Yesterday's post from Jacobs Media research maven, Jason Hollins, about the expected rise of smart speaker device sales this holiday season should cause the radio industry to take pause. As Jason pointed out, disappearing radios on the home front could be replaced by smart speakers like the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, and perhaps even Apple's soon-to-be-released HomePod in 2018. The possibilities are exciting for radio because these devices provide another distribution outlet for consumers.
“Alexa” – the Amazon's smart speaker signature voice – has a huge lead over the entire field. She's like a unique VO talent that has become a personality herself.
And when you see strong indicators that as many as 20% of U.S. homes will purchase an Echo (or something like it) this holiday season, you can understand why the radio industry is abuzz over this trend.
But, of course, Amazon isn't just thinking about third party users of their device. They know full well that Alexa is rapidly achieving what CEOs refer to as “reaching scale.”
That means these devices have proliferated to a point where Amazon realizes it's not just about acting as a distribution outlet for radio stations, TuneIn, and the myriad other channels that have hopped on the Alexa bandwagon.
Amazon is now views itself as a content creator.
That reality hit home when it was announced they will be featuring what TechCrunch calls “a radio show” built around the release of U2's upcoming new album, “Songs of Experience.” The album was available on Echo devices yesterday while the rest of the world (yes, radio) had to wait until today.
The phrase “Alexa, play the U2 Experience” will be much uttered over the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Ironically, U2 shilled for Apple in the early years of the iPod. My son bought one of those signature U2 devices.
And iPhone owners know too well the aggravation of hearing tracks by U1's “Songs of Innocence” that were automatically downloaded to millions of iTunes accounts in 2014 – and then magically started playing on your smartphone at unexpected times. That didn't work out too well – for Apple and for U2. In fact, Bono actually apologized for that one.
Interestingly, Amazon is banking on those iconic aging Irish rockers to demonstrate how easy it is to access exclusive music – or proprietary radio shows – on their Echo devices
It shouldn't be lost on any of us how that device manufacturers and distributors have a growing desire to expand into content creation. The idea of Amazon developing its own programming is a trend to watch. It took Apple a lot longer to start up its radio station, Beats 1, back in 2015.
And then there's Netflix, the video distributor turned content creator. Estimate suggest they'll have $8 billion (yes, with a B) to spend on video programming content in 2018, putting them light years ahead of the old guard – the big networks, as well HBO and Showtime.
Amazon is moving quickly on the content front on their distribution outlet – Alexa – and the guy who gained access for these interviews with U2 and put together this unique promotion is Alex Luke.
Who is Alex Luke?
He joined Amazon earlier this year as Global Head of Programming and Content Strategy after working for both Apple and EMI Records.
But those of you who worked in Alternative radio in the '90s know exactly who he is, as well as his capabilities. Earlier in his career, Alex programmed Q101 (Chicago), KPNT (St. Louis), and The Edge (Dallas) – yes, that Edge.
At his core, Alex is a brilliant radio programmer, and a guy who understands the art of content integration and amplification with the digital tool kit. He's a big thinker, and someone who intuitively knows how programming merges with technology.
I can easily think of 100 PDs I'd rather compete against.
We have to respect and appreciate the gift that Jeff Bezos has bestowed on the radio broadcast industry. As was the case with the iPhone and apps, free distribution on the hottest gadget of the year isn't a bad set of circumstances. Any station can create and build skills that work on the Echo array of devices. This access will very likely become a big asset for radio as these gadgets proliferate over the next few years.
Building and marketing skills is one thing. Radio has to do the harder job of strategizing where it fits in a rapidly growing ecosystem of well-financed audio content creators providing more and more choice for consumers.
It has taken companies like iHeartRadio, Cumulus , and now Entercom decades (and much suffering along the way, in some cases) to grow media companies that achieve scale here in the U.S.
Amazon is well on the way to forging a sizable footprint with Alexa in just a couple of short years.
And now they're innovating with quality, compelling content. This is a message that on the Alexa platform, radio will need to do more than check off another digital box by going for the cheapest, most mundane skills.
So, your station streams on Amazon Echo device? Alex Luke is giving you free program consulting advice. The message here is to not just make your stream available on Alexa – what content can you create that is special, compelling, and made just for this platform? That's his challenge. And now it's ours.
And by the way, did you find it odd that Alexa's PD is named Alex. Coincidence?
“Alexa, what's going on here?”