Radio's Day Of Reckoning

By VoxPop co-founder, Peter Fowler

The media is amidst another significant change and this time it is a direct threat to the traditional radio model. An entirely new cyberspace made of voice and sound is growing at a phenomenal rate worldwide. 

It’s currently dominated by Big Tech whom, already knowing what you do just about everywhere, are now looking to the final frontier - your home.    

Google calls it the “Audio Web.”  Some refer to it as the “Conversation Economy”.  Voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri are the gateways to this new universe. Billions are being invested in the technology and it is improving exponentially.  

This revolution in the way people listen to audio represents a tipping point, as people migrate from a live broadcast on their transistor radio to on-demand audio news and entertainment through a smart speaker or digital device.  

You can argue that the shift to on-demand is actually opening up material to new audiences. i.e. radio listenership is traditionally older but younger people will engage with on-demand/podcast material, so if done right you may be able to strengthen your brand. But they no longer control the platform they are broadcasting on.

If my experience is anything to go by, traditional radio’s business model is destined for the museum.

Until recently, consuming radio news involved being totally captured by a station’s network. I would tune in to RNZ at 7am precisely to get the news. Now it is on-demand on my smart speakers, I no longer tune in.  I am still consuming RNZ news bulletins, but in a different way on a different platform. And it is a better way.

My new radio network, through the Google Voice Assistant, is entirely customisable to an increasing number of news sources.  Where I would just be tuned in to RNZ,  I can now tune in to a host of others. 

My 7am audio news product is no longer provided by RNZ,  but rather Google. 

The command to “Play the news” gives me the latest hourly RNZ, NPR and BBC news bulletins on-demand.   Google and other platforms are aggregating news organisations again - creating products using other people’s content -  and are well on the way to establishing a dominant position.
The likes of Google,  Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and others are in a gold rush to organise everyone else’s content into a dominant voice assistant network.

Google’s Product Manager for News, Liz Gannes, said in many ways the “audio web” is like the text web of the 1990s.  

“When newspapers first came online, their early sites were hard to navigate and search, didn’t link stories together and often published stories on the web after they went to print.

“Audio is similar today. It’s an evocative, powerful, massively popular and convenient medium - but because the digital experience has lagged, it’s difficult to find things, especially timely, relevant stories that are meaningful to you.”

So most of the world’s biggest companies are in a race to build the Audio Web, and the plan is to aggregate and personalise news content to the individual. It is addictive because it is useful, convenient and entertaining.  It is easier to use. It is better in so many ways.

My voice network, which now extends to four smart speakers throughout the house, can do much more than just play radio shows and podcasts.  It is essentially a supercomputer, albeit  in its infancy, that is at your voice command.

It will give me up to date local weather information, tell me the current time anywhere in the world, play any song you can think of, give me a recipe, tell me a joke or play a game with me.  I can switch lights on and off using my voice.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

I pondered years ago how the “internet of things” would work, now I am in the middle of it.   Plans are underway for voice commerce such as shopping, reservations and bill paying.  The audio web is an entrepreneur's dream, because it is blue sky.

But just as aggregated text-based Internet news services such as Google News need other people’s content to work, so does the audio web.

Big Tech has the capability to broadcast this content now.  Robots scraping content from news sites can be trained to read news stories aloud using artificial intelligence that increasingly sounds human. Algorithms can search for the most popular content, no matter what, and highlight it to increase engagement.

The audio web is one of the last digital frontiers to be explored and a huge opportunity exists for news organisations to stake their own claim rather than be swallowed by the tech giants, as happened with the internet.

The BBC is aware of this. It is developing its own voice assistant called Beeb to have more control over user data and experiencing, rather than ceding it all to large tech firms such as Amazon and Google.

Starting in the late 1990's, aggregators perpetuated the myth that they should be allowed to lift content from news websites and republish it using robots because "it will bring you more audience". 

Copyright aside, it was a perfect concept for the techs. You had none of the expense of gathering and publishing news and none of the responsibility for it.
They cleverly avoided questions about copyright by manipulating bewildered media owners who were desperate to get a big audience in hope of regaining the “Rivers of Gold” lost by the emergence of online classified advertising.  The hopes came true for the aggregators, but not the content creators.  Suddenly the media institutions which had dominated our lives were just a tiny piece in a new gigantic puzzle.

I first came across "aggregators" in 1999 when I owned newsroom.co.nz and it cost the business lots of money.  We were supplying news to a prominent ISP web site, when they suddenly cancelled. Next day we saw moreover.com scraping our headlines and abstracts and placing them where they had been before, and it looked exactly the same.  But when you clicked on a headline it spawned a pop-up window with the full story in the newsroom.co.nz site.

For this, they charged 10 percent of what newsroom.co.nz was charging. The aggregators  destroyed the model of news organizations selling their news to web sites, largely because the news sites quite happily let the aggregators take their content for free.

The way it should have gone was the aggregators were stopped from taking content unless they paid a fee for each story they were monetizing.  

In places such as Australia, they are finally taking on the aggregators, if not 20 years too late.  But with the audio web, news organizations should realise they still hold the power because they create the content. Without content, aggregators don’t work.     

But the same could happen for the audio web.  Not everyone has the resources of the BBC.  So News organizations can make content freely available to Amazon, Apple and Google and repeat the mistakes of the Internet.  

Or they could unite, withhold their content from those aggregators who don’t pay for it and develop, with advertisers and others, their own global network and reap the new rivers of gold.