How BBC is reinventing news for voice platforms

By Zoe Murphy

BBC Voice + AI

London, UK

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When it comes to news consumption, if the past decade was characterised by the dominance of mobile, the next will arguably be shaped by the rise of voice technology.

Voice assistants — or, rather, the underlying AI that powers them — will undoubtedly change how people get their news, what they expect of it, and what they want from providers like the BBC.

Given the breakneck speed with which the market is developing, it makes sense for public service broadcasters to take voice seriously.

Voice assistants have already reached mass adoption in the United States, with an estimated 35% of adults claiming to have access to a smart speaker. Asia has seen rapid adoption, too, with China leading the curve driven by tech giants Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

In the United Kingdom, voice went mainstream in 2019, with around 14 million adults, as well as a staggering number of kids, using their devices at least once a week. At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, Amazon revealed its Alexa voice assistant was in 100 million devices. Just 12 months later, that number has more than doubled with a host of new partnerships in cars, TVs, and connected homes.

Both Amazon and Google have launched first-party aggregated audio news services in the United States (Google Your News Update and Amazon Streams), with plans for international roll-out this year.

In light of these shifts, the BBC and other news providers have been experimenting with voice — not only to help shape this new technology but to understand how it could fundamentally change how journalism is distributed, discovered, and consumed.

 The BBC has been publishing some news content to third-party voice platforms. Since 2016, the BBC has been the default news provider in the United Kingdom on Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri, which means if you ask “What’s the news?” you get the BBC. In the last 12 months, we have served tens of millions of news bulletins.

What happens when audiences can talk back?

Late last year, our BBC Voice + AI team launched an interactive news service. The move was a first step in reinventing news for voice platforms, and the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.

The service is a 24/7 operation that is only available on Amazon Alexa (for now). It is created and curated by a talented team of “Voice News” journalists based in the heart of BBC News HQ in London.

The BBC provides the voice news in the U.K. via Amazon Alexa.
The BBC provides the voice news in the U.K. via Amazon Alexa.

To open the experience, just say, “Alexa, play BBC News.” You can move between stories with simple commands like “next” and “back,” and ask for more information on selected stories to get genuine journalistic depth.

In a world of soundbites, the deeper dive functionality means BBC journalists no longer must forsake detail for brevity. By saying “Alexa, more from the BBC,” audiences can access the best BBC journalism on a given story. With the luxury of time, our reporters can explain the significance of events and give the colour, context, and background we know audiences value. 

This includes on-the-ground reports from the BBC’s global network of 250 correspondents, analysis from in-house experts, full-length interviews (such as the BBC Panorama exclusive with Prince Andrew on the Epstein scandal), and clips and interviews from the BBC’s vast digital archive, among others.

The tone aims to be conversational, a less formal style of delivery, that our audiences have told us feels more native to voice. 

In terms of the content itself, we are trying to address head-on some of the pain points we know young audiences, in particular, have when it comes to news. With the deeper-dive function, we have the luxury of time to explain the significance of events and give the context we know audiences value.

This is the very first step in a long-term evolution of the product, and we’re carrying out qualitative and quantitative audience research to help us iterate and improve the service along the way. 

Better, personalised experiences

 BBC News has always defined itself not by the platform but by its purpose: to inform. It’s important that wherever our audiences are, they have access to news and information they know they can trust.

What’s exciting about voice as a platform is that unlike traditional channels, such as radio, we’ll learn about individual’s interests and preferences through better data and through two-way relationships. Our audiences will be able to ask us for the information and services they want and need, and we in turn will have the ability to create better, more personalised experiences.

As a society, we’re moving toward a world of hyper-personalisation, outsourcing ever more decision-making to algorithms. As a public service broadcaster, fairness, due impartiality, and transparency are core to the BBC’s current thinking on recommendation engines and personalisation. As part of the development of news services on voice-controlled devices, we’re collaborating with colleagues across the organisation (and externally) to try to find answers to some seriously complex questions — like how we might shape algorithms designed to promote critical thinking rather than reinforce filter bubbles, replace time-wasting with education, and allay public concerns over privacy.

 Voice and AI-driven services will have deep and long-lasting consequences. By getting involved now, news organisations have a rare opportunity to exert some influence over how this medium develops, keeping audiences front and centre.

About Zoe Murphy