Radio: The Evolution Continues


In 2024, OpenAI is set to release what is anticipated to be the most revolutionary leap in artificial intelligence yet: SONA. And in this case, yes, the hype is likely appropriate. Anyone who attended this year’s SXSW can attest that between SONA and Ray Kurzweil’s extraordinary assurance that we will all be immortal in less than a decade, it was impossible to leave Austin without a sense of wonder, awe and maybe a little trepidation. Seemingly, for those of us in radio, the message was clear: you will soon live forever…and, btw, your services are no longer required.  

But hey, we had a good run, didn’t we? Remember that time we did the thing? Good times, great oldies. That was fun.

Yeah, not so fast there, radio. We’re not dead yet. For, we know that if radio has demonstrated anything throughout its history, surely its resilience in the face of new distractions is its most admirable trait. After all, as an industry, we’ve weathered television, the internet, Spotify and, yet, here we are. Despite our financial ups and downs, the audience continues to show up. Frankly, sometimes we might ask ourselves why.

Radio long ago restructured its programming to better attract specific demographics in an effort for advertisers to precisely target their message to consumers. In turn, following consolidation in the 90s, radio adopted a more modern business model, with efficiencies such as streamlining formats and syndicating talent. Most of these were reasonable adjustments and, without these adaptations, radio might not still be the billion dollar industry it remains in 2024. But, make no mistake. Along the way, some of us lost the plot.

Practically every seasoned broadcaster has had the experience of dialing in to a trainwreck. We’ve all heard poorly programmed radio stations missing network cues, firing off old weather forecasts, and sometimes, just acting as a dead carrier on a frequency that no staffer has bothered to monitor in…hours? Days? It’s an embarrassment and, actually, SONA could represent a turning point for these stations in more than one way. Or perhaps we might call it a comeuppance; more on that in a bit.

Radio veterans have been lamenting voice-tracking and automation for literally decades, citing stations that have zero connection to their local communities. These properties, whether “on the bird” or tracked from out of state, are correctly shamed when they fail to meet the basic requirements of serving their local communities. Usually, we can trace these issues back to basic under-staffing and, as we are all aware, the industry hasn’t allowed a course correction in this regard. Like it or not, though, SONA will present the opportunity for operators to scale back their staff even further despite this. In fact, it might be impossible for them to avoid doing so.

I’m reminded of a grizzled old jock that I admired greatly as a freshman announcer, who regularly took every opportunity to curse and lament the very existence of auto-carts. Not computers, not even full-on playout automation, but one cart machine that would then fire the next in succession. “There’s no heart! No soul,” he said, as if it mattered, of a machine that eliminated the one or two seconds of silence between commercial elements on a program that he otherwise had full editorial control of. If he could see us now.

That dude hated automation. And his conviction was real. When the computers really did come, true to his word, he quit. He went on to sell cars (happily; he was really good at it). But surely SONA will inspire a few broadcasters to echo what he said to me on his last day at the station: “I didn’t sign up for that, man.”  

He was absolutely right. He didn’t.

Among the most anticipated new features that SONA presents is improved Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and Generation (NLG). As media professionals, we are very quick to notice the discrepancies in tone and delivery currently provided by AI text-to-voice platforms. Often, even the most advanced models like those served by ElevenLabs, remain stilted in their delivery. SONA will change that, enabling broadcasters to easily alter the emotional subtleties that previously only a human voice talent could muster.  

Likewise, OpenAI has promised easy implementation of SONA for developers of existing applications that have already adopted the use of ChatGPT, so it’s safe to assume that most playout software will be utilizing SONA in some regard, thereby making the process of automating shifts remarkably simple.  

So simple, in fact, that one can imagine a future where a station’s Program Director might arrive at the office, scan the day’s most relevant headlines and then instruct their on-air avatars to create entertaining and compelling breaks around their pre-scheduled music logs. And most broadcast CEOs reading this will, understandably, entertain at least the passing query of, “...if they can program one station made entirely of bots, why couldn’t that same PD program the whole cluster?”

Let’s be frank. It would be irresponsible for the head of any company to not have this thought cross their mind. Scold the imaginary exec for asking if you like; everyone here can do the math. That said, our industry leaders must be cautious not to rush to new technology without first establishing a comprehensive dialogue with their valuable programming teams, those paid to understand the wants and needs of their respective communities. Something like this imagined scenario might be appropriate, or even beneficial, for very specific markets. It might also easily spell disaster for several others.

The changes that SONA will bring are challenging, but we must be aware that its very existence will radically change what “radio” is going forward. We, as those now working within the broadcast world, have the incredibly unique distinction and great responsibility of being the leaders that will shape the future of broadcasting. No pressure, of course. But where we go from here is entirely dependent on how quickly and responsibly we implement emerging technology into our operations. 

Taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to radio’s evolution is not advisable, nor is charging headlong into uncharted territory. There is no question that SONA, or any similarly advanced AI technology, presents numerous opportunities for radio and television broadcasters, significantly transforming the landscape of content creation, distribution, and audience engagement. It’s important to understand what that new landscape we’re approaching will look like.

Consider for a moment, what will soon be possible and accessible to you:

Personalized Stations: AI like SONA can analyze listener preferences and behaviors to create personalized content, allowing broadcasters to cater to the individual tastes of their audience, enhancing audience engagement and satisfaction. Most programmers know that, especially when working with younger demos, cross-genre interest in music is at its peak. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume that some percentage of a station’s audience might want to hear the new Beyonce song back to back with Metallica.

That said, radio should not deconstruct its use of lifestyle driven formats to serve audiences, rather we must instead broaden this approach. Now is the time to begin sandboxing concepts that might create brand new targets. Niche markets that might have previously appeared to be unprofitable may now be feasible because of these incoming AI and automation tools.

This represents an opportunity for radio to showcase what we do better than any other medium. For a refresher, take a listen to what radio did when television was rumored to make it irrelevant. In response, radio diversified programming so dramatically that it changed the world. We made rock and roll happen, and comfortably bought ourselves another 80 years of cultural relevance.

Forward thinking stations are already making progress here, of course. By creating additional “side channels” online and via HD, broadcasters have already begun laying the foundation for this evolution. We might imagine a future where a radio station cluster is not 5 OTA properties, but rather FIFTY distinct online formats appealing to diverse audiences, five of which also happen to be available on AM/FM/HD. 

Efficiency in Production: It’s not only day-to-day programming that radio might be able to automate. Creative Services is likely to be facing a pivotal moment as well. With SONA and other AI technologies, radio will be able to automate every aspect of imaging and commercial production, from scripting to editing, to voice emulation and even creating a fresh piece of AI generated music for the spot bed. 

In this case, a local client, instead of calling the station office, will simply log on to the broadcaster’s website. Then, they’ll be stepped-through the entire process of writing, creating, scheduling and purchasing a commercial by AI. In this case, a local business owner can have their announcement on the air in a matter of minutes. A small sales team is no longer the culprit it might have been for smaller properties prior to AI, as spots can now be purchased on-demand by anyone, at any time.

Enhanced Accessibility: One of SONA’s most game-changing features is its ability to provide real-time translations and transcriptions, making content accessible to a any audience and to those with hearing or visual impairments. The ability to tune in to any radio station in the world and listen to their content in the language of your choosing opens enormous opportunities for broadcasters to serve communities previously unavailable and it broadens the appeal of existing programming. 

Online Content Creation: Some companies have done better than others when it comes to expanding their footprint online, but even the most successful among them have still struggled internally to keep up with the demand for locally-focused content. SONA can help solve this problem by giving the stations the ability to create online articles and video content to compliment the on-air product and to further engage audiences on social media.

And if you worry that this content will be of poor quality, programmers should explore the latest builds of text, image, audio and video content generators. Much of the quality is already extraordinary and one is to be reminded that this is the worst it will ever be. Advances are being made daily with these platforms and there is no indication that the progress will be halted. If it’s not yet to your liking, you can be certain that it will be very soon. Get to know it now.

Optimization: SONA can analyze vast amounts of data to provide insights on what content is performing best and why, allowing broadcasters to optimize their content strategies for better engagement and higher retention rates. What once took hours to digest via countless spreadsheets and analytics, will now be rendered in real time. Imagine PPM for everything, all the time.

The Singularity: That’s Ray’s term, of course. When Kurzweil talks about the singularity, he’s discussing the convergence of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) and Human intelligence. In that context, everything becomes possible, from nanobots curing cancer to uploading your consciousness to the cloud. It boggles the ayahuasca-soaked mind of even the most learned tech bro. 

For our purposes, however, we might look at this singularity as the blurring of lines between media. In the minds of consumers, soon there will be very little difference between television and radio. We can anticipate this expanding further as stations begin to incorporate AR and VR elements into their regular programming becoming true multimedia properties. To that end, radio then begins its life as an omni accessible network, available for consumption practically anywhere, on any engagement platform. Yes, including AM/FM.

In this context, we can imagine a radio station less as a frequency and moreso as a stand-alone “brand” that simultaneously exists on all platforms. Inside these brands, additional meta-worlds, or side channels, might exist for listeners to explore content deeper by experiencing virtual concerts, participating in on-air discussions in real-time, and by virtually interacting with other members of their local communities.

You might think of it as a one-stop shop for all of your local news and cultural needs. Sure, the station’s website still features music news, funny bits from the morning show, etc. but it also contains genuinely interesting information about the area. We can imagine a space in VR where a listener from outside your home market visits your venue in VRChat or Metaworlds and is able to take a complete walking tour of your city. Accompanied by your station as the soundtrack for said walk, of course!

So, while all of the above might sound thrilling and perhaps a bit daunting, this is our best sketch of the future in April 2024. It’s a lot to take in. The media landscape has certainly changed and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, so going forward, let’s not get comfortable. What radio must do now is exactly what we do best: adapt, innovate and overcome.  

But before getting to work, first things first. We must assume that most of our readers, while familiar with the fundamentals of AI/AR/VR, are unsure as to how they might begin the process. In fact, I would venture to say that about half of the inquiries I receive weekly are specifically regarding those topics. In an effort to begin a productive dialogue within the industry, we’ll be publishing a series of primers in the coming days/weeks for every department on your team.

From the company COO to entry level On-Air Talent, we’ll address the items that you’ll likely be responsible for as we enter this exciting, new phase of broadcasting. We’ll do our best to cover everything from engineering/IT/additional station infrastructure to how On-Air Talent can best utilize AI to grow and build their programs. We’ll cover ways to enlist AI to sift through mountains of station data, making it easy for programmers to track trends, identify hot songs, and further grow the brand’s social media presence. How/When should your station take the leap into VR? And, perhaps most importantly, how can radio take full advantage of the power of emerging tech to truly super-serve our local communities?

The introduction of SONA does not mean that all on-air talent will eventually be AI generated bots ramping up songs on the local Top 40. But, it does represent an important sea-change for the media, and it will impact every one of us; not only in our work-lives but at home as well. Those that understand and can effectively utilize incoming technology like SONA, are about to become our industry’s most valuable employees. Let’s make sure that you’re among them.    

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