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The Future of Audio Technology

Advancements in technology have signaled trouble for radio and its historical roots, yet time and time again radio has shown its adaptability to new ways of consumer consumption. As our listening habits change alongside changing technology, audio platforms have found new innovative ways to stay relevant.

According to the 2019 Australian survey, The Infinite Dial, media consumption of audio is continuing to grow. Both music streaming and podcast listening has seen substantial year-on-year growth. Growth of these platforms has heralded the apparent decline of radio in the media, yet results show something different. As technology becomes further advanced, personalised and on demand, radio audio listening is positioned to tackle changes in consumer media consumption.

“Audio listening has always adapted to the times, and that’s one of its main benefits,” says James Cridland, radio futurologist.

Cridland has been within the audio industry for over three decades, and through his time has seen many different adaptions of audio listening as technologies advance. Yet Cridland says one of the best draw cards media such as radio has for maintaining in audiences’ lives is the pure habit of listening that is ingrained in our culture.

“Radio has got something going for it that nothing else does; the habit of tuning in. We’ve certainly seen that when we’ve tried to launch new ideas, that the habit is something that makes change quite slow.”

Cridland sees radio’s longevity surviving through habitual listening, he notes the importance that technology will have on the way it is produced and consumed.

“Now that technology surrounding radio is advancing, things such as the connected home, voice activation, and the connected car make it easier to access radio, not bypass it as an option.”

Listening to change

Cridland says podcasts and music streaming services such as Spotify, which also includes podcasts on its platform, have the most sway over audio listening trends as both have seen increased growth in both Australia and New Zealand. According to the Infinite Dial survey, weekly listening to online audio streaming services has seen an eight percent increase in weekly listening from 2018-2019. 

“Radio has a great opportunity to succeed when it comes to on-demand listening and specifically podcasts,” says Cridland. “If you look at the top-rated podcasts, most likely they’ll include a lot of broadcasting studios and radio personalities.”

James Cridland

“Having said that, podcast listening is so much smaller than radio,” notes Cridland. “In Australia, podcasts are responsible for four percent of the audio we listen to. Whereas broadcast radio is about 65 percent… It’s worthwhile not running away with the idea that podcasting is a major threat. Yet in saying, that it’s clearly an important part of the future of audio consumption, and we shouldn’t forget that.”

Podcasts specifically have gained a lot of traction, with the survey showing over 25 percent of people surveyed listen to four or five podcasts a week, and 19 percent listening to six to ten per week.

Leon Wratt, group content director of radio for MediaWorks, says radio is keeping up well with the demand for podcasts yet acknowledges that they are a different medium than live broadcasting and must be treated as such.

“The real difference here is that we’ve tended to create radio for live audience environments, so the medium that we provide for is very different from podcasts. Broadcasters are taking time to make sure that they are going to create products that are going to work, that is going to suit that environment.”

Wratt says podcasts open more possibilities for audio and broadcasters, but only if the content is created well and delivered effectively. He says for MediaWorks, the transition into podcasting has been a learning curve, yet one that has paid off for wider opportunities in sponsorship.

Leon Wratt

“Advertisers will associate different to a podcast that they will with a radio channel. Podcasts are a very personal thing, so, therefore, the advertiser is more likely to be wary of the environment that they’re going into, more so than they are with a radio environment… We are seeing more branded content type audio listening. It’s a real difference but it’s a real opportunity at the same time, then we can create content specifically for advertisers. Now we can work with a whole bunch of new formats that we couldn’t before.”

Wratt admits that podcasting is a part of audio technology’s future, and at MediaWorks, a focus has been on learning how to properly implement the new medium into existing processes.

“We’re so set up to do live broadcast it can be difficult to shift yourself into a different headspace…That’s what we’re doing now, just working on a different way to approach it, and just making sure everything is prepared.”

Technology raises the stakes

Despite the constant shifting to meet new ways of consumption and demand, Wratt says the opportunities new technology brings will take more adjustment in the first learning stages.

“These new technologies have created a lot of opportunities, but we are content creators first and foremost. These incoming technologies are just a big blank piece of paper, and so you can create anything. However, that also brings in a big challenge, because now we’ve got to write our own rules.”

According to Cridland, podcasting opens up new possibilities for sponsorship. He says broadcasting stations great personalities and access to audiences are a big drawcard for new advertisers who want to align with podcasts.

“Radio’s producing great podcasts using their on-air talent, but they are doing things you could never do on the air. Through that, they have new commercial channels that can get involved with those podcasts, that couldn’t always get involved with direct live radio.”

Audio technology melds easily to social media and online on-demand platforms that are growing in popularity. Wratt says technology and consumer demand are the biggest movers for change in the audio industry, yet instead of a hindrance, “we can produce much more interesting content because technology offers more opportunities.”

Paul Spain, CEO of Gorilla Technologies and host of NZ Tech Podcast, says podcasting is growing in relevance for the future of audio, and broadcasting studios must cater to this growing change in consumption.

“The relevance of podcasting is much broader than we’ve ever seen in audio in the past. From a consumer point of view, it was a very ‘turn on the radio and listen to what you’re given’, now listeners can be much more involved in what they’re consuming”

Paul Spain

From his point of view, love for audio media comes from our ability to listen to it while performing other tasks, unlike when consuming social media or video.

“A huge amount of audio is consumed when people are doing other things. People are able to commit a lot more time to this audio than they might be able to commit to watching video content or reading.”

According to The Infinite Dial survey, 82 percent of podcast listeners listen while at home, 43 percent listen while in the car, and 18 percent while walking.

“What we’re seeing is an increase of listeners’ time going towards podcasts. Having no imagery to audio your mind fills in a lot of the blanks, which makes it a lot more relevant to the listener.”

Spain says the barriers for podcasting are very low, yet stations have the upper hand in terms of quality and knowing their demographic.

“Radio broadcasters know how to create content and they understand audiences within the niches they already hit. They are very capable of creating podcasts. They’ve got a great channel to promote content, and they’ll also have these celebrity type personalities to help launch content which can also help with success.”

He sees new technologies forcing a change in radio over time, with current introductions of the connected car, voice activation and the arrival of 5G as already on the radar.

“Where I see things going is a real melding of technology that we see today. We have voice assistance, we have a level of artificial intelligence, we have mobile networks and a mass connection. I guess what I imagine the future is, we will be able to hop into any autonomous car, maybe it’s self-owned or shared, but I can sit inside that vehicle and the system will interact with my own profile, and play what it knows I want to listen to from machine learning.”

He sees future technology becoming even more customisable and personalised to user experience.

“Technology will keep evolving, and we can only imagine how things will be different in the future. But delivering audio content is quite easy to do, and in the context of targeting people who are connected to an audio source, such as a car, it is very easy to personalise your targets.

Yet New Zealanders’ are often quick to adapt to new technologies in the way we want to consume them, which Kate Burleigh, head of Alexa Skills ANZ at Amazon, says is a great benefit for our audio industry with the example of Amazon’s voice activation service Alexa, which launched last year.

“We have noticed that the usage of Alexa is already at a similar rate that we see in markets where Alexa has been around for much longer. I’m not surprised by this as I’ve known for a long time that New Zealanders are fast adopters of new technology and Alexa seems to be another good example of this.”

She says voice activation technology will help sculpt audio technology as a whole.

Kate Burleigh

“Alexa will get smarter on your device with no new purchases or software updates. We leverage advanced techniques to ensure Alexa keeps getting smarter over time… Like Star Trek, our journey continues. We’ve made great strides, but it’s still early days. As we like to say at Amazon, it’s still day one.”

“One of the biggest benefits we’ve heard from customers around the world is they love Alexa not just because it is much easier to simply ask for your favourite radio station and it plays, but also because they are listening now to radio in their house on a good quality speaker.  The radio industry works so hard to product good sound quality, it’s great the people are able to listen on smart speakers such as the Echo.”

Burleigh highlights the connection that voice activation services like Alexa have to the growth of personalisation and customisation in technology.

“One-way customers can build a personalized experience via Alexa is through Flash Briefing. Skills created by media outlets allow the customer to build a “Flash Briefing” – a personalized news feed: the customer chooses which news stations they like to listen to and create their own Flash Briefing news feeds.”

Human connection

Dean Buchanan, NZME’s group director of entertainment, agrees that audios future leans heavily towards personalisation and on-demand listening, but notes the challenges that may come with uncharted territory, such as podcasting still is for the New Zealand media.

“Right now, there is a big demand from the audiences for more audio,” says Buchanan. “Radio has been clever and has worked new trends into its ecosystem. The growth of podcasts is a natural next step for radio broadcasters… But as always, the rules are made by the audience, if they find it compelling and engaging, they’ll stay.”

Buchanan says radio’s longevity is not just from being adaptable and agrees with Cridland that habitual listening is a strong part of its momentum. Yet he notes being both adaptable and habitual only comes from the approval of listeners.

Dean Buchanan

“Media businesses are only run by audiences. You’re either able to attract the audience to monetise, or you don’t. We have to be where the audience is, so following behaviors, and in our instance getting out in front of behaviors. Being on devices that they’re using, in forms of content they’re ingesting, is what we’re all about.”

Buchanan acknowledges that changes in audio technology are creating an environment that is very much run by our devices. Yet he highlights the importance that will always centre around the content that is put out to the audiences, rather than how they’re ingesting it.

“If you look at the history of successful radio, radio today, and the radio of the future, it will be centered around great New Zealanders making great content.”

“The industry plays such an intrinsic part in Kiwis everyday lifestyle. The more the world becomes global, the more important your local New Zealand voice becomes.”

Besides being free, easily accessible and hard to disrupt in times of chaos, Buchanan says radio listeners trust the medium to deliver quality truthful content in a growing time of fake news and our own national tragedies. 

“The example I would use is the Christchurch shootings. People turned straight to radio. Our news stations were detailing through those awful first hours, and our music stations were sending people directly to Newstalk ZB. What we said to our music stations at the time was ‘don’t speculate, don’t go to air with rumors, let the journalists do their job fact-checking, and once it has been cleared by our newsroom you can take it to air’.”

“Radio follows those basic journalistic principals of substantiating a story,” he continues. “When you’re working with trained credible journalists who know how to do their job and check facts, in the era in the fake news, it’s what makes radio journalism very important. It’s immediate, it’s live, but it’s also substantiated therefore it’s credible.”

Buchanan says Kiwi’s local connection to our on-air announcers shows that for us human connectivity sits at a high importance for audiences.

“Human connection in radio is everything, the ability to empathise, sympathise, share emotion and be inquisitive. All our talent has the natural ability to go on air and entertain, but they can shift during times of crisis. What they can do is reflect the mood, share experiences and help people cope. Again, that’s a human connection you can’t get through most other mediums, including algorithm-run social channels.”

Cridland agrees that announcers personability will always be a driving point of radio, no matter how technology changes consumption habits.

“Radio in New Zealand has a stronger hold on its audience just because of how our radio announcers have a relatable talent that listeners like.”

Buchanan had a similar outlook for how audio will evolve on our shores, stating that its uncertainty is what makes it exciting. Yet sticking to basic principles of creating and proving great content through great people is what it comes down to.

“Who knows what the future holds for audio. Anything can come up. But what we do know is that regardless of new technology, and regardless of the new devices, we’re still going to need great talent making great content. The power of local personalities will grow, but as for technology who the hell knows. But what’s exciting is that it is a great time to be in media, and it’s an amazing time to be in audio.”

For more information visit www.trb.co.nz

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