs, including the potential for a radio revival on the home front.
“While the workplace is awash with ear buds in cubicles and the car dashboard is crowded with more entertainment options, radio in the home now has a chance to make a revival,” he wrote on his blog.
Radio broadcasters also should begin thinking about ways to “more elegantly” cover on-air commercials on their streams, which “tends to be a bit clunky” at times, Jacobs said.
“The user experience has to be first and foremost in the process. First, how easy it is to find your station and then how the station sounds when presented.”
The first thing a broadcaster should do is educate listeners about how many different platforms radio is now available on and how to find them.
“Radio does a mediocre job of letting the audience know where and how to find their stations. Cell phone, streams, now smart speakers … it’s finally dawning on people that a radio station needs to market themselves,” Jacobs said.
“And it all counts. The watermark that Nielsen PPM looks for is recorded on these streaming outlets. You can [get] credit for a listener no matter how and where they listen.”
HOW ABOUT A CHIP?
Some in the radio industry want to capitalize further on Amazon Echo and Google Home services by pushing for integration of an FM chip in the devices, which would allow for reception of over-the-air radio stations, similar to the NextRadio app for smartphones.
Paul Rotella, president of the New Jersey Broadcasters Association, said incorporating an FM chip into such voice-controlled devices would be better than listening to a radio station’s audio stream.
“That would also enable it to be used for local emergency alert warning,” he said.
However, Beasley’s Cooney doesn’t anticipate that development.
“I really don’t see this as a viable option. As far as the Alexa user is concerned there is already radio in that device. It’s not over the air but instead a radio stream. I just don’t think you’ll ever get FM chips in all of these voice-controlled connected devices.”
Another concern is an increase in streaming royalty fees broadcasters could incur as the growth of listening via smart speaker continues. As people listen more in-home to more radio via these smart speakers, those fees will increase and the cost could be significant.
“It’s a balance everyone is still trying to figure out,” Cooney said. “At the current royalty rate, if you converted every over-the-air listener into a stream listener, it could potentially put every broadcaster out of business.”
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