Alexa Is Listening—So Should Radio, With Many Opportunities.
By Steve Goldstein
Originally published at Inside Radio
Smart speakers—from Alexa, to Google Home, to a slew of models coming on the market—are giving AM/FM another chance to return and rule in-home listening. Signs for success and growth are everywhere; the industry need only take the bait to be reenergized.
The numbers indicating the popularity of the devices speak for themselves and keep climbing. Edison Research reported early this year that after less than two years, the speakers are now in 7% of American homes. Penetration is expected to hit a staggering 75% within the next three years, according to tech research company Gartner, representing a faster growth curve than smartphones. It’s no surprise that the devices were among the highest profile items talked about last month at Austin’s Radio Show.
The key word, at least for radio, is potential. AM/FM has an opportunity to reclaim in-home listening, thanks to smart speakers finding a place in America’s living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms. And while radio thrives as a live and linear short game, smart speakers, with their ease of transition to on-demand, offer a helping hand toward an easier long game for stations. They’re a way to keep and gain listeners across multiple platforms.
“I see this as the third wave of internet technology,” offers XAPPmedia CEO and cofounder Pat Higbie. “The web was the first wave, which was more or less neutral for radio. Mobile was the second wave, which put broadcast radio at a significant disadvantage because of the need to download apps. Now here is the third wave, voice, which allows consumers to connect directly with whatever content they want in an instant. This is an enormous opportunity for radio.”
Adds Daniel Anstandig, CEO of broadcast technology provider Futuri Media, “Smart speakers are the most exciting development and audience growth opportunity for AM/FM radio since streaming. The opportunities are limitless, but most come down to engagement, data and ubiquity. And this can translate into ratings, audience and revenue.”
The enthusiasm is widely shared. “If you believe as I do that we are in a sort of rebirth of spoken word audio consumption, then the opportunities are limitless. Whether it’s the radio station brand or the personality, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” stresses Dave Richards, VP Programming & Operations for Entercom Seattle, whose rock KISW (99.9) Seattle was an early adopter of smart speaker tech. “If you don’t own a device, get one.”
Indeed, Alexa and its competitors are quickly becoming “lifestyle devices,” according to John Rosso, president of Market Development for Triton Digital. “These things already have become unbelievably important to a lot of people’s lives. They’re going to be like a light switch in the room, where you can’t imagine not having it.”
And the fact that smart speakers are bringing radio back into the home is a benefit that cannot be overstated. “The number of radios in American homes has gotten pretty low. The number of radios in my house went up dramatically when Alexa started showing up because I can very easily listen to the radio,” Rosso adds. “The beauty of radio already is that it’s the medium you can consume while you’re doing something else. And now you don’t even have to stop the doing something else to turn the radio on. You can just say it. It’s just too easy. What a huge opportunity.”
Winning the Smart Speaker Name Game
First things first: As the smart speaker revolution burgeons, it is essential that broadcasters launch an “invocation skill” for Amazon Echo so that a station’s moniker is easily discoverable via voice command. A number of companies are offering this service to radio stations—including XAPPmedia, Futuri, ClipInteractive and SonicAI, a joint venture between Jacobs Media and Amplifi Media founder Steve Goldstein.
The urgency is obvious: There can be only one skill name, or invocation, per station. For example, in March, Federated Media became the first radio station with a custom Alexa skill, partnering with XAPP for its country “B100” WBYT South Bend, IN. Alexa users can now say “Open B100.” The point: No other station in the world that uses the same moniker can apply that invocation name, regardless of their on-air branding.
Already, there is folklore in Alexa land, with a well-tread anecdote that if a user were to ask Alexa to play “Lite FM,” they’d land on a station in Beirut that has already laid claim to the invocation.
“Get your foot in the door right now; that’s the first step of the strategy,” Anstandig stresses. “Skills are like domain names; there are only so many short, user-friendly ones. Stations run the risk of being saddled with a real mouthful of a skill invocation name if they don’t scoop their brand name before someone else does.”
Adds Rosso, “This is very much like back in the day when there was a race to register domain names for radio station websites. If your brand is something other than call letters, especially if you are a Live or Star or Kiss, you really need to make sure that invocation word is reserved for your use. There are probably 13 Live 105s in the United States.”
He adds that the price point to launch a skill on Amazon Echo is negligible given the return. “Websites and getting into the mobile app business were pretty expensive to create upfront. There’s no reason not to jump in and start playing in this sandbox,” Rosso says. “The cost isn’t so high that you shouldn’t start experimenting.”
Add Goldstein to the chorus: “Do it right now. You need to have your own unique identification.” He further explains that when an Alexa user asks to hear a favorite radio station, it now defaults to Tunein or iHeartRadio. “We developed ‘open MMR’ for WMMR in Philadelphia, and the same for KISW Seattle, ‘open 999 KISW.’ It enables the skill, at which point there is a custom greeting and a short menu option for custom content.” That is not possible via Tunein or iHeartRadio.
Adding more urgency to the issue, Higbie stresses that smart speaker user “habits are being formed right now. Voice is the new preset button, and although you essentially have infinite preset buttons, we are creatures of habit and everyone is going to have a top five. Your station needs to be present to be one of those.
“Voice is going to become the primary way to access content. It’s going to be pervasive in a very short time,” he adds. “Radio stations have to control their user experience, their branding and their monetization. Smart speakers are growing faster than mobile—and Christmas is coming. Now is the time to get your radio station onto Alexa.”
Still not convinced? Goldstein offers a word to the wise: “We as an industry need to think beyond the transmitter. The Alexa device does not have AM/FM radio built into it but you can certainly access audio content, and this requires a rethink of radio vs. audio. When then you liberate yourself as an audio provider instead of radio producer, the opportunities of this platform become obvious. And what happens if you don’t? Radio becomes a melting ice cube; it’s going to shrink over time.”