BBC News is attempting to provide a richer-than-radio user experience on voice-controlled devices for its audiences this year.
The broadcaster unveiled the interactive Voice News Service for Amazon Echo towards the end of 2019. Combined with its soon-to-be-launched in-house voice assistant software Beeb, users can expect to forge deeper conversations with BBC journalists this year.
Previous flash briefings, which gave users a run-down of the top stories, were prompted by simply saying 'Alexa give me the news'. The Voice News Service, however, uses a separate voice command, 'Alexa, give me BBC news', to play an interactive voice bulletin. This gives the listener the option to skip ahead or delve into a full-length interview.
"It's historical [for broadcast journalism]," Julian Vaccari, editor, BBC Voice News Service told Journalism.co.uk.
"For the first time in a hundred years, almost, you can talk back to the news bulletin or you can say 'I want more of that'."
It is updated as fresh stories break. The voice team is integrated right into the heart of the BBC newsroom in London and can pull or commission audio content from all parts of the BBC newsdesks and shows.
This includes the likes of Newsbeat, the Today programme and also the Reality Check department, that has fact-checked claims throughout the UK 2019 General Election live debates and manifesto launches within an hour. The team also has local and international bureaus at their disposal.
"The idea is that you'd get more than you would get from just a regular news bulletin, like audio that would never be played in a regular linear news service," said Dee King, senior journalist, BBC News, who is one of the main voices on the service.
Take the BBC Panorama exclusive interview with Prince Andrew on the Epstein scandal, for example, which was featured on the bulletin. The listener was asked 'if they want to hear more'. A simple affirmation loaded up the full 50-minute interview - but at any point, the listener can also 'skip' to the next story. A typical six-story bulletin will offer three of those as 'mores' (what BBC calls interactive stories).
"Very often in this news cycle, the media are accused of skimming over the surface of stories and just doing a 13-15-second clip," said King.
"Now we can say, 'Look, if you want to hear the whole interview - be my guest'. That’s a great option to have.
"We don't have the constraints of a radio station where we have to be in and out; we can totally play around it."
We want to get in the territory of knowing what conversations people want to have with us and make sure we have the best replies.Mukul Devichand
In a world of soundbites, it means reporters do not have to forsake detail for brevity. But such commands are still "wooden", said Mukul Devichand, executive editor, BBC Voice and AI. After all, saying 'next' and 'more' is not how humans tend to speak to each other.
The technology is still far from maturity and this 'conversational AI' - to use the technical jargon - is where the new in-house software Beeb seeks to take the traditional news bulletin. That could see more specific and natural language between listener and journalist, arriving at something closer to a real back-and-forth conversation.
Announced in mid-2019, Beeb was marketed as a way to help regional accents be understood on the devices. Devichand said it also grants the broadcaster greater technological control, deeper analytics and richer interaction.
"At the moment, we are still in the world of magic spells," he continued. "We memorise these spells and you say them to the voice assistant.
"You wouldn’t say 'give me BBC News' to someone" but an alternative is not technologically possible right now.
"So we want to get in the territory of knowing what conversations people want to have with us, make sure we have the best replies, being editorially solid, trusted and something which broadens their understanding of the world, in line with our public service values."
The software will, in time, reveal hotspots of topics corresponding to the time of day and how well these subjects are understood. For editorial teams covering significant events, like elections, it aims to inform the types of beats and content worth concentrating on.
But it is too early to draw trends. Reports in 2018 cast doubt over the potential for voice platforms to be used for news, as household are slow to adopt the devices and just one per cent of UK users access news on smart speakers. Devichand, however, was encouraged by increased traffic around the election period.
BBC claimed to have served 265 million audio streams on Alexa-enabled devices in 2018, and close to 20 million briefings on the main voice assistants: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri that same year.
Vaccari added that in time, BBC wants to understand and learn more about people's behaviours to redefine the classic bulletin. All of this amounts to increasing personalisation in the hands of news audiences. But is that a healthy option for listeners?
"There are concerns about people having their own tastes, preferences and prejudices reflected back on them [as a result of personalisation]," he said.
"But we think, as the BBC, that if we are in this space, we've got a much better chance of being able to give people more of what they want to consume, but also to be able to ensure that the important news they need to know about is also in that mix.
"I can't imagine a stage where we will only give people what they want to hear. We will always put roughage into the diet."
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