There’s lots of talk about the impact of smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo on usage for radio.
Indeed, last year alone, some 25 million of these devices were sold, 11 million in the holiday quarter alone.
The appeal to broadcasters is obvious: A device that’s all about listening – and it’s being embraced by millions of American households who quite possibly don’t own radios at home and thus are less likely to listen to them. What if we could return the radio to the living room in the form of Amazon Echo or Google Home? What would that do to radio listening?
I thought I would put that question to the test.
As you know, all radio listening through these devices is via streaming, and Triton Digital measures a lot of the streaming activity for broadcasters and others, like Pandora and Spotify.
So if the presence of smart speakers in American homes is a boon for radio, we should see some tick up in the streaming numbers for radio stations, right?
Triton just released their November stats. So I compared their November numbers from 2017 to those of November 2016, thus accounting for seasonality. These are the AAS numbers for US streams, year-over-year:
And what do we see?
We see that two of the top measured brands are up: Spotify and NPR. And we see that all of the top radio brands and aggregators are either flat or down.
So what to make of this?
Perhaps it’s “too early” in radio’s acceptance of this distribution channel. Not enough skills installed. Not enough devices in consumer hands.
Maybe, but it’s pretty easy to listen to lots of radio stations on these devices (where they exist) if you want to, even if those stations are not yours.
Assuming you want to.
And that’s the rub: What’s clear from this picture is that the two brands that have grown significantly over the past twelve months provide unique value: NPR has world-class national and world news at a time when demand for news is growing (witness the growth in subscriptions for the New York Times and the Washington Post as two more illustrations of this), and Spotify lets subscribers listen to exactly the song they want whenever they want it, not songs “similar to” the one they want or songs belonging to the same format as the one they want. Meanwhile, ESPN (for one) is down, no doubt, because what’s on ESPN isn’t as good as it was. Content, right?
What role, if any, smart speakers have in the change of these numbers is hard to tell. But these numbers certainly suggest that there’s a correlation between more smart speakers and more demand for the news I need and the songs I want and flat or less demand for traditional radio.
Maybe this analysis is all wrong. Maybe smart speakers are attracting listenership that’s simply being swapped from mobile devices. Well if that’s the case, then there would be no incremental value in this new distribution channel, right? Of what use is a new channel that creates no new listenership?
It seems to me that there’s a deeper lesson here:
We can look to technology as a savior – we can imagine that any and every new distribution channel with an audio angle is a big potential win for our radio stations. Or we can ask hard questions like:
What do listeners want to do with these devices, and what do they actually do with them (which may not be what they say they do with them)?
How do these devices solve consumer problems or fulfill consumer desires (for example, if I don’t want to listen to your radio station in my living room, a smart speaker will not help you)?
What is it about in-car radios that are so well suited for a passive radio listening experience, and is a living room experience with a smart speaker a different context that solves different problems and desires in different ways?
With so many radio stations and so much on-air clutter – and in the presence of alternatives that give me exactly what I want when I want it – why will I choose to listen to your radio station in my living room?
I have more questions but those are a start.
Obviously a new audio distribution channel is one in which radio should be invested. Audio is our thing, after all. So I’m not saying don’t spend some money there. I’m not saying ignore the big opportunity that is the smart speaker.
Don’t imagine that all audio distribution channels are created equal. A smart speaker is not a radio that does other things. It’s primarily about those other things.
After all, the primary attraction to smart speakers is voice control. And what about your radio station can you control with your voice other than starting it and stopping it? I can turn my lighting scheme into a peaceful sunset with my voice. Can I do that to your radio station?
Maybe it’s time to look inside and ask: What are we airing that is so essential, so unique, so special, that listeners will seek it out wherever they are…
…even in their living rooms and on their smart speakers.