I don’t get the hype about smart speakers for radio

The smart speaker and how positively it’s going to impact audio listening behaviours, is the one topic every radio industry conference or radio expert blogger must talk about nowadays for sounding up to date. I’m going to join the conversation today for first time. Not exactly for expressing how excited I’m about the smart speaker revolution, but for quite the opposite: “I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. I don’t get the hype”.

Well, that’s not totally precise. I understand it’s good for radio, for podcasting or for music streaming that hundreds, thousands of users are spending more time listening because they fell in love with their new domestic device. Nothing to say against that, longer TSL is always good. But that’s it. I don’t see any revolution in here. And I’m going to explain it with two images, two graphs taken from the Infinite Dial report, recently published by Edison Research and Triton Digital. One of the screenshots is the confirmation of a disruption. The other one refutes the idea of a revolution taking place, by now.

Number of radios owned in home, age 18-34 (InfiniteDial 2018)

 

In a world where the ownership of radio receivers at home is dramatically dropping, the ones buying Smart Speakers are, mostly, those who still own at least one radio at home. The picture of a family listening to audio around a speaker in the living-room is more a nostalgic flashback (very far back, to the early days of radio) than a glimpse of the future to come, in my opinion.

I’m convinced there’s an age breach here. If smart speakers continue being purchased by those with one or two radios at home and not by those who don’t know how a home or portable radio receiver looks, I will remain unconvinced about the repercussion of the smart speakers in the future of radioActually, in that case I understand the optimism from radio industry (not audio industry, radio specifically) about these devices even less. They will basically replace linear machinery for non-linear technology. There’s only one possible effect for radio: the acceleration of cannibalisation from podcasting.

I tend to always use the same mental filter for deciding whether something will have a positive impact in a brighter future for radio: does it help us get closer to young listeners? (When I say “young”  I generally mean young 13-17 and young-adult 18-24 combined). I suppose you guessed my answer to that question is negative. Let me explain why I believe so.

Will young listeners own a Smart Speaker soon?

Last weekend I saw a tweet from Aled Haydn Jones, Head of Programmes at BBC Radio 1, linking a video showing some relevant activity from the station in the last twelve months. The video started with a scene of an Alexa speaker and a voice asking her “Alexa, play BBC Radio 1”. It shook me. Is the usage of smart speakers spreading this much among young listeners, so starting the Radio 1 video this way is justified?

https://twitter.com/ahj/status/989951127079792646

I had never thought about it, but it was right then when I realised I didn’t believe in the future of smart-speakers. I had an immediate assumption: young listeners won’t want a smart-speaker because they already have a smartphone, which is the device that does all they need. My assumption could be wrong though, so I started trying to challenge it by diving into some existing research. May I share my findings with you?

Gen Z, A Look Inside Its Mobile-First Mindset – By Think With Google

Smartphone is the primary screen for teenagers and, even more, young adults. Most teenagers spend more than three hours per day watching video on their smartphones.

 

MIDAS Spring 2018 – By RAJAR

The smartphone is the favourite device for young users between 15 and 24 years old in UK when it comes to listening to audio. It’s almost the same percentage of FM and DAB receivers together. And this is excluding YouTube.

I’m going to make a break. I’ll try to imagine what would be my position if I actually believed in the future of smart speakers among young listeners. What would be my main argument for reacting to the information we’ve just seen? Maybe something like… It’s too soon for analysing data about smart speakers, they will quickly get traction because they are obviously the best device for listening to audio.

Ok, I can’t really say that assertion is wrong, I’m not a futurologist. Let’s try to put some light, let’s compare with what’s happening in video consumption. We know traditional (linear, live) TV is dropping while on-demand streamed video is growing fast. But what about the devices young viewers are using? There’s no better device for watching your favourite movies, series and videos of cats than a connected Smart TV, with dedicated buttons for YouTube or Netflix in the remote control, with an astonishing 50″ 4K OLED screen, right? Well, not for young viewers…

The Nielsen Total Audience Report, Q1 201 – By Nielsen

In 2017, 18-25 years old young adults in US watched more hours of video on a smartphone than on any other device, including TV’s. Nielsen doesn’t provide data on viewers younger than 18 because of legal limitations regarding privacy.

Why would anybody prefer a 5 inches smartphone instead of a TV for watching her/his favourite video content? Well, it seems young viewers are not prioritising image quality. Maybe the TV is the best device for home watching, but they consume video whenever they want, wherever they want. That maybe makes the smartphone the right choice for them. On top of that, perhaps a portable device gives them more autonomy, not needing to depend on a device shared with the rest of the family. Let’s try to find more possible reasons to explain this.

Adults media use and attitudes, 2017 – By Ofcom

The mobile phone would be the most-missed media device for individuals from UK  between ages 16 and 54, being the age group 16-24 the one with the highest percentage, and growing fast. Phone or texting is the primary reason for considering the mobile phone a must-have, but it’s decreasing. Second reason is social media and messaging, growing specially among 16-24 years old users. Taking photos or videos is increasing as activity for which they would miss a smartphone among 25-34 years olds.

Even if I’m wrong…

I cannot be one hundred percent sure that I’m right, but I cannot find any indicator that proves me wrong either. I don’t believe the smart speaker is becoming the central device for audio listening among young listeners. They don’t have the TV as the primary screen for video consumption, despite it’s undoubtedly the best device for it. Therefore, I don’t expect them to embrace the sound quality, the ease of use and the focused-on-audio design of a smart speaker. That wired and non-screened device wouldn’t do all those things they love doing: watching videos, interacting in social networks, taking/recording and sharing photos and videos, messaging, etc.

Anyway, even if I’m wrong, in the video shared by BBC Radio 1 the voice “Alexa, play BBC Radio 1” clearly suggests live, linear radio. I don’t see how the smart speaker will save linear radio. More likely, it will accelerate its decline. Let’s learn from the collapse of linear TV: it’s not about the device, it’s about the new consumption behaviours enabled by new technologies for content distribution. No device will fight any battle for radio. They can’t. Only going back in time to a world with only-linear content would prevent the inevitable.

If your station is already focusing on reacting and adapting to change in listening behaviours faster, producing content for both live and on-demand, creating and adapting formats for different durations and distributing them in social networks, podcast platforms and even YouTube, well done! If you are not, I’m afraid you have no reason to organise a welcome party for the  new cool device in the block.

© 2018 - Tommy Ferraz