Fred Jacobs

The annual CES show brought its usual Jetsons-esque array of revolutionary technology, products and ideas to Las Vegas this week. For the second year, Jacobs Media escorted radio executives—24 this time—on a pair of curated, guided tours, focusing on the exploding smart speaker phenomenon and the rapidly changing auto/transportation/mobility space. During his 10th year trolling the mammoth convention, Jacobs Media president Fred Jacobs spoke with Inside Radio in a series of conversations about how new technologies on the convention floor may ripple across the radio industry. An edited transcript follows.

What were your first impressions from this year’s CES?

Google is as serious as a heart attack about being visible here with its Google Assistant voice technology and it’s obviously in response to Amazon’s Alexa. Google is all over the place with a ton of signage. The Google Assistant has wrapped all the cars on the famous Las Vegas monorail. I’ve not seen this kind of street marketing attack here in a long time, maybe ever.

How prevalent is the smart speaker battle this year?

It’s huge. Everybody is talking about the integration of voice and how they work with Google and Amazon. Three or four years ago, you would go from exhibit to exhibit and they would say, “Just download our app on your smartphone and keep track of how many calories you burned.” That’s still a big deal –smartphones and mobility are still huge – but it has also ported over to voice commands.

What themes are you seeing in the automotive space?

The fragmentation of transportation clearly will have an impact on the radio business. It’s all about mobility now. In his keynote, Ford CEO Jim Hackett referred to Ford as a mobility company. That’s like a radio company dropping the “R” word and calling itself a media and entertainment company. It’s not that Ford isn’t a car company, but they are clearly taking a broader look. And it’s not just Ford, all of them are.

Hackett talked about the company’s Transportation Mobility Cloud during his keynote. Do you see Ford leading the industry when it comes to the connected car?

They were the early pioneers with Sync so from that standpoint they’ve had a stake in the ground for a long time. They clearly aspire to be the industry leader. Radio works in this paradigm where 90% of people get to work in a vehicle. But what you see when you walk around the floor here is that it’s going to fragment. There’s car sharing, ride sharing, electronic bikes, van services like Chariot which Ford bought a year ago. So the real question for radio is how will people entertain and inform themselves in all of these different transportation modes? How will these transportation forms be equipped? Will people bring in their own content? It’s something the NAB is grappling with. They’re here in force and are very involved with the GENIVI Alliance, whose goal is a standardized dashboard. All of a sudden there’s all kinds of fragmentation and disruption in the automotive world and it looks like one of the most stable parts of the commuting experience, the car radio, is along for the ride. You’ve got all these automotive companies going crazy with autonomous and shared mobility – they’re looking at disruption right in the eye. They’re saying we know there will be fewer cars sold in the future but that doesn’t mean people won’t have to get from point A to point B and we want be a part of that experience. You’ll have a number of options for getting home from work in the not too distant future.

Partnerships are often announced at CES. Is that the case again this year?

I attended an interview session with Emma Lloyd, the director of corporate business development for Sky, the big European TV and cable company. One of her core messages was how partnerships can help legacy media compete in the digital world. She talked about partnerships Sky has put together in the past five years, including with Roku, which clearly understood the technology of connecting all these devices together, which Sky did not. The essence of what she was saying is that for legacy brands to survive and thrive they have to partner with technology companies that have already done a lot of the hard work in the space. For radio companies looking to expand and build out to other platforms and take advantage of new technologies, it seems obvious that partnerships are going to happen. You’re seeing some indicators of that, especially in the podcast space, with Hubbard and Podcast One, Scripps and Midroll, Entercom and Cadence13. But it goes beyond just one vertical. If Sky wants to be a dominant media company in Europe, they have to form partnerships to help connect all these dots. I saw it as a hopeful prognosis for legacy media companies.

Is radio’s presence growing at the show this year?

Definitely. I don’t want to toot the Jacobs horn too much but we’re responsible for about 30 people being here, which at CES makes a difference. Besides our group, there are absolutely more radio people here. You can bump into a radio person ever 10 minutes, whereas seven or eight years ago you could go an entire day and maybe see Holland Cooke and Buzz Knight and that would be it.

What are you seeing from auto exhibitors at the show?

The last stop on our first CES tour with the radio execs this year was the Jeep area. Jeep made a big point of its integration with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. They have a smart speaker room within the Jeep exhibit and you walk in they have wallboards that picture a conversation you can have with Alexa and Google Assistant with your Jeep. Jeep is using augmented reality to show how you can configure your next car on your tablet or phone. It’s wild. Our tour was a combination of automotive and smart speakers.

What kinds of reactions are you getting from the radio execs on your tours?

The CES virgins are, of course, blown away by the magnitude of it. The tours are curated with selected sites and a CES guide who can help put the content out to them in ways that help them connect the dots. They have a pretty strong understanding of the voice command stuff coming in but they’re blown away by what they’re seeing in the auto space. That’s what has impressed them the most.

You mentioned a trend you’re seeing at CES of moving from touchscreen to touchless. Can you explain that?

Sure, it’s about migrating from search by typing to search by voice. The trend of voice becoming the conduit for searching for information is permeating CES. So many devices now are equipped with voice command technology, whether Google or Amazon or some other platform. In the car it’s all about voice for safety reasons. Voice recognition technology, which was so bad five-to-seven years ago, is so much better today.

What are you hearing about the importance of data?

There’s a lot of talk here about digitization being replaced by datafication. A few years ago everything had to be digitized. And now, what do you do with all the data you have and what can you learn from it? From a car standpoint, it’s learning how people drive, what route they take to work, the Starbucks they’re likely to stop at, restaurants they frequent, when they leave work for home – and aggregating all those data points and beginning to predict what the individual is thinking about as they’re heading home from work. And a lot of that technology is in the autonomous car space, which is a huge data collection opportunity where everything is connected – cars, the traffic lights, the 911 system. Everyone keeps talking about big data and what they’re really focused on here is how it can be used to predict behavior and how does that translate into everything from safety to commerce to any number of things that we do.

Any closing thoughts?

This is one of the better CES shows we’ve seen. Things are really moving quickly, especially with autonomous, electrification and voice. Cars, transportation and mobility have hit an apex here – how we’re going to get from point A to point B is a subtheme and the Amazon vs. Google war has been the undercard of the conference. Another theme is that radio showed up here with more force than they ever have. More radio people understand the importance of attending conferences like this, especially at the beginning of the year to set the tone. There’s innovation in the air and it’s just so damn positive.

Jacobs Media has partnered with Inside Radio to host the webinar “The 10 Things We Learned At CES (That Impact Radio),” Thursday, Jan. 25 at 2pm ET. Register for the webinar at Jacobs Media.