Reviewing Robot Radio, or News From the Dalek Desk
March 21, 2014
I have heard the future and it is... meh. For now.
So, you may have seen an item here at All Access yesterday about Tribune Company unveiling a new smartphone app, Newsbeat. What Newsbeat does is, basically, customizable streaming all-news radio of a sort. The goal, I guess, is to say, well, we'll give you a WINS or WTOP or KYW clone, only you pick the topics you prefer and we'll serve 'em up one by one; you can skip what you don't want to hear, repeat what you want to review, and there you go, even with local weather and traffic. That's the theory.
But that's not exactly what you get, not at this stage. First, the stories are not radio news stories. They're the first few paragraphs of newspaper articles and website posts, culled from the Tribune papers and a majority of other papers in the U.S., plus CNN. They're not written for radio, and it shows. The stories are mostly read by a text-to-speech bot, alternating between male and female tones, with a very few items read by a real live human. That's a huge problem. The bots aren't as bad as they used to be -- they can handle more unusual proper names, for one thing -- but they still can't replicate a human voice's natural cadence and understanding of sentence structure, so it's what you'd expect it to be, emphasis on the wrong words, perfectly robotic pacing, horribly fatiguing. You can't listen to it for very long. (They also read everything that's in front of them, including dateline, so one story I got started, "HONOLULU HONOLULU.")
Another problem is that the algorithm doesn't seem to know when it's running stories about the same topic close together. Imagine if on an all-news station, two out of every three stories were the same story about the missing airplane, only from different sources. (Insert CNN joke here.) I entered a bunch of topics and preferences, and it couldn't distinguish which topics belonged together and which didn't -- I had national news and local news interrupted by a stray story about the Philadelphia Flyers. There's no separate sports report or feature segment or any pacing at all. It's as if a robot was reading the first couple of paragraphs of everything in the newspaper in random order.
So this thing could use a radio person to work on the algorithm and the overall sound. And there are more nits to pick, like useless traffic reports (nothing to report? Really? In Los Angeles?), flat out incorrect weather (40% chance of rain? How about 0%?), annoying musical cues between stories with no way to turn them totally off... there are plenty of reasons I probably won't choose Newsbeat over KNX when I want local all-News radio.
Yet... this is also pretty much a first iteration. You can say the same thing about the customizable news ABC has on Slacker or talk and news on Stitcher. It's all really, really early in the game. Just because right now Newsbeat is really hard to listen to does not mean it will always be that way. Just because their text-to-speech bots are stiff and, well, robotic doesn't mean that the technology won't ever be able to convincingly replicate the human voice and speech patterns. Just because the algorithm isn't all that great doesn't mean it won't improve. I'll give credit to Tribune for throwing this out there and seeing what works.
And it's interesting that the radio industry didn't do an app like this. After all, with thousands of stations generating countless reports, it seems that it would be just as easy to create a customizable stream, only with stories that were written and produced for radio, read by human radio voices, put together by radio people. It's not too late -- there's always room for someone to come in and do an idea better. A customizable version of the very, very good all-News radio stations across North America, with the brands people trust and quality that can't be matched by a bot? Yeah, I'd use that. While the industry spends time and money on the FM tuner app and HD Radio, maybe it should be spending some time and money developing something that leverages their best content in a manner that consumers prefer. Just thinking out loud here, but radio still owns content that competing technologies would kill to have and are trying to replicate. There are more ways to deploy that content than just on a broadcast signal.
No matter how your content gets distributed, you need material to put into that content. (Man, that's one awkward segue. Can't be helped.) And you can get that material from All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Plus, every few years, we check back in for another "10 Questions With..." one of the industry's more creative thinkers, Walter Sabo. This week, we did it again, and he offers his take on radio's future -- he's as provocative as ever.
Okay, that's all I got for now. Back to watching the NCAA bask... er... work.