Why ‘Alexa, play Q102’ is part of the future for radio
Embracing the smart home is a smart move for broadcasters with brands to preserve
Radio in the smart home: Amazon Echo is shipping to Ireland. Photograph: David Becker/Getty Images
Smart speakers, much like anything to do with the smart home, spark mixed feelings.
What could be better in theory than a stylish device with proper sound quality that will play music at my behest while also delivering weather updates and transport timetables on command? Then again, I’m sure I’ve seen this movie – the one where some sleepy male stumbles round his sparsely decorated apartment while delegating basic tasks to a female-voiced computer assistant. I never quite believed I’d be living in it.
But even for non-techies, it’s no longer a fictional scenario. Amazon is now shipping Alexa-powered devices such as the Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Plus to Ireland, and they will surely be followed by the arrival here of Google Home, Apple’s HomePod and countless other products.
The mass take-up of voice-activated speakers in Ireland depends on two things: the price tags passing the affordability test and consumers getting over the weirdness factor of talking to a machine, Star Trek-style. The smart money is that most will overcome any sense of cringe, their misgivings losing the battle with either early-adopter curiosity or late-adopter peer pressure before finally being swept aside by the overwhelming convenience of it all.
Interactions with digital assistants are set to go well beyond having a bit of a laugh with Siri on our iPhone or reluctantly letting Microsoft’s Cortana talk us through a Windows 10 set-up. Frankly, there is too much money being poured into this technology for it not to happen.
Corporate behemoths Amazon, Google, Apple and a long list of challengers and niche players are waging war with each other for control of the smart home. But beneath this top echelon lies a near-infinite queue of media third parties who need to get on top of this space before it slips away from them. Encouragingly, the signs are that they are doing exactly that.
Last week, as Amazon confirmed it was shipping Echo devices to Ireland, three things happened: RTÉ publicised Alexa “skills” (similar to apps) for RTÉ News, RTÉ Nuacht and RTÉ Weather. The Irish Radioplayer service, a partnership between the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) and RTÉ, launched its Alexa skill, through which owners of smart speakers can access all Irish radio stations. And Wireless Group, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, went one step further, announcing separate Alexa skills for its individual Irish radio stations.
There will be an element of “so what” about this for some Echo buyers, who won’t be shelling out for voice-activated speakers to listen to FM104. Irish radio stations would have been accessible on Echo, in any case, through the US-owned audio streaming app TuneIn.
But why rely on a gatekeeper like TuneIn? The Irish Radioplayer service is a rare example of cross-industry co-operation between Irish media rivals. Its debut as a smartphone app in 2015 came a little later than the people behind the partnership would have liked, however. This next phase in its existence is logical and heartening. By launching an Alexa skill before most people in Ireland have had a chance to say hello to Alexa, Irish radio is catching right up to the present.
Broadcasters may not add lots of listeners or gain additional advertising revenue by virtue of their ability to be summoned by Alexa users. That’s not the point. What they are doing is making a decent stab at brand preservation.
The next generation won’t think twice about using digital assistants. Indeed, many children are already instinctively familiar with the concept of voice commands in their everyday lives. A universe of on-demand entertainment choices is available online - if Irish radio brands are not among them every which way they can be, they will shorten their life expectancy.
Last week’s hat-trick of Irish media Alexa announcements are unlikely to be the last. We are still at the beginning of the media’s embrace of the Amazon digital assistant and its (her) cousins. A Reuters Institute report last month predicted an audio explosion as one of the key media trends for 2018. Some 58 per cent of publishers surveyed for the report said they were exploring content for voice-activated speakers, perhaps having read forecasts such as that from research firm Juniper, which predicts the devices will find their way into 55 per cent of US households within five years.
Though I feel a sore throat coming on at the thought of interacting with a digital assistant – I’ll be changing the “wake word” from Alexa to “Computer” if I ever succumb to Amazon – that’s probably a failure of imagination on my part. On some level, the idea of the smart home has been in our culture for so long now, we’re ready for it to be real and seamless and indispensable. We’re waiting for it.
And for media companies, the overriding lesson of the recent past must be clear by now: they ignore technology at their peril. The media story is a technology story, and there are no prizes for reading it late.