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.

  • MrE85

    My speakers are as dumb as I am.

    • Joseph

      Good old fashioned classic radio works just fine — in the car and in the home! Even for me, a millennial. No need for fancy overpriced radio’s whose sole gimmick is voice control, instead of pressing a button or turning a dial.

      • Yep, works great IF you have a radio.

        • And if you want the pork futures when you’re making your way through Iowa. I’d rather listen to MPR on the smartphone.

          • Barton

            It’s all the “talk radio” through Iowa and N. Missouri that made me start using radio apps on my phone and/or audio dramas on road trips.

          • It was all Sirius/XM for me on the last drive back to New England. The extent to which radio just flat out stinks outside of Minnesota cannot be overstated.

          • Barton

            I often wonder if that is because we are used to the radio in Minnesota (MPR and The Current mainly for me), or because it really does stink. And then I scan the dial in NE Missouri and find 27 talk radio stations yelling at me with 20 country music stations talking about infidelity and a truck. And I know we are spoiled here.

          • It stinks because we’re used to MPR and The Currrent (and, I would add other public stations like KAXE). But if you like the same 10 songs over the course of a 1200 mile trip, then definitely go with terrestrial radio . :*)

          • Jerry

            I just went on a road trip through Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and California; and the rental car’s satellite radio was a lifesaver. I would never use it in my daily life because I like and know the stations here, but it was great in the middle of nowhere Utah.

          • There’s also an NPR One Channel on Sirius/XM. I get Marketplace an hour earlier and I also check out some of the other talk offerings in public radio .

          • I think on Sirius/XM it’s called “NPR Now”, but they also have PRX Public Radio, BBC, and CBC – all of which I like.

        • Joseph

          I can’t imagine not having a radio — even if it’s a simple clock radio on the dresser.

  • Gary F

    Do the advertisers, oops, excuse me, sponsors, get their ads played on these devices for NPR/MPR? Same dilemma as podcasting?

    I don’t have one of those devices and not sure why I would need one.

    • From what I can tell, most underwriting announcements on the MPR stream are covered up by promos.

  • Sybil Twilight

    I don’t have a smart speaker. I do have a lovely little Bose Bluetooth speaker that has an amazing range, excellent battery life, and quality sound. I can stream any thing I choose through either my laptop or my phone, haul the speaker to any room in the house or the deck and have news or music of my choice.

    Last summer we took it on our trip to Itasca and listened to the entire Shit Town podcast – previously downloaded – on successive evenings around the campfire.

    I love it!

    • Rob

      Ain’t never gonna be no Alexa spy gadgets in my domicile either. I have a Bluetooth-capable Marshall/Stanmore speaker that produces awesome sound for streaming tunes, radio streams, news, podcasts, etc. It’ll definitely be coming with me on my summer trip to the Arrowhead. Got a Sony Bluetooth mini speaker, too, which is perfect for tapping into my iPhone when I play along to songs on my guitar.

      • Kassie

        Meh. You say that now, but it is inevitable, isn’t it? I once proclaimed I’d never need a cell phone and now I can’t live without it. Backup cameras on cars seemed ridiculous, and now I can’t wait for my next car to have the automatic braking. Times change. We adapt and accept.

        • Sybil Twilight

          I’ve been resisting getting a new car because I’m a bit afraid of the newer technology. I’m not sure I want to trust a machine to brake automatically or recognize a child behind my car. (But I still drive a stick, so …)

          • John

            I think of the automatic braking and child recognition as secondary insurance for what I will be doing anyways. I don’t trust the machine to do it, but if it does, so much the better.

          • Kassie

            Exactly this. I’m still alert and paying attention, but there are additional tools available to help me.

          • I don’t have any part of the car that actually takes over for the driver…but it beeps like crazy when I’m backing up and a car or kid is coming (in addition to the camera)… and it has flashing lights on the rear view mirrors for when there’s a car in or about to be in my blind spot. I consider them both indispensable assistants now.

        • Rob

          I’m waiting for Alexa 2.0, which will not only have spying/reporting to the corporate overlords capabilities, but will also be able to read my thoughts.
          : )

          • Sybil Twilight

            I’d be inclined to go for it if it could record my dreams and play them back. Of course then the corporate overlords would know exactly how crazy I am.

      • Siri already knows all about you, thanks to big data and algorithms.

  • Sybil Twilight

    I have at least 2 radio apps, each seems to have a different array of choices. I have all the local public radio stations, and several European jazz stations saved as favorites.

    Broadcast though my bluetooth speaker while the phone is charging and I have radio anywhere I happen to be.

  • Traditional FM radio is problematic at best. Limited in range by the curvature of the Earth, it also suffers from all kinds of terrestrial obstructions and out of phase signals that make using it in your vehicle even more aggravating. Even in the metro we have to fiddle with antennas to make MPR come in static-free, and sometimes it isn’t even possible. Its one saving grace is that it is a less “brittle” technology since it doesn’t need internet to work.

    Now that we have reliable internet, smart speakers make sense. They are easy to use and there is never any fading or static. Our Amazon Echo system was already in place to set timers, answer questions, control the thermostat, and play music from our library, so why not start using it to replace FM radio as well? Yes, privacy concerns accompany every new technology, but almost everyone uses smartphones, so that ship has already sailed. If you are prudent and inform yourself about how the technology works, it is well worth adding to your home.

    On the road, your smartphone has the same features as your smart speakers. It can serve up MPR or NPR One or Wait Wait anytime and anywhere you have a data connection. No more do we have to run up and down the radio dial hoping against hope that there will be something on other than radio preachers and country music when driving through the south. Our smartphone connects to the car’s audio system via Bluetooth and brings in the civility of our own MPR.

    So let’s tap this technology for good, right? We are public radio people, after all. Smart, informed, and open-minded.

    • Barton

      I remember how excited I used to get as a kid (70s/early 80s) when it was a really clear night and I could pick up KMOX out of St Louis Missouri and listen to the Cardinal games from the parking lot at Lakeville high school. It wasn’t clear, there was a LOT of crackling, but there were Mike Shannon and Jack Buck talking about my red birds! It felt like magic!

      • Rob

        For me, it was the underground rock show, “Beaker Street Theater” from KAAY in Little Rock, Arkansas

    • Jack Ungerleider

      What your smart phone needs is the NPR Station Finder app. I can attest that it works great for finding the “next” public radio station between here and Oklahoma City. I also tried CastBox the last trip on the way back (after Christmas) and it works pretty good. Since the new phone is a more stripped down version of Android I might try using Google Play Music for podcasts. But you need to be able to have them offline on the trip. No data in south central Iowa and northwest Missouri. 8^)

      • Google Play is VERY poor for podcasts since it only gives you a choice of certain podcasts to listen to. I’ve finally settled on Podcast Addict.

        • I’ve been using one called Podcast Republic.

      • Thanks for the tip on that finder app.

  • Try NPR One. It offers a feel of live radio while offering you podcasts that you can listen to or skip, all while “learning” your preferences. It’s also built under the hood to buffer audio so as to avoid dropouts. The earliest version was terrible because it didn’t have this feature, but now it really does a great job. Sign into it the first time by telling it your station is MPR, and it will take it from there.

    • Over the last couple of years I’ve added and removed it from my phone about 7 or 8 times. I found it really poor but perhaps it’s improved now. I found it particularly poor as a podcast player. I should give it another chance.

      • I decided to test it this afternoon as a podcast player. I had missed the March 3 edition of Wait Wait (the one with Jesse Diggins), so I opened the app on my Android phone and set the cursor in the search field. I spoke “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” into the search box and was presented with a list of recent shows along with guests, so I picked the one I wanted. I began streaming in our own WiFi environment, then went out on my afternoon hike, which switched the data stream to T-Mobile. There was no interruption in the audio stream and there were no drops during the walk, even down in the woods by Wilmes Lake where signals are low. Returning to the house and picking up the WiFi presented no problem for the app. It worked very well, outperforming the MPR stream, which always drops during data changes, and the PRI stream, which drops every few minutes on mobile data no matter what. It’s way better than the early versions of the app.

  • Amazon Fire TVs now can be controlled by Alexa!

    • Jeff

      I still haven’t connected all the dots yet (yuk, yuk). For now all our Echo does is the shopping list and the weather. What I’d like is an integrated system so I can tell Alexa to “Turn on the Timberwolves game” and it knows what to do. I’m not sure technology is there yet. Otherwise, if it can control my cable, Roku, Wifi-enabled receiver, TV, DVD, and I can get rid of the 4 of the 5 or so remotes we have now I’d be happy. To start, I think I need something like the Logitech Hub, but not sure. Any links or advice would be appreciated.

  • wjc

    I never listen to traditional radio. I have a smart speaker and I love it. I can tell it to play the most recent episode of 99% Invisible (listen if you haven’t yet). I don’t like radio stations to decide what I should hear. I want control.

    • Brian Simon

      I like the unknown. The radio plays things I wouldn’t hear if I were in control.

      • Rob

        Like both kinds of music? Country and Western, I mean

        • Brian Simon

          Perfect example. I wouldn’t listen to “americana” but the sunday morning show on the current is excellent.

          • Do you have presets on your radio or just use the “scan” button?

          • Brian Simon

            Locally, presets 89.3 & 91.1; I value commercial free more than discovering something new on KDWB, etc.

            Travelling, scan, scan, scan.

          • wjc

            Americana! Country and Western! Gaaah! ;-D

  • I have a pair of those old RS speakers in my home office. They are connected to an old FM tuner/amplifier the input to which is connected to an Echo Dot smart speaker.

  • Mike Worcester

    Being I am one of the five of six Americans who don’t own a device named Alexa or similar, forgive my ignorance but do these smart speakers act as streaming devices, like how one could use the Tune In Radio app on their laptop or iPad? Guess I’m one of those kinda people who still turns on their radio in the morning to listen to the daily news roundup. Makes me feel some days like I’m a holdover from the Cretaceous Period.

    • Yeah, somewhat. A lot of the streaming it provides is coming from Tune In. The Flash Briefing component is really unmatched. It fetches all the updates from all your sources .

      There’s nothing wrong with a terrestrial radio, of course. It’s just that their use in the home has declined and as that has happened, so has their presence in convenient parts of the home.

    • Barton

      I listen to the “radio” each morning for my news through the TuneIn app. I don’t actually have a radio anymore (last one got fried when a circuit blew in the house). My crappy phone/laptop/iPad speakers are good enough for most things.

  • Brian Simon

    I’m looking forward to the day when my membership allows me to not hear the pledge drives. Until then the digital technology is useless to me.

    • Rob

      Yes! There oughtta be some sort of bypass app for pledge drives for sustaining members.

      • Whenever there’s something on the MPR stream I dislike, I just say, “Alexa, play NPR One”. Or I switch to another public radio station.

        • Rob

          : )