Yesterday, I showcased Alpha's team of swashbucklers, the ones responsible for integrating AI into their Top 40 station's on-air lineup. And did you ever react to this post, featuring our exclusive interview with Phil Becker (EVP Content, Alpha), Dylan Salisbury (Content Director, Live 95.5/Portland, OR), and midday host Ashley Z / AI Ashley, midday personality on Alpha's Live 95.5. (You can read yesterday's post here.)
In today's second and final installment, the group talks about how AI technology fits into the pecking order of radio innovations throughout the decades, how they secured the green light from Alpha's higher-ups, and what they expect AI will be capable of in the years ahead.
It's an important conversation, and this group has earned the right to be in the mix. After all, they're the first to turn over a prime daypart on a major market station – and actually admit they're doing it. As you read in yesterday's post, these Alpha teammates trust each other, a key ingredient if it is going to succeed without tearing apart radio stations and the people who work there.
There's been a lot of criticism of this bold move by Alpha in general, and of “The Three AI Musketeers” specifically. And that's too bad on the one hand, and grossly undeserved on the other. Every pioneer in this industry was rejected before they and their ideas were accepted. And they have the scars to prove it. Radio is a medium that claims to like innovation…until, that is, it shows up.
I went through it with Classic Rock, and later The Edge. Many others have been subject to a chorus of “It'll never work.” Until it does. Whatever ends up happening to our Portland triumvirate, they will be stronger, smarter, and savvier as a result of their ballsy decision to do this thing. They will look back at this episode with a sense of pride, experience, and wisdom. But that doesn't make what they're going through any easier.
Too often, discussions about technology – and AI is a prime example – attempt to simplify its effects in a binary, black and white manner. “Is it good or bad for radio?” is often THE question. But if you read the comments posted here yesterday, as well as on my socials, you know it's never that simple. In fact, this one's especially complicated because of AI's sweeping effects, the fact that it is early days, and the reality that even its creators are struggling to pinpoint how it may change our world.
Like it or not, it's here. And it's not going to go away. How broadcasters can and will use it remains to be seen, but that's what our two-day discussion is all about.
I hope you enjoy and appreciate the second part of my convo with Phil, Dylan, and Ashley Z. And I hope it spurs follow-up conversations in your company, your social media group, or at your favorite drinking hole. Whatever the case, it is an unescapable condition of the business world, and of course, radio is no exception. In fact, there are several reasons to believe broadcasting is especially compatible with this burgeoning technology, but perhaps not in ways you immediately think.
Wouldn't you know it? – FJ
Fred Jacobs: So, what's the plan, Phil? On how many stations and in how many markets are you planning Alpha's AI rollout?
Phil Becker: We're doing it in one. We have 206 stations. Were doing it one. So we're trying it. We're going to look for our use cases, our recommendations, all the things that Ashley Z and Dylan are experiencing right now in real time. Before I go to another market (with this technology), I want to have those answers for them. So we're not ready yet to go outside of this core group. We're just trying a self-driving car now, but we're not ready to put it on the lot yet.
Fred: But you've thought of the capabilities – the other stuff this technology can do, beyond AI Ashley?
Phil: I'll just give you a list. I think it could not only do the dayparts that are forgotten. I think it will deliver a radio station in a different language. I think that Dylan and Ashley Z will run Live 95.5, but they'll have an alternate version of it in Spanish. In Russian. In Vietnamese. In Italian. The same promotions. The same songs. The same breaks. Different language. I think it's going to go that far.
I think it's going to save lives. I think that it's going to access the automation systems in earthquakes and fires and tragedies and shootings and get the information to the audience faster than we've ever done it before.
Fred: What else?
Phil: We're going to have the ability to do things that we've always thought weren't possible. We're going to have the ability to localize content, I actually think down to the city block that you live on.
I think it's coming and it won't be any extra work. Dylan will write into the AI and he will say, “Tell me the impact of the Rose Festival Parade on the following blocks.” And it's going to generate that. And then he's going to take that audio, and he's going to put that on social media because he can already do that.
And he can say, “If you live between 5th and 10th Avenue, here's the impact of the parade. If you live between 10th and 15th Avenue, here's the impact of the parade. And eventually we'll target to your phone because we'll know where you're at and we'll serve you exactly the block impact.
So it's more than just the evolution of voicetracking. I think that's what people are hung up on. They think this is voice tracking 2.0….and it is. But so much more.
Fred: How sweeping will the impact be?
Phil: I think it's one of the biggest revolutions that will ever occur in the business. I think that it's going to create emerging ideas and copy ideas that never would have crossed any content person's mind.
I think that you will ask it to help you create 15 Father's Day sweepers, and it's going to know what that means and it's going to know to turn that sweeper on on Sunday and to turn that sweeper off on Monday. It's going to evolve us and push us because major market radio stations are being run by just one, two and three people.
Fred: Any benefit for the sales department?
Phil: Let's talk for a second about spec spots. Ashley Z doesn't have to go write them all. All the seller has to do is copy the copy into synthetic Ashley And here's your spec spot.
Let's talk about changing the spot every single day based on the weather, based on the topicality, based on the moment. It can be done.
There's so many things that from a revenue standpoint, we haven't even broached. Direct to consumer as a category that radio's never been involved in. Now it can be.
All of these new technology ad categories that could become a part of radio because the Silicon Valleys and the Madison Avenue agencies of the world might look at our business and say “They're not a legacy medium anymore, they're on the front side of it.”
So I see that being a benefit. I see I doing client CNA's (customer needs analysis) in real time. Writing the copy and emailing them the spot in less than ten minutes. Yep. So I really think that from the airstaff to the programming team to the production team to the account executive, all four departments are going to benefit from this. It's just our job to show them, convince them, and make them feel okay about it.
Fred: What's it like right now for you, Dylan and Ashley Z, because there's a lot of people in radio who will never experience this. What is it like to be at the center of a phenomenon where everybody wants to listen to what you guys are doing? I mean, that just doesn't happen in radio anymore. I can't remember the last time that anyone created a must-listen to buzz like this. Ashley Z, what's it like?
Ashley Z: Well, scary. It's not sitting back in the fear of the “what if?” It's not even really a fear. I don't know how to explain it. It's just a feeling of like, this just happened so fast and there's no stopping this right now, so I better have made my choice.
It's a different kind of fear, but it doesn't feel like fear because it's like this is a leap of faith and a lot of ways for me and I believe in myself enough to know that.
I think they chose the right person. I think I did, too. That's how it feels for me. Now I'm just excited. It feels like a lot. It feels fine. It feels a little bit like home for me. I think that doing things that are big, you have to be a strong, confident talent. If you're not secure in your abilities as a talent, this isn't going to work. All the pieces need to be there.
Fred: Dylan, how does it feel for you?
Dylan Salisbury: It's exciting, and yeah, it's hectic. There's a lot going on. I don't even know if I've had time to kind of take it all in yet.
But what's what's the alternative, Fred? Am I going to be against it? You know, why wouldn't I try to embrace the inevitable? This is the first time in a long time that we have something to be excited about. It's a once in a career opportunity for me and Ashley to be a part of history.
Fred: Will we look back on AI as one of those big epic things?
Phil: I think this will be one of the nine biggest changes in the business.
Fred: Like the “9 Wonders of the Radio World?”
Phil: I actually wrote these down today. AM to FM, deregulation, ratings measurement, syndication, voicetracking, streaming, podcasting, and apps.
Fred: And now, AI makes nine.
Phil: AI makes nine. Quite a list.
Fred: I want to backtrack and talk about how the system will either read what you write in AI Ashley's voice or it will write its own copy. What does that look like?
Dylan: It will either read copy verbatim how I wrote it – a literal read. There's also an artful read where it comes up with its own script and I get a read.
Below is a literal read, followed by an artful read, both in the voice of AI Ashley:
Fred: Phil, you're the mastermind here. None of this would have happened without you wanting to do it. And green lighting it, and frankly, having the stones to do it.
Phil: I want to shine the light on (Alpha President/CEO) Bob Proffitt for letting us do it. I think that's really important. I don't know that every CEO would have given us the “go sign.”
He wrote me an email after I brought this to him, and he just wrote “Be bold.” I don't know that everybody gets that breadth, so I want to celebrate him. I think that's important to acknowledge.
This is not a DJ eliminator, it's a DJ amplifier. It's not a cost cutting tool. This is not going to replace more people than the industry has shed over the past 15 years.
Fred: Thanks for the time, Phil, Dylan, and Ashley Z. Now let's see what your brothers and sisters in radio have to say.
There's a lot here.
A lot to think about, a lot to talk about, and a lot to get our heads around. I hope this exclusive look at Alpha's bold initiative, as well as the opportunity to meet Phil, Dylan, and Ashley Z has been helpful in your understanding of this technology, whether it excites you or repels you.
If we can help facilitate that conversation with your team, don't hesitate to contact me. It is crystal clear to me, we're looking at a very unique set of conditions with AI both in the world – and with our radio properties and companies
The decisions made now around this technology could determine how we fare as a platform, a business, and a medium in the coming years.
Whether your net takeaway from these two posts is excitement and joy OR fear and loathing, make it a point to learn as much as you can about this technology – what it can mean to your company as well as to your career.
We're all in the process of thinking about smart applications for this technology, as well as the development of best practices. Our three crusaders from Alpha have opened some heavy and important doors. Now, we need the courage and vision to walk through them. – FJ
You can read Part 1 here.
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