James Cridland: What is a radio, anyway? And what’s a smart speaker?

James Cridland, the radio futurologist, is a conference speaker, writer and consultant. He runs the media information website media.info and helps organise the yearly Next Radio conference. He also publishes podnews.net, a daily briefing on podcasting and on-demand, and writes a weekly international radio trends newsletter, at james.crid.land.

I rather like this tweet, from the UK industry group Radiocentre, which does a very good job of explaining radio’s multiplatform nature:

It’s a succinctly made point; and highlights a failing in the English language — radio means, of course, three different things — a receiver, a technology, and a type of audio programming.

Radio is now on a variety of different platforms. Broadcast technology, like FM or DAB+; live streaming via IP; and on-demand too, in the form of podcasting and other things.

Most, if not all, radio research reflects this. The apparent unsophistication of a paper diary or a web form is actually quite a useful way of understanding how people listen: since it works with every form of radio, not just something delivered on a speaker.

Fewer people are buying radio receivers than ever before. Yet, in most markets, more people are listening to radio than ever before — because radio is not a platform, it’s a thing. I define it as “audio with a shared experience and a human connection”.

If we have trouble with defining a “radio”, what about a “smart speaker”, I wonder?

In Q1 2018, the Amazon Echo sold 2.5m devices worldwide; but Google Home sold 3.2m devices in the same time period. It’s the first time that Google has out-sold Amazon for smart speakers.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, though: Google’s voice assistant works with over 5,000 devices. My JBL Link speaker that is on my deck has Google Assistant built-in; but it isn’t a Google Home. Where does it fit in the figures?

The GPS I use in the car has Google Assistant built-in (very good for sending text messages). The Bose headphones that I take travelling, or the smaller bud headphones I wear on the bus, both have Google Assistant on them as well — I walked over the William Jolly Bridge in Brisbane the other day, asking Google about my diary for tomorrow.

And of course, my mobile phone has Google Assistant in it, too. If it’s on the table, seemingly switched off, “OK, Google, what’s in the news?” will play me a short news bulletin. Or, “Hey, Google, ask Podnews for the latest” starts a conversation with my Podnews podcasting news website.

So, you can compare sales of Amazon Echo vs Google Home if you like; but that misses great swathes of the smart speaker ecosystem.

And you can define radio as a speaker in a box that picks up FM if you like; but that, too, misses much of what your audience already calls radio.

Your challenge is to ensure that your radio output sounds great — whatever ‘radio’ it is playing on.

Brad Hill