Smart speakers are the buzziest new technology in audio. At Tuesday’s RAIN Summit in Austin, a panel of broadcasters and tech experts tackled the hot topic of how radio can occupy a prominent seat at the smart speaker table.
Step one, the panel agreed, is developing the necessary “skills” that put radio brands on Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Google Home and other voice activated platforms still to come. Just as important is teaching consumers how to access their favorite stations on these emerging systems. On this there was no consensus from the panel. Terrestrial radio hasn’t been the best way to promote NPR’s availability on smart speakers, said Bryan Moffett, COO, National Public Media. But Rob McCracken, director, Digital Solutions Group, The E.W. Scripps Company, took issue with that position, claiming his company found broadcast radio is “still the most powerful way to teach people” how to use the new devices. Scripps has used both radio and TV to promote its content on voice-activated platforms. “People will learn from somebody how to use these devices and they should learn it from you,” McCracken said. “Take their hand and walk them in so when they use these platforms, they’re thinking of you first.”
Working with audio tech provider XAPPmedia, Scripps developed custom skills that make all its individual radio station streams available on Alexa through a simple voice command. Now Scripps is pressing ahead with plans to make more advanced audio offerings available. “Simulcasting station streams is not a strategy but a first step,” McCracken said. And in markets where it owns TV stations but has no radio assets, Scripps repurposes news content from its TV stations to fuel audio Flash Briefings for smart speakers. In this way, the devices remove the radio barrier to entry and allow the company to compete with radio in markets where it doesn’t hold any broadcast radio licenses. “If you have a news-producing station, Flash Briefings should be the first step,” McCracken said.
And while some in the industry fret about radio’s place in the connected car, Charles Steinhauer, chief operating officer, Westwood One, sees voice activation technology as one way to protect radio’s audio supremacy on the road. Voice commands will replace touchpads and keyboards for search, he predicts, and once it’s seamlessly integrated into cars, voice activation will be how listeners find their favorite radio brands. “People will ask for your brand and that will protect radio in the car,” Steinhauer said. “If you believe voice is search, the power of your brand is going to be evoked and that is how you’ll be discovered.”
While making broadcast radio streams and Flash Briefings available is a logical starting point, voice activation creates far more opportunities for broadcasters. Smart speaker owners enjoy interacting with their devices, Edison Research has shown, and radio companies are working on ways to make their content more interactive on the devices. Steinhauer went as far as calling the technology a 21st century version of the request line. The devices also open up new channels for longer-form interviews and content that would otherwise be left on the cutting room floor. McCracken urged attendees to “take the blinders off” and conceive of new ways listeners can interact with radio brands.
For many stations just getting started in the space, interactivity involves talking baby steps. Chief among them, according to Ryan Higbie, VP of Sales & Solutions Services, XAPPmedia, is having air talent cut custom intro messages that welcome listeners when they access the stations on a smart speaker, instead of the generic intro message from the voice assistant.
Even at this early juncture, on-demand content is running neck and neck with station streams in terms of the type of radio content consumed on smart speakers. Among clients of XAPPmedia, 50% of the listening is to podcasts and on-demand audio and the other half is live station streaming. But the audiences so far “aren’t huge,” Higbie noted, with XAPPmedia clients reporting monthly smart speaker audiences in the thousands. On-air promotion is driving those numbers higher and Higbie predicted they would rise “drastically” as Google’s voice activation technology becomes more widely adopted on Android devices.