Among the one-on-one interviews featured as part of Edison Research’s “The Smart Audio Report,” unveiled yesterday (6/22) at RAIN’s Podcast Business Summit, the most encouraging comment for broadcasters was the one from the Philadelphia man using smart speakers to listen to sports/talk on WPEN (the Fanatic) Philadelphia. “Now that the Alexa radio is connected to the Internet,” he said, “the reception is always great.”
I tweeted that one out. Within minutes, reader Richard Horsman (@leedsjourno) tweeted back, “Ha. If only.” And then he added:
I retweeted that one and added the message, “If smart speakers are putting radio back in the living room, then this is a good time to fix the streaming experience, right?”
To that, reader @Brad_Lovett tweeted back, “+1000. The streaming experience is ridiculous and there should be an easy fix. Constant early-outs, late rejoins, crappy PSAs and fill.”
Broadcasters are correctly excited about the potential for smart speakers to solve one of radio’s distribution issues. As the title of an upcoming Conclave panel puts it, “Alexa Is The New Radio In Homes.”
But then the WPEN listener’s wife asked Alexa to play some Jason Aldean. In fact, there were a number of people requesting artists or songs, prompting a mix of Pandora, Google Play, and other non-broadcast sources. There was the millennial who said that smart speakers had helped him become a News/Talk listener. But there was also the woman who said that smart speakers were allowing her to ship the AM/FM radio to send people the Dominican Republic who still needed it.
The folk saying is that the dog who brings you a bone will also carry one to someone else. It’s an intended precaution against gossiping, lest one be gossiped about as well. But smart speakers also have the ability to create expanded usage for broadcast radio’s competitors. And they magnify many of radio’s current existential issues.
The top smart speaker usage is music (68% of respondents), followed by weather (58%), general questions (52%), and news (45%). Specifically listening to AM/FM radio is a significant number (32%), but it’s a decidedly secondary tier usage compared to listening to music. And most of broadcast radio has not addressed the spotload issue, or looked for a way to remain a competitive source of continuous music.
Stations have to be found. Visible effort by some broadcasters is going into developing skills so that Alexa will know stations the same way that listeners know them. But it hasn’t been that long since “Alexa, play Lite FM” was most likely to take you not to the New York AC but to a Hot AC in Beirut. The abundance of “Kiss FMs” and “Jack FMs” has long made being found on a streaming aggregator like iHeartRadio or TuneIn an issue, but it’s magnified here.
Broadcasters need to offer choice. Beyond the spotload issue, it is disconcerting that 62% of smart speaker buyers were motivated by wanting to “hear better music than AM/FM radio.” There is no reason that the Celine Dion and Jason Aldean stations can’t be ours. There is no reason that the niche playlists that serve a listener interested in music that is newer or deeper than what is prudent to offer a mass audience cannot come from us. There is no reason we cannot offer more music-intensive products than what we can viably broadcast. When Emmis and Journal Broadcasting tried that, their radio apps were overshadowed by the big aggregators. But if Alexa can make Light FM Beirut into a worldwide entity, what else could she do for us?
Stations have to fix the streaming experience. Now. I’ve been writing about it for a decade, but it still happens. I recently listened to a medium-market radio station, operated by a small but respected group owner (not somebody I work with). The stopset came and there were a couple of local spots, followed by two PSAs, followed by one of the same PSAs (on a somber topic) again. I don’t remember what came after that, but we weren’t done for another few minutes. I was committed to hearing that station, so I didn’t switch. Until the next stopset came on and the exact same sequence started again.
It’s great that there’s an opportunity to fix the distribution issue. It shouldn’t distract broadcasters from the product issue as well. Broadcasters aren’t quite being invited back into listeners’ living rooms again. It’s fairer to say that they are being allowed to be there. Whether that blossoms in to its own friendship again will depend entirely on what sort of guest we are now: on an AM/FM radio, in the car, on the phone, and on smart speakers.