Will Alexa kill the radio star?

I am fond of my Amazon Echo smart speaker (other brands are available). Some would say perhaps too fond. I am wont to ask, “Alexa, do I look good today?” and ‘she’ sometimes says I look great, which is in equal measure reassuring, but also rather unlikely.

By the way, before you ask, I do know Alexa is not really a ‘she’, but a combination of basic machine learning, speakers, a microphone and that mysterious Internet ‘thingy thing’. But I digress.

You see, a report this week by the BPI and Entertainment Retailers Association has asserted that the Amazon Echo and similar devices from companies that will never, ever be evil, has suggested that such smart speakers will buoy music streaming but have a negative effect on radio.

The logic is that said devices, with their ability to stream vast arrays of music at relatively low cost, will make it less likely that people who own such devices also, or ever, listen to the radio.

So Alexa, not video, could kill the radio star.

Smart speakers replacing other audio devices

An estimated 27 million smart speakers were sold last year worldwide and most people who have bought one listen to music on them. More to the point, the report found that 39% of smart speaker owners said that time they would have spent listening to the radio is now spent listening to music streamed to their smart speaker.

If that all sounds a little bleak for radio stations, may I offer a few words of comfort? Yes, it’s quite possible that smart speakers will temporarily distract listeners from their FM or DAB radio stations, as they become accustomed to being able to stream a huge amount of music to their speakers, on demand – indeed without even getting off the sofa.

But in my view, that may be a temporary aberration. In this era of fake news or ‘alt-news’ I know more and more people that are looking to some sort of curation of their news sources – an editor, a pundit, an organization with checks and balances – that they can trust more than Twitter, Facebook, or the myriad of social websites that we tend to visit every day.

There’s also the fact that my Echo will play most of the DAB radio stations for those times I want to listen to the news, some banter or unexpected songs.

Voice vs commodity music streaming

But the commoditisation of streaming music (Amazon says there are “tens of millions” of songs on Amazon Music and it’s about £1 a week to subscribe) may, in fact, make radio stations focusing on the spoken word the winners in all of this. BBC Radio 4’s figures have been weathering the storm, and chat radio LBC has seen some exciting growth on the back of challenging caller and celebrity or politician interviews.

Are smart speakers going to kill off radio? No, they aren’t. Might they force incumbent radio stations to consider their mix of music and spoken word? Probably, yes. In the mean time, have a listen to Frank Skinner on Absolute Radio on a Saturday morning. It’s irreverent and witty, but also have a listen to how the music – though frequent – takes a back-seat to the humour. In the face of Amazon Echo speakers and the like, the best DJs are fighting back with aplomb, and they are anything but traditional disc jockeys. Echo won’t kill the radio star, at least not in my lifetime.

But what do you think? Am I talking out of my Tweeter? Drop me a comment, I’d love to hear your views.

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