Voice-assistant regulation is needed to preserve media plurality
Radio’s growing reliance on voice assistants has the potential to be a significant threat, warns Bauer Media Audio’s president
The radio industry is at a critical juncture. We are facing significant disruption, brought about by the growing popularity of new listening platforms with global reach, typically embedded within smart speakers and increasingly within connected car infotainment systems, and changing consumer behaviour.
It is imperative that disruptive innovation can be harnessed to support media plurality and the broad range of public value that radio brings to listeners.
Ultimately, politicians will need to decide what’s in their citizens’ best interests, as they consider how to regulate digital markets.
At Bauer, we are passionate about radio, a trusted, reliable and culturally enriching companion, a social compass in a digital era plagued by disinformation and other forms of online harms.
Historically, radio broadcasters have enjoyed a secure position in the audio value chain, where licences for broadcast have been granted by regulators, and broadcasters have owned or leased their own transmitters to reach their audiences at scale.
Thanks to proper regulatory oversight, listeners have developed significant trust with radio brands, who are responsible for ensuring news is accurately reported, public messages are shared and content is appropriate for audiences, making radio a force for good.
Smart speakers bring new opportunities and threats
This model is changing with the advent of Big Tech.
As radio listening continues to migrate from analogue to digital channels, radio is increasingly distributed through voice assistant platforms such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri.
Big Tech platforms have benefitted from the longstanding trust established in radio brands to drive take-up of their smart speakers, in-car infotainment systems, and mobile devices, enabling them to become a popular way for listeners to access radio and provide an increasingly important route to market for the radio industry.
Data shows that listening to radio is the biggest use case for smart speakers (on a par with listening to music streaming services).
The radio industry is alive to the opportunities that disruptive innovation can bring.
We see an opportunity to strike new strategic partnerships, increase the appeal of radio to younger, increasingly digital native, audiences, and diversify revenue.
Thanks to the long-term investments that we and others are making in digital audio product innovation, digital radio listening, which includes listening via voice assistants, now outstrips listening via analogue means. According to Ofcom, over a quarter of those listening to live radio are using a smart speaker this year.
As consumers grow accustomed to new ways of listening, we see the opportunity for a new wave of digital innovation, bringing higher levels of consumer choice and empowerment, new routes to market and the potential for tailored advertising.
But the balance of power is shifting: as radio consumption migrates towards digital channels, radio’s growing reliance on voice assistants has the potential to be a significant threat if an important route to market for radio is owned and controlled by Big Tech platforms who will be able to act as gatekeepers to radio content and custodians of valuable audience data.
The risks are manifold, and include self-preferencing, data hoarding, and Sherlocking.
We need new rules
So, what’s the answer?
We believe that a new regulatory framework that will mitigate these challenges and create opportunities for increased digital audio listening and innovation, is urgently needed.
In the UK, the Government recently put its proposals for a pro-competition regime for digital markets to consultation.
Next year, the Government is expected to table legislation that will enable the newly created Digital Markets Unit to adopt and enforce regulatory Codes of Conduct applicable to firms with “strategic market status”.
In Brussels, the European Commission’s proposed Digital Markets Act represents a unique opportunity for EU lawmakers to tackle the growing challenges that voice-assistant platforms in a gatekeeping position pose to radio.
With the right regulatory framework in place, listeners will continue to enjoy unfettered access to radio, free at the point of use, and broadcasters will have a secure route to market on equitable terms.
That way, we can ensure that media plurality will be preserved.
Paul Keenan is president, Bauer Media Audio