Alexa 9-11

If there was a primary calling card at the 2017 Radio Show in Austin last week, it revolves around burgeoning technology’s front-and-center role in keeping traditional radio on its toes. So, while a number of essential discussions regarded a range of top names, few drew as much attention as “Alexa.”

Regulatory issues were also center stage—including during a warmly received appearance from FCC chairman Ajit Pai. But other topics such as smart speakers, the increased application of online data in advertising and the connected car were primary talking points among the more than four-dozen sessions that took place during the NAB- and RAB-sponsored annual confab.

The Year of Alexa

But this was certainly the year that broadcasters attending the Radio Show were encouraged—if not prodded—to make sure their stations become part of the Amazon Echo skill set. Several sessions at the Radio Show offered voice-assisted technology primers so that the industry understands just how ubiquitous the smart speaker is expected to become, driving the point that this is an opportunity to return radio inside the home.

The smart speaker phenomenon is currently in 7% of American homes—with penetration expected to hit a staggering 75% within the next three years. “Since I founded Edison 23 years ago, rarely have I witnessed excitement like the smart speaker has created,” said Edison president and founder Larry Rosin at the RAIN Summit, adjacent to the Radio Show. “It’s really unlike anything we’ve experienced before. Christmas is going to be a big deal for this category. I think it might go completely nuts.”

Added Pat Higbie, CEO and cofounder, XAPPmedia, “Voice is the third wave of internet technology. It’s going to change media and marketing in all forms and in very profound ways. Consumers with voice can connect to any content and any brand instantaneously.” And said Todd Thomas, senior VP of Operations, Futuri Media, “Wouldn’t you kill to have radios back in the living room, the kitchen and the bathroom again? Take your brand and integrate it into Alexa. That is the most important thing. That is the opportunity here.”

Indeed, stations were basically taken by the hand and walked through the process of making sure their content is not only available, but customizable on smart speakers. Step one is developing the necessary “skill” that puts radio brands on Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Google Home and other voice-activated platforms still to come.

Just as important is teaching consumers how to access their favorite stations on these emerging systems. Rob McCracken, director, Digital Solutions Group, the E.W. Scripps Company, told RAIN attendees that broadcast radio is “still the most powerful way to teach people” how to use the new devices. “People will learn from somebody how to use these devices and they should learn it from you,” McCracken said. “Walk them in so when they use these platforms, they’re thinking of you first.”

“Your listeners don’t know you by your calls signs,” added Ryan Higbie, VP of Sales & Solutions Services, XAPPmedia. “This is why it’s important for your radio station to create your own Alexa skill and get there fast and claim your brand name.” There are five U.S. stations known as “B95.” Why not be first, instead of being left with the less user-friendly, “B95 Fresno,” he suggested.

There is another bonus in buddying up to Amazon Echo: measurement. Those with a skill are able to access Amazon data that reveals the number of unique listeners, their number of sessions and where listening spikes occur during the day. Buzz Knight, VP of Programming at Beasley Media Group, explained how his company has just gotten its first data report. “I never thought I’d be looking at a set of data points where utterances are being measured. It’s a whole new world. It’s early, but it’s exciting and along the way, we hope to learn behaviors around the whole streaming experience.”

Connected Car Revs Its Engines

The connected car, which was the shiny new object in the room during last year’s Radio Show in Nashville, maintained its luster as an essential technology topic for broadcasters, albeit perhaps with the bravado toned down somewhat. While the dashboard is certainly evolving, a number of panelists pointed out that significant changes take years if not decades to gain a foothold in Detroit, followed by years before newer model vehicles are ubiquitous on the highways.

Of course in-car listening remains essential to the continued health of AM/FM radio, as “the car and the driving experience are changing rapidly, with greater options for the driver and the passengers,” said Sam Matheny, the NAB’s executive VP and chief technology officer. “Today, the connected car is a reality. Voice activation technology is becoming popular in new automobiles and self-driving cars are just around the corner.”

But according to Scott Elder, president and owner, Dream Cars Austin, his customers are curious about smartphone integration in new cars, along with Apple Carplay and Android Auto and Bluetooth—not the space age attributes of self-driving vehicles. “We show them Apple Carplay and they get excited about that, but autonomous driving, not so much.”

And while some in the industry fret about radio’s place in the connected car and a dashboard where the radio “dial” is not as prominent, Charles Steinhauer, chief operating officer, Westwood One, sees voice activation technology as one way to protect radio’s audio supremacy on the road. Voice commands will replace touchpads and keyboards for search, he predicts, allowing listeners to continue to find their favorite radio brands. “People will ask for your brand and that will protect radio in the car,” Steinhauer said. “If you believe voice is search, the power of your brand is going to be evoked and that is how you’ll be discovered.”

As the connected car continues to move forward, John Ellis, managing director of global management consulting firm Ellis & Associates, called on broadcasters to come together with a unified message. “You are powerful and if you can act as an ecosystem, OEMs will see that you have an idea of a direction you want to go in, as broadcasters. That’s what OEMs want. You’re trying to get them to think differently about radio.”

Ellis added, “Re-envision radio and reintroduce radio, so that it is customizable over the air broadcasting. It has to touch advertisers, listeners and the radio industry. That is Radio 2.0.”

Joe D’Angelo, senior VP of Broadcast Radio for Xperi, the owner of HD Radio technology, implored traditional broadcasters to take advantage of the myriad options on the digital dashboard of the present—available in the 45% of new cars being sold today equipped with HD Radio. He said, “We have a platform to evolve today and enhance the future as the connected car becomes a reality.”