Why voice control could be the next big technology trend in radio

Michael Hill

My friend Matt Deegan, who runs several radio-related businesses, describes radio as a virus. It’s a born survivor, he says – attaching itself to new platforms and devices, just as a virus clings to cells. That could explain why 90% of UK adults listen to the radio every week, a figure unchanged in decades, despite the explosion in entertainment options.

This week I've been in Manchester speaking at a Radiocentre event called Tuning In: See Radio Differently. My talk is about some of the R&D and innovation that’s happening around radio, and how Radioplayer’s partnering with technology companies to achieve that. But no matter how radio is consumed, at its core is that indestructible content-model. It’s the ‘entertain me’ button.

We might need to find another way of describing it though, for devices like the Amazon Echo. This home speaker doesn’t rely on buttons, but on words. Launched in the UK a couple of months ago, I’m going to predict that this speech-controlled cylinder will be the best-selling technology gift this Christmas. It’s powered by a voice assistant called ‘Alexa’.

When Amazon was planning its top-secret UK launch, it contacted us with an interesting proposal. It wanted us to build a Radioplayer ‘skill’ (that’s what it calls ‘apps’ on the Echo), optimised for the UK radio market. We’re keen to learn more about voice-control (partly because it will be crucial in car dashboards in the future), so we built a simple ‘skill’ which enables listeners to play a station of their choice, and ask for recommended radio.

‘Alexa, ask Radioplayer to recommend a station’ is how you kick it off. She replies with the name of a station, and plays it. If you say ‘skip’, she moves on to the next. Her selection is uncannily good. It’s based on the Radioplayer ‘recommendation engine’ we’ve built, which looks at where you are in the country, what you last listened to, and what’s trending right now across UK radio. I just tried it in my Manchester hotel room, and she played me Key 103, Radio X Manchester, Revolution 96.2, All FM Manchester, Heart North West, and BBC Radio Manchester. All great stations, which a local listener might well be discovering for the first time.

Voice control is definitely one of the big emerging technology trends, and it’s a natural fit for radio – because it’s all about sound. It’s been very instructive, working with a huge and influential firm like Amazon. We’re going to take what we’ve learned about ‘VUX’ (Voice User eXperience’) and extend it to other Radioplayer products in 2017 – including our apps and our new hardware product for cars.

It’s a great time to be a virus. Particularly an entertaining one, with ears.

Michael Hill is the managing director of Radioplayer

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