⚒ Controlling the means of DISTRIBUTION

I'm three weeks late and what is this?

Hi, you’re reading Wakeword, a newsletter all about the distinct bit where the news, voice-controlled devices and artificial intelligence collide.

If you’re enjoying it, and/or you know someone else who might, why not get them to sign up?

So it’s been a WHILE. I’m pretty sure the last email started that way too.

Let’s think of Wakeword as more of a sporadic email that goes out when I’ve thought of anything interesting to say.

It’s just been the Voice 2019 conference over in the US of A. I didn’t go because I work at the coal face, shovelling news into the UK’s smart speakers, but a few of the people who work in my overall division (BBC Voice and AI) went along.

They talked about some of the BBC’s big voice tech successes including the BBC Kids app which won a Webby and our experiment with covering the latest Indian election on Google Assistant.

One of the panels that I found interesting was all about how public media broadcasters are responding to smart speakers/devices.

It’s worth a watch over on YouTube.

PSBs are in a weird place right now because traditionally they control their own distribution, save for having a contractor actually keep the transmitter masts from rusting over and falling down.

But it’s Amazon, Google and Apple who are the gatekeepers to (shudders at the word) content if you want to reach people over smart speakers and it has some worried.

What if your content gets chopped into bits and the meaning gets changed? What if you get put alongside someone else’s material that is wildly different to your own? Would people even realise that it’s your providing that news story?

The PSBs are seemingly the first to notice, and probably the only ones with another clout to do something about it.

Link to this page with no comment.

The latest listening figures for UK radio were released this week.

One of the lines that the UK papers and industry sources are running with is that smart speakers have helped to pull listeners away from BBC stations to commercial radio.

me, working on a bbc smart speaker service:

Homer Collar GIF - Homer Collar Tug GIFs

First thing to say. Numbers go up and down. But second thing, it does look like there’s been quite a jump in reach for Online/Apps over the past six months or so.


While that’s most likely to be smart speakers, it could also be apps like BBC Sounds.

And it’s not a zero-sum game, people don’t automatically head for commercial radio because smart speaker. It’s really just equaling the playing field when there’s no such thing as keeping your radio tuned to one station, whether that’s commercial, BBC, community or local, and never changing it again.

It’s another reminder that in Voice searches, there’s only one winner - the service that gets given to you by your device.


  • I got added to this Twitter list of people working in smart audio, which is kind but they’ll have to put up with a lot of Eurovision tweets in about nine months There’s some interesting people talking in there.

  • Newsreaders, we’re human after all. My personal take on this is that I’ve been suffering from London’s pollen/pollution when it comes to reading bulletins recently and my nose sounds very blocked all the time. So sorry about that.

  • ★★☆☆☆ So much public love still for the flash briefings I work on. It’s worth pointing out that none of the UK broadcasters’ flash briefings do particularly well in Alexa Store feedback - and that public ratings tend to be self-selecting leading to feedback coming from one extreme or the other. My DMs are open if you have specific things you REALLY HATE about them and I’ll get what you’re saying to the right people.

  • 🚷 voice tech companies: we’re probably not having humans listen in
    media: yeah, you’re most probably listening in
    apple and google: ok, we’re going to stop as many people listening in now

Lots of love - keep an ear open in August 🤞.


Who's got a smart speaker in the UK?

Oh - there are charts

Hi, you’re reading Wakeword, a newsletter all about the difficult bit where the news, voice-controlled devices and artificial intelligence collide.

If you’re enjoying it, and/or you know someone else who might, why not get them to sign up?

Let’s start with an easy answer.

I’ve got a smart speaker! But who else?

A good place to start is Rajar, the body which provides radio listening figures, because it’s also been branching out into research into how people are listening to digital audio too.

64% of all listening done on a Voice Activated Speaker such as an Amazon Echo, Google Home or Sonos 1 is to Live Radio. On Demand Music has a share of 34%, Podcasting 2% and Audiobooks 1%.

MIDAS Spring 2019

Rajar puts out a briefing every quarter, but I've tried to tidy up the data a little bit using Datawrapper.

Here are the figures for how all radio/music/audio listening is shared out by device.

So as you can see, smart speakers (Voice activated Speakers) don’t seem to be setting on fire just yet when it comes to the panel that Rajar asked about radio and audio listening.

Just a 4% share, with AM/FM Radio and DAB Radio pulling in around half of all listening right now.

But you might have spotted that smartphones among the younger generations are on the way up, overtaking both forms of radio.

Smart speakers are doing better with 15-24s and 35-54s. The second age range makes sense because they can still be seen as fairly early adopter - especially some of the pricier models.

Here’s what people with a smart speaker actually listen to using them.

Live radio is way out in front for everyone but, for 15-24s it’s on demand music like Spotify, Apple Music or Amazon Music that’s taking the lion’s share.

Audiobooks and Podcasts are faring better with, I hate saying this, millennials too.

Anecdotally, I can see why live radio is doing better overall.

In my experience, using a smart speaker in the kitchen, live radio is by its nature easy to tune in and out from, as is on demand music.

The figures don’t seem to quite back me up… but I wonder if it’s a sample size thing?

Maybe there’s a trick being missed by the manufacturers to let people take whatever they’re listening to while they do something in the kitchen onwards with them.

Why start listening to a three-hour long on-demand radio programme if you know what you need to do will only take half an hour?

Spotify are probably doing this best right now with Spotify Connect - but I see no reason why Amazon and Google couldn’t be doing more with this.


🙅‍♂️ Reasons why people don’t own a smart speaker: worried about hackers, worried about people listening and cost says Voicebot.ai.

🕵️‍♀️ Another privacy tale: Um… Amazon’s keeping at least some of what you say to Alexa forever as transcripts. Hope that’s OK with you?!


📧 Ooof - taken down a notch from Silicon Valley unicorn-esque darlings all by a tiny pixel. Buzzy and exclusive email app Superhuman has u-turned on how it uses tracking pixels in the emails its users send.

🚘 Dozens of people follow Google Maps detour in US; get stuck in field. This kind of thing has happened in Cumbria, where I’m from, before:

📚 A timely reminder that you don’t own a lot of the digital things you buy, as Microsoft shuts down its eBook store and revokes access to all the books bought from it.

Other things

🎧 Listen to this! It’s a BBC Sounds podcast about switching off social media for a week to see what happens. I know this kind of thing’s been done before but it looks to be the first of many which will be interesting to see develop. Adam Buxton’s on the first one.

🎧 …and this too! Why’d You Push That Button from Vox is one of the top podcasts right now for understanding how modern tech and social media are changing the rules of human interaction. Their three part series about death online has been great.

📱 No love lost for Jony Ive as he leaves Apple, from Vice, because he designed products that are irreparable and destined for the scrapheap.

BYE <3

One month of voice news

Three: what I've been doing in a central London basement(?)

Hi, you’re reading Wakeword, a newsletter all about the angular bit where the news, voice-controlled devices and artificial intelligence collide.

If you’re enjoying it, and/or you know someone else who might, why not get them to sign up?


Another week and it marks one whole month since the place I work, BBC News, decided to change how it does news for smart speakers.

Here’s an example of just one of those news briefings from the night of the BBC’s Conservative leadership debate.

I won’t sugar coat it, there’s not been a huge amount of positive feedback that you can see publicly. We’ve have been getting our own feedback from people who’ve emailed bbcvoice.feedback@bbc.co.uk which has been much more varied and constructive.

We made changes during the first few weeks to take in some of that like tweaking how our background music sounds - and not always automatically using two people in a briefing, which had become a bit of the norm.

It’s worth knowing that something already existed as our flash briefing before our brand new style came along (in fact, there’s been a few different versions of our flash briefing coming from different radio station’s bulletins over the years) so bear that in mind people’s expectations if you’re adapting an old format - or choosing to do something completely new.

Other flash briefings are available of course, but hopefully you’ll give ours at least a try.


⚰️ What happens when your robotic home assistant, which you’ve grown to maybe even love, dies?

🎫 Maybe there will always be a future for paper tickets if we’re having to protest against our governments?

📈 Someone’s made a Twitter account helping people to understand my data/science journalism pet hate: when journalists mix up relative risk with absolute risk.

🇮🇸 How do I afford a trip to notoriously expensive, but lovely, Iceland - by mining for crypto in the sub-zero temperatures, of course!

One more thing

You love to see this article about why we all hate to see it

Two more thing

This one has gone out so late that I ended up picking up a new pair of sunglasses that promise to replace your headphones. They feel just a bit magic because you can hear what you’re listening to and barely anyone else can.

If you get tempted as well my advice is try them on for more than a few minutes first as they didn’t quite fit my nose properly (I got some sticky pads online to make them more snug) and, also, that they don’t work as well dealing with podcasts when you’re outdoors. You might have to crank up the volume for This American Life.

BYE <3

Finding new ways to talk

Two: How people are reconnecting without their phones

Hi, you’re reading Wakeword, a newsletter all about the obscure bit where the news, voice-controlled devices and artificial intelligence collide.

If you’re enjoying it, and/or you know someone else who might, why not get them to sign up?

A quick one this week.

I loved this Kotaku article about how people are using video game voice chat to keep in touch with each other instead of picking up the phone.

Nobody wants to be alone, without anyone to confide in or commiserate with. Another truth is that a lot of people are unlikely to immediately speed-dial their college roommate to ask for relationship advice or talk through their workplace troubles when life gets thorny—especially men, as researchers interviewed by Kotaku attested. It’s a little heartwarming, then, that the men we spoke to said they rely on online games and voice chat to achieve the interpersonal closeness that can feel contrived or heavy-handed in a prearranged phone call.

Maybe there is hope for us all in the great digital world we’re speeding towards.


🔔 Video doorbells still creepy - now the police are giving them away and demanding footage in return. Of crimes, you’d assume, not to track when an ice cream van stops on your street. Not sure if this could work in the UK, would you have to be set up as a CCTV operator etc?

🤑 My eyes lit up when I saw a New York Times story about Google making billions from Google News platform - but the figures aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be.

📱 Black Mirror’s back. Everyone got very excited, even if the episodes weren’t quite up there with San Junipero. The last of the three is all about a Miley Cyrus-voiced smart speaker with a split personality. Slate breaks it down, which is good because I’ve not finished watching it yet.

Living in the FUTURE

In this week’s episode of living in the future, here’s the cable that you use to plug in your smart doorbell to the mains power because your house doesn’t have the right adapter 🙃 (Image: Ninety7)

One more thing

The Washington Post got TikTok and it’s glorious.

BYE <3

Renting with voice commands built-in

One: Meet Alexa, your letting agent

Hi, you’re reading Wakeword, a newsletter all about the angular bit where the news, voice-controlled devices and artificial intelligence collide.

If you’re enjoying it, and/or you know someone else who might, why not get them to sign up?

How would you feel about moving into a new place that already has a smart speaker(s) in the ceiling, the wall, the door or, maybe the floor? Probably not the floor. The Wall Street Journal’s just published a fascinating piece describing how Amazon wants to beat you into your next flat by putting Alexa in there first ($).

…each apartment gets a network of smart-home devices and a hub, the wireless radio that helps smart devices in the home to connect to the internet. Tenants either receive one of Amazon’s Echo speakers or bring their own, and can use it to control the apartment’s thermostat and locks, as well as other Alexa-compatible smart-home devices the tenants add on, which now range from light bulbs to microwave ovens.

Let’s get this out of the way in the first issue. Voice controls are still a bit icky what with that pesky microphone.

I originally wrote a whole bit about the Amazon Echo I’ve got in my bedroom right now (due to moving out of a house into a flat for the new job) but to be honest it got into the weeds a little bit. So I’ve subbed it down a lot.

I’m a little uneasy about having a bedroom speaker, but I’ve also found that I’m lazy and/or complacent enough to accept it. I can also handwave it away somewhat because I’m mostly using it to keep on top of our smart speaker bulletins using it when I’m not at work.

I think you’d find a similar uneasy/handwavey feeling in some of the tenants who would end up those apartments. They’ve found a new home that they love, what’s so bad about having the smart home built in? Well, just look at the recent case in the US when a landlord was told not to force people to use smart locks to enter communal areas.

Without being careful, smart home technology can become a stark sign of rented homes no longer meant for a tenant’s ‘quiet enjoyment’ but a temporary space where we’re surveilled on behalf of companies or landlords:

Eventually, Alexa-fied apartments with smart locks and pre-installed Echo devices might even replace rental agents. Initial data from trials of such systems indicates that people are twice as likely to rent an apartment when no human is present to try and sell them on it…

I get to unplug that speaker in my bedroom if I want, even if I probably won’t.


🚸 One in three children are listening on a smart speaker every day according to radio industry research body RAJAR. Still, you should probably make whatever you’re doing easily accessible on a smartphone too, because you’ll struggle to find a kid who isn’t using one of those as they get older:


📣 The team that wrote the CBeebies skill on Alexa has published a guide to designing for voice interaction. The gist: make it simple and test it often.

🗣 Amazon’s got a new preview on the way of something called Alexa Conversations. It says it’ll make the process of writing skills that can talk to people much easier by using artificial intelligence.

🖥 So this is spooky. A dev claims to have written an AI program that can match up porn actresses to their real-life social media profiles using face recognition (via The Interface). It sounds sketchy as hell that it’s actually been done, but it’s theoretically very possible. Let’s not though please because it’s a horrible thing to do to people? Thanks.

One more thing

WUT? That’s a stand, you know, not a computer.

That’s all for this week.

Let me know what you think.


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