Using your big toe instead of both feet

In the News Social & Digital

I’ve been in the media business for close to five decades. I’ve witnessed all sorts of new technology and innovations during that time – everything from the CD’s replacing vinyl, broadcast automation replacing live hosts, and social media replacing marketing. In most cases, many broadcasters moved quickly in the name of “efficiency” and profitability. Concurrently, experts suggested the industry take its time and make sure it integrates these new time-savers and upgrades carefully, in order to not unknowingly upset the apple cart.

Fortunately, in the above examples, everything went fine, and in each case ultimately enhanced the industry in many ways, although we can argue that social media dependency has come with a cost.

But I’ve never seen a feeding frenzy like what we are seeing with AI – “Artificial Intelligence.” Each year, we attend the Consumer Electronics Show in January and over the past 2-3 years, have seen examples of AI in action. It’s moved from a concept to tangible applications. This January was no exception. Below is the AI version of “Captain Kirk,” William Shatner. At CES, we were able to have a “conversation” with him.  It was cool, but somewhat unsettling.

If you had asked any broadcaster about AI three months ago, you would have received mostly blank stares. It didn’t exist as anything more than something they’d seen on Twitter or read about in “Scientific American.”

But in the past 90 days, the feeding frenzy has begun. I have never seen interest in a new technology explode like AI, and broadcasters see something that can save money, increase efficiency, generate more content, and grow profitability. Potentially.

I’m heavily into technology and our company’s brand is built around being forward-leaning and visionary. And I’m not arguing that even in these early stages, there are compelling aspects around AI that should be explored and tested. For example, many broadcasters have encouraged their air personalities and hosts to write a regular blog. But frankly, just because you are good on the air doesn’t mean you can write. So utilizing a service like ChatGPT to generate copy might solve the problem. But…the software isn’t perfect, and it isn’t in a human voice (or the voice of your morning host). 

What AI-generated copy really does is convert people from writers to editors. It’s a well put-together collection of facts, and I strongly encourage you not to grab something out of the printer and post it. Make sure it’s reviewed and crafted not to represent “1’s” and “0’s” but the voice of your host or station.

And then there’s the brilliant idea of using AI to replace voices on the air. Think of the money you’ll save! If you’ve heard voice AI, it’s pretty good and it has its place. For example, if a station needs to produce a significant number of promotional announcements with the usual variants (“On sale next week,”  “On sale tomorrow,” “On sale today”), a Chatbot might make sense.

But to replace a live, on-air host? At this stage of the game, that not only sets off legal alarms (talk to David Oxenford before you do anything) but ethical alarms as well.

As broadcasters (especially in radio) grapple with digital competitors, I do not believe we want to sterilize our industry in order to match them. Spotify has zero personality, emotion, or connectivity (much less knowing anything about Green Bay or Eau Claire). Why do we want to become them when live, local humans are the secret sauce that makes broadcasting compelling, interesting, unpredictable, and compelling? Last week, we unveiled the results of our 2023 Techsurvey, comprised of 30,000 radio listeners from the US and Canada. When asked what the main reasons they listen to radio are, note the preponderance of what we call, “emotional reasons” (noted with the red “e”). People listen to the radio because they feel a connection to radio, it keeps them company, and it puts them in a better mood.

Try wrapping your arms around a ChatBot and calling it a companion.

Technology and change are here to stay, and over the next months and years, we are going to find viable tasks for AI in our operations. But let’s not rush headfirst into the “next big thing” only to find that the most valuable asset broadcasters have has been damaged – the trusted relationship with listeners and viewers.

It’s fine to put your big toe in the water, but before you dive in headfirst, better determine just how deep the pond is first.

Paul Jacobs
Jacobs Media