The BBC is building out a suite of audio innovations ripe for targeted advertising

BBC presented at NewFronts for the third year

The BBC is proving its radio legacy has modernized fully with the roll-out of a suite of new audio and storytelling products. But as it ups its capacity for targeted advertising, the publisher is scrambling to ensure user personalization does not hinder access to balanced news coverage.

BBC News set out its vision for 2019 and beyond to US advertisers at its NewFront presentation today (29 April).

Its pitch was anchored in its reputation as the original audio pioneer. Now, the British corporation is once again banking on consumer and advertiser interest in audio by developing products capitalizing on today's podcast revolution.

One such innovation is a text-to-audio project currently dubbed ‘Project Songbird’, which is being developed by the BBC's global content studio, StoryWorks. Slated for launch at the tail end of 2019, the innovation will give readers the chance to turn all articles published on its sites into audio files they can listen to on-the-go.

The tech will also comprise cognitive and behavioral software that will learn the patterns of readers and serve up recommended content based on user preferences. The product will open up new ground to advertisers searching for an “always-on”, innovative way to experiment with pre-roll and mid-roll, while the AI piece allows for more accurate audience targeting.

“It will be more about associating your brand with a new innovation,” said Krystal Bowden, the director of BBC StoryWorks, when asked to describe the commercial imperative of Project Songbird. She added the publisher has just started to “tease” the format out to a couple of advertisers.

“We know [audio] is really important for our audiences and we are looking to really hone our technology around that so we're building something that's going to be really useful for our readers but done in a way where advertisers will want to align themselves to that.”

Personalization without bias

The BBC’s R&D team are currently grappling with two issues when it comes to the offer: tone of voice and the protection of journalistic neutrality.

The team is currently experimenting with the literal voice of the text, conscious that caution will need to be applied when it comes to particular news items.

“You don't want an AI voice that is just reading the news in a way that's not sensitive – that's hugely important to the BBC,” said Bowden. “A huge part of our research and development of this tool will be ensuring it's done in a way that is appropriate for the stories being read.”

Additionally, journalistic neutrality has the potential to take a hit from the algorithmically driven recommendation piece of Project Songbird. If the tech continually recommends BBC stories and opinions that are too similar, it could theoretically block access to the balanced reporting that the BBC boasts – and land it in bias hot water alongside YouTube.

“We want to make sure we are maintaining that level of balance in how we're serving news to people,” said Bowden.

“[We’re looking to] start picking up on user preference, and [we’ll] say, ‘here are the stories you really care about’. But we’ll also say, ‘here are the other things you also need to know in the world right now’. And it's not going to circumvent that by creating that personalization.”

This balance will also need to be found when the broadcaster starts to use object-based-media (OBM) to personalize not just content recommendations, but the content itself.

OBM tech, which can automatically edit entire shows to satisfy personal preference, is currently being trialed by Click, BBC News' tech program.

Rather than compiling a linear episode, Click’s team are producing its 1,000th edition in parts to be dynamically rearranged and tailored to each specific viewer. One audience member may only be shown segments relevant to their market, for instance, while another might opt to skip the explanatory pieces and watch only the high-level tech explainers.

“Each week, I have to make these horrible decisions about what to put in [the program] and what level to pitch it at – and I can only make one show,” said Simon Hancock, program editor of BBC Click. “In OBM is the possibility to give everyone what they want. And [the] localization [piece] will have benefits for advertising if you're trying to make campaigns that are impactful around the world."

'Quality news has to be funded'

BBC News also took to the stage to highlight StoryWorks’ foray into creating branded podcasts and its plans to launch a new, sponsor-friendly content series dubbed Future Sounds of Music. It also touted its coverage of upcoming special events, including the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings, and new content streams focused on health and the intersection of travel, tech, exploration and archaeology,

Yet Jim Egan, the chief executive of BBC Global News, addressed a more existential topic: he implored the audience to continue spending their ad dollars on news media in the wake of brand safety issues surrounding coverage of the Christchurch massacre.

“If you want those events to be reported at all, and if you want those to be reported in meaningful, insightful and well-balanced ways, quality news has to be funded,” he asserted.

“I don't think the right response ... is to simply to say we're not going to advertise on news at all, because that will make what we're seeing in the industry worse rather than better.”

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