Is Alexa Rejuvenating Radio

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About a decade ago, when AutoTune was starting to become popular, I was interviewing a musician about the trend. To me, the technique seemed deceptive, like a way to legitimize untalented musicians. He told me something I wasn’t expecting to hear: he pointed out that throughout the history of music, instruments and techniques have drawn criticism simply because they are new. He asked, “Would you feel the same way about hearing an electric guitar for the first time? It’s how you use it that defines it as music.”

That idea stuck with me. In our history as broadcasters, we’ve seen many new devices emerge in the tech world, Some have been embraced, others dismissed. Some personalities have embraced the digital components of radio and done well, but not everyone has found the level of success they desire.

“Each medium creates its own stars,” says Walter Sabo, host of Sterling on Sunday on Westwood One. “You can name maybe four exceptions who were able to transfer their actual stardom to one medium from another. That’s it. I don’t think any evolving can be done. I think Alexa is sitting in people’s houses with 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds, and just like a microwave, that’s all they’ve known. They will know what to do with it.”

The digital goals and milestones many broadcasters face (often with hesitation) are best achieved with a person or team focused specifically on social media and digital implementation. Naturally, Walter is right: successful broadcasters have a certain set of skills, and they often find fame in one medium but mediocre results in another.

Maybe we’re looking at digital the wrong way.

Let’s say your talent only had to focus on what they do best: the content itself. The technical fears that go with trying to figure out how to format content for many mediums are starting to disappear, thanks to “smart speaker” devices like Amazon’s Echo with Alexa or Google Home. Listeners’ comfort with these easy-to-use devices could bring a big boost in digital stats that managers and corporate can both embrace.

Ben Shepherd is global head of Alexa Music. Amazon’s Echo device is a voice-controlled speaker that listens for commands. For example, if you say, “Alexa, play Z100,” the device connects to and plays iHeartRadio’s stream of WHTZ/New York. And Shepherd says that thanks to devices like Alexa, radio usage is actually increasing. “We’re bringing it back into the home because we’re making it very easy for customers to get to this content,” Shepherd says. “With voice [commands], we make it very easy for people to get to the content they want to consume, whatever that may be.”

We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get onto new platforms, and now this platform is trying to figure out how to get to us. The goal of smart speaker devices is to make it natural for listeners to find our content. We just need to produce it.

“We do support podcasts and programs today,” Shepherd points out. “Customers can ask for specific personalities or podcasts that are published.” So it’s not just your station; Shepherd says Alexa can search for all the content you publish on the Internet. “We’ve seen local radio stations talk about Alexa on their radio shows and help customers understand how to get to their content,” he says. “We’ve also recently launched a feature called ‘music alarms’ that allows customers to set an alarm to a piece of content. We’ve seen radio stations tell customers, ‘Set my station as your morning alarm,’ and then every morning when the customer wakes up, they’re listening to that radio station immediately.”

If radio has a digital distribution problem, these devices are designed to bridge that gap. Sabo has seen this progression before. “There was a revolution from AM to FM, then cassettes started showed up in the car, CDs,” he says. “The answer is always the same: you’d better make a good show. People don’t listen to a speaker; they don’t go into a movie theater and look at a blank wall. They watch a show. They listen to a show. The key to all of it is to make a good show.”

That should be your talents’ focus. Tech companies are smart and figured out that radio holds a lot of great content, and there just needed to be an easier way of finding it. If your station offers it, the job of these devices is to find it. You don’t need to know how to program long strings of coding. You just need to concentrate on creating great content.

That should relieve some of your stress.

Ryan Wrecker hosts Overnight America on KMOX in St. Louis. Follow on Twitter @RyanWrecker or e-mail [email protected]

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