Fear not thy smart speaker

There are days we wonder if the public radio audience ever lacks for outrage by what they hear on the radio and the streak of days continues with the NPR ombudsman’s column this week addressing the complaints of listeners who don’t like NPR — and MPR — promoting “smart speakers” and “smart devices.”

If there’s one thing that radio listeners — and some radio employees, too, I’ve noticed — don’t like, it’s the advancing technology that allows us access to information on demand, even if it provides an opportunity to stem the decline of radio as a relevant medium.

Smart speakers, like Alexa, for example, allow me to start every day with a daily briefing of NPR, MPR, the Wall St. Journal, the BBC, and Bloomberg News, for instance. I used to watch morning TV but those days are over.

Since I don’t have a radio where I write NewsCut in the morning, I can tell the smart speaker to “Play MPR” and hear the live stream, or say, “Play NPR One” if I want to hear a different approach, or I can pick any other public radio station, or any radio station for that matter, or any podcast.

This, as you might imagine, is disrupting to the radio business with its “you’ll get what we want you to get when we’re good and ready to give it to you” history, and people like to hold on to their traditions.

It also forces local stations to compete with every other possible source of information I can get, just by asking to hear it.

Why wouldn’t NPR promote that it’s accessible via smart speakers?

“To paraphrase NPR’s approach to digital innovation: Radio isn’t going away, it’s going everywhere,” Anne Johnson writes in the ombudsman’s space. “So it seems only natural that NPR audio content is now available on those platforms.”

Scary stuff, indeed.

But NPR listeners complain that the messages sound “promotional.” Ooooh! Scarier stuff.

Other listeners wrote to express concerns about their personal security. As Mary Applegate of Bethlehem, N.Y., wrote, “I’ve been concerned in recent days hearing several NPR announcers urging listeners to visit npr.org or to tell their ‘smart speakers’ to tune in to NPR. This tacit endorsement of such devices is irresponsible; it encourages people to adopt a product that can compromise their personal privacy by collecting extensive data about the user. NPR needs to provide thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of ‘smart speakers’ instead of uncritically promoting their use.”

Yes, by all means. Listen the pros and cons of smart speakers, but by all means do not use your smart speakers to hear such a conversation. Instead, walk out to your car in your bathrobe and have breakfast there while you listen to the same conversation you could in the comfort of your living room.

Other listeners said by promoting the fact NPR is available on a convenient medium, the network wouldn’t cover issues surrounding the use of the devices.

Two words: Micheal Oreskes.

Seventy-one percent of people who own smart speakers (that would be one in six Americans at the moment) say they listen to more audio since they bought it.

Thirty-nine percent say they are spending less time with traditional AM/FM, 34% say time with the devices has supplanted time with their smartphones, 30% with television, 27% with tablets, 26% with computers, 23% with printed publications.

That is to say: Smart speakers are making “radio” relevant in the home again, which might just save broadcasters if listeners will put down the constant need for worry and let it happen.