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How does today’s music-conscious consumer choose to access their favourite songs? In days gone by, this might’ve involved a CD player, or tuning their radio to a particular station. However, for many people today it is simply uttering the phrase “Hey Alexa, play some music by Ed Sheeran”.
If this sounds like you, then you’re not alone. There are now more than 320 million voice assistant enabled smart speakers in use worldwide. As with any new technology, they offer a number of exciting possibilities.
Central to the appeal of voice assistants are their ease of use. Rather than having to navigate through numerous menus – something which can be especially awkward for those of us who aren’t digital natives – we simply say an activation word or ask a question, and the helpful voice assistant provides us with the weather forecast, sends messages to our friends, or tells us where we can find that item we’re so desperately looking for.
The ability to enjoy new listening experiences has also been key to the uptake of voice assistants. The platforms make it more convenient for consumers to access their favourite shows and podcasts wherever they are, whether that’s at home or on the go, in their car or through their mobile. This is substantiated through user data, with statistics showing that live radio accounts for two-thirds of smart speaker usage time. This puts it ahead of music streaming services like Spotify.
According to a survey by PwC, in the US more than three quarters of 25- to 49-year-olds talk to their voice-controlled devices at least once a day. Voice assistants already play an important role in many aspects of life, and with the spread of connected household devices such as smart lighting controls or infotainment systems in cars, this will only increase. In fact, according to a Statista study, more than 8.4 billion digital voice assistants will be in use by 2024, greater than the global population. However, the rapid growth in the popularity of voice assistants could negatively impact consumer choice and media diversity.
When I search for something on Google or Amazon, I get pages and pages of results, just like with Netflix, or the EPG on the TV. With smart speakers, I always expect (and get) exactly ONE answer to ONE question. That may be practical, but it turns voice assistant platforms into de facto gatekeepers, where the positioning in search results directly determines findability and accessibility.
The implication is that we will have many millions of voice assistants that, by definition, will give us the same single answer to our question. The dependence this creates is a significant concern. We see in other digital markets that tech corporations can use such dependency to their own advantage. And, with the greater number of smart speakers in use, the higher the likelihood that the tech providers behind them will want to profit directly from the usage. For example, they might be tempted to preference their own offerings or even replace them with their own radio shows and podcasts. This could limit consumer choice and even determine if citizens’ rights, in particular the right to media diversity, can be properly upheld.
The impact on advertising and online commerce could also be very significant. The Tech platforms could replace ads on radio shows or podcasts with ads they sell themselves. Providers could be denied access to usage data, meanwhile the Big Tech companies could draw on their already huge data pools to improve their own services. This would make it harder for radio operators to compete fairly.
To preserve our diverse media landscape, we must not let voice assistant platforms determine how listeners can find radio stations. We need a legal framework that creates a level playing field for providers and gatekeepers. The need for this is also shown by the European Commission’s recently published preliminary survey report on the “Internet of Things”. The report confirms that voice assistants play a “central role” in the interconnection of various digital devices and services, emphasising that this “creates opportunities for certain distortive behaviours.”
These findings make it clear. EU lawmakers must act decisively to ensure that providers can continue to offer their listeners locally created programmes. These must be accessible by consumers on the device of their choice. Listeners have the right to diversity, and the universal and unfettered access to local content.
Good legislation promotes healthy competition, laying the foundation for more innovation, consumer choice and media diversity in the long run. The Digital Markets Act (DMA) could provide the right legal framework for this – but a clarification to the DMA is required. It must be confirmed that voice assistant platforms are core platform services that fall within the scope of the DMA. Just as for online marketplaces or search engines, clear rules must also apply to voice assistants. Search results must be presented impartially, and users must have unfettered access to the content of their choice.
The DMA is a historic opportunity to address the growing challenges that voice assistant platforms pose to us all: to develop a legal framework that ensures that media remains diverse and freely accessible in the age of smart assistants.
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