AI panel - J.J. Pellini, Tucker Flood, Traug Keller, Hartley Adkins, Paul Cramer

“Scratching the surface” and “top of the first inning” were phrases broadcasters were using at the Radio Show to describe the use of artificial intelligence in the industry today. But even at this early juncture, companies are reaping benefits from machine learning and sophisticated software, while eyeing some tantalizing applications for the technology in the future.

For starters, ESPN is using Veritone’s aiWARE platform to archive all of its shows so it can provide proof of performance for advertisers. The next phase of AI for radio is attribution, measuring the impact that campaigns have for clients, which has been a cornerstone topic at the conference, one that iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman and Entercom David Field elaborated on during the opening session. “It’s helping radio take a giant leap forward,” said Traug Keller, senior VP of ESPN.

Helping advertisers understand what copy works best, which dayparts produce the biggest bang and which talent are getting better results on live reads are other ways the technology is benefitting radio. Bonneville International is using AI to enhance productivity, said J.J. Pellini, marketing and digital specialist at the company’s Denver cluster. That means stations like country KYGO can get morning show promos on the air faster or quickly post “snackable content” online by having immediate access to searchable digitized programming as soon as it airs.

While new attribution systems are seen as critical tools for leveling the playing field with digital media, radio companies need to get their traditional sales staffs up to speed on the new technology. “Are we making sure they’re equipped to explain things in the ways that advertisers are hungry to hear about,” Keller asked. “We’re leaping forward up here but we need to spend more time training our AEs because that’s how we’ll move forward.”

Hartley Adkins, president of integrated revenue strategy at iHeartMedia, outlined three ways the technology can be used to deliver more effective campaigns for advertisers. The first step is better planning. “We can help you reach audiences with more specificity than ever before. If you plan better, there’s a greater probability that you will see better results,” he said. The second benefit is the ability to use data to course-correct in the middle of an ad flight. “If an ad campaign isn’t working, it’s better to do a surgery than an autopsy,” Adkins said. “We can evolve and optimize in real time to give a client what they need and look like we care and are paying attention instead of set it and forget it.” Attribution is the final missing link. Capturing reams of data doesn’t matter if it’s not moving product, Atkins said, adding that the company’s iHeartAnalytics platform is being well received by buyers. “We’re really excited about being able to track a lot of critical data and the marketplace has said, ‘Finally you’re able to use data in a way that’s meaningful to us.’”

Attribution platforms are allowing radio to quantify endorsement ads and the numerous mentions clients get in on-air promos and jock banter, which could help the industry charge a higher premium for what has become its most valuable inventory. Adkins argued that what he called radio’s “beachfront property” and “the best influencer network imaginable” is underpriced. Close to 20% of iHeart’s total revenue is based on endorsements, Adkins said. “If we can use tools like this to capture that added stuff to make it sexier and drive the price up, we all win.”

Tucker Flood, president of rep firm Eastman Radio, said “the genie is out of the bottle” when it comes to data and analytics. “People will start to expect us to have this info for their radio ad campaigns.”

Providing a peek into how AI may be used in the future, Keller played a prototype audio clip of sports talk host Scott Van Pelt interacting with a New York Yankees fan on a smart speaker. Only it wasn’t really Van Pelt, but a machine synthesizing his voice using hundreds of words the ESPN host recorded. The sports network’s answer to Siri or Alexa would allow listeners to have virtual conversations with hosts about their favorite teams and have the system cull through ESPN’s 25 terabits of audio content to return the appropriate ESPN content. “This is what’s coming,” Keller said. “We’re all in the audio business and we want to deliver audio in the home.”