Artificial Intelligence invades radio

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Robotics & Artificial Intelligence (AI) are increasingly invading the workplace & replacing humans with sophisticated automation, functions & abilities that make the need for human employees redundant.  We are all familiar with the functions of robotics in the car & aerospace manufacturing industries.  We are also becoming aware of world-wide governments pursuit of AI in sophisticated weaponry & surveillance functionality. I have, in the past, walked that fine line between predicting a future in broadcasting taken over by AI & sarcasm about such innovations.  It now seems that future will soon become a reality & not a sinister joke.  According to an article in InsideRadio the mighty NAB – who, in reality represent the lobbying interests of the largest of the mega-corporations that have infiltrated broadcasting such as iHeart, Cumulus, Entercom etc – are doing serious research into intelligent AI that “can have conversations with individual viewers, listeners or consumers. The objective is that broadcasters should be able to define and train the AI character’s personality.”  The NAB’s technology & innovation initiative called PILOT are investigating & putting research into implementation of the ultimate in automation to replace human radio personalities.  In this bleak era of corporate “cookie-cutter” radio & the relentless pursuit of the bottom line resulting in fewer & fewer broadcasting employees, it should come as no surprise that the NAB has the ultimate goal of establishing AI in place of human broadcasters.

This objective “sounds vaguely similar to a project ESPN has been working on. During a panel discussion at the 2018 Radio Show in Orlando, Traug Keller, Senior VP of ESPN, played a prototype audio clip of sports talk host Scott Van Pelt interacting with a New York Yankees fan on a smart speaker. Only it wasn’t really Van Pelt, but a machine synthesizing his voice using hundreds of words the ESPN host recorded. The sports network’s answer to Siri or Alexa would allow listeners to have virtual conversations with hosts about their favorite teams and have the system cull through ESPN’s 25 terabits of audio content to return” according to InsideRadio.  PILOT Executive Director John Clark said in a press release: “We are intrigued with the concept of a system that allows viewers and listeners to have one-on-one conversations with stations, while providing broadcasters the ability to better serve their communities.”  PILOT has put forth a challenge to software developers to come up with a working AI prototype to achieve this objective & is offering up to $150,000 in funding to the winner chosen to supply the innovations required to accomplish this.

The cynic in me sees this as the next ominous move to eliminate as many people as possible from on air work in radio.  However, I have a hard time believing it possible for AI to replace play-by-play sports broadcast announcers or talk show hosts interacting with the unpredictability of on-air callers discussing a particular topic.  I can see AI replacing show announcers/hosts, newscasters, sportscasters, music DJ’s & a number of other on air programming personnel.  This will further reduce employment opportunities in corporate radio.  Soon the majority of on air work requiring live humans will be as volunteers in community/campus radio hosting & programming narrow-cast specialties that such stations exist for.  The increasingly bland, generic, one-size-fits-all approach to corporate radio in most markets will diminish in quality even further once AI is firmly in place to remove the last of the human factor that listeners crave & tune in for.  Even VT, which often seems ‘canned’ & generic will generate more human presence in radio than will artificial intelligence. We can only hope the few remaining “indie” station operators will see this opportunity to find a niche in radio as a chance to provide real, live human beings behind the mic that can provide the warmth, interaction & spontaneity that has made radio such a personal experience for listeners.  Meanwhile, the NAB & it’s constituent broadcasting corporations will continue to strive for the cheapest bottom line attainable for it’s station groups by whatever means possible at the expense of creating meaningful employment for talented broadcasters. As Pink Floyd once sang: “Welcome to the machine!”

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Mike Cherry

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

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