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Why BBC believes listening to articles is the future of consuming content

Errol Baran at BBC Global News gives The Drum a peek into Project Songbird

Errol Baran, the global senior vice president for business development and innovation, advertising and StoryWorks at BBC Global News gives The Drum a peek into Project Songbird, the publisher’s AI-powered synthetic voice which ‘reads’ articles from BBC.com.

Project Songbird is BBC News’ new smart text-to-speech based commercial proposition for its digital properties. The Beeb hopes will allow its audiences to listen to their favorite feature articles hands-free without the need to actively click and browse.

Built with cognitive and behavioral integrated tech software, the project will capitalize on consumer demand for audio content and leverage on BBC’s editorial coverage. Built with the ability to download in the background, the audio product aims to offer a dynamic advertiser experience.

“Project Songbird offers a ‘third way’ to consume BBC digital content, slotting in neatly alongside text and video news offering deepening the relationship we have with our audiences and providing an even greater “always on” proposition for our partners to align with,” explains Baran.

“It will offer our readers an alternative experience, one which enables them to listen to our content as well as read and watch it. We have seen through the success of our podcast business across World Service that the demand for audio and audio based propositions shows no signs of slowing down and this allows our readers to be able to multi-task should they wish to do so.”

While other publishers like The Wall Street Journal already offer text to speech technology for its articles, Baran says BBC’s version will be different because Songbird was built with cognitive and behavioral integrated software that will start to learn the patterns of its readers.

He explains this tool will also start to prioritize content for audiences based on user preference, while maintaining the BBC’s curation of balanced journalism, ensuring its audiences are served the most important news that also feels relevant to them.

“Our plans will also see us develop an infinite scroll of content for users, offer soundscape and background effects to heighten the listening experience – think of a report about a street market in India delivered with the added depth of street market sounds, or a report from a football stadium with a back drop of fans,” says Baran.

“The tone of the voice is also part of our unique selling point and we have gone to a lot of effort to make it warm and welcoming. Plus, our ambition is to develop it further so it’s appropriate for the wide variety of different content we offer.”

He continues: “In the future, there could be different voice ‘fonts’ which allow for a sliding scale of tones; serious for hard news, elevated for sport, relaxed for features or a mix of them all depending on the individual story. We can also look at creating other voices too. This is just the beginning, so watch this space.”

Project Songbird will first launch with BBC Work Life – The Life Project, and will then be rolled out across BBC Culture and BBC Future, will sport and news the ultimate targets.

“Alongside this, we have had a lot of commercial interests from our customers and it is our intention to work with them to craft the next stages of its evolution,” adds Baran.

BBC has been investing heavily in audio in recent years. It previously spoke to The Drum about how it is working with brands to created branded podcasts.