Digitalisation, podcasting, and personalised audio: these are some of the key themes and trends that PMA took from Radiodays Europe in Lisbon this year

So how are public media redefining their audio content to stay relevant and reach audiences across multiple platforms in an ever evolving and increasingly fragmented media landscape? 

Explore some of the latest innovative projects that three European public media organisations have been experimenting with. 

“An era of personal audio”: AI and digital personalisation 

“We’re going from the broadcast age … into an era of personal audio … where we have to be relevant for the individual. To do that we have to use smart technology, otherwise we don’t stand a chance in this media landscape”, Olle Zachrison, Head of Digital News Strategy and Deputy News Commissioner at Sveriges Radio, told PMA. In his Radiodays presentation, he explored how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be used to give listeners a more personalised, streamlined mix of news stories and gain a deeper understanding of news events and issues, while promoting the values of public service journalism. 

Zachrison’s recent work has involved experimenting with a new editorial algorithm for curating ‘automated’ audio clips that are compiled into playlists on the Sveriges Radio app, which also have a clear link to its public service mission. “We have developed a system that we call ‘News Values’… we rate every story in three dimensions: the general news value, the lifespan but most significantly around… the traits of public service journalism.” There are separate playlists for local news, sports, culture, science, languages, and other topics. The national playlist, “Toppnyheter” (“Top News”), contains fifteen clips and is updated up to seven times an hour.  

The news algorithm was inspired by the fallout of Sweden’s unprecedented wildfires in 2018, when the public radio station explored how best to single out the most important news stories for audiences in a flood of information. Since the project’s birth, Sveriges Radio has reported a rapid growth of played clips per week especially as it has been made easy for users to jump between different clips and playlists. This summer it recorded 242, 000 unique users in one week.  

Ultimately, the goal is to increase trustworthiness and personalisation, and save time in improving the quality of SR’s journalism. 26 of SR’s 33 newsrooms have adopted this editorial algorithm to automate playlists and websites, and it has allowed some of SR’s 800 reporters to report more on location and to be more locally relevant. According to Zachrison, SR has recognised that audio stories that have “concrete voices of people” have 30% more listens than those without. “Having those affected voices engages people”. 

Other public broadcasters are now adopting this project. BBC News Labs is currently building a similar prototype called CuPid that allows editors and journalists to be put in control of personalisation to offer a more personalised news experience. Marit Rossnes, Head of Product Development for radio at NRK, added that the Norwegian public broadcaster has also been inspired by this project.

"...if we’re not relevant to the audience, then we don’t have a reason for existing. We have to put more resources into innovation – that is my absolute conviction.”

Olle Zachrison, Head of Digital News Strategy and Deputy News Commissioner at Sveriges Radio

"Innovation is something that we really hold close to our hearts because if we don’t innovate then we will die.”  

Floris Daelemans, Innovation Researcher, VRT
“Love to fail”: moving away from ‘broadcast first’ to on-demand audio  

VRT, Belgium’s Flemish public broadcaster, has conducted various research projects with a radio focus. At Radiodays Europe, Floris Daelemans, a researcher at VRT’s Innovation Department, demonstrated one of the latest ways that VRT has been changing how they present and broadcast their programmes. Over the summer of 2021, the broadcaster launched 40 ‘Mysteries’ via their Radio 2 app. The programmes encouraged public participation and co-creation to develop hyperlocal short-form audio storiesWith the new ‘Radio 2 mysteries’ project, one new mystery’ case would be launched on air every Monday on each of VRT’s five decentralised regional Radio 2 stations. The team used a live feed and focused on user input so audiences could be part of the story by contributing quotes, images, and videos that could be used onair to help piece together the story 

Floris Daelemans, Innovation Researcher, VRT

Daelemans reflected on some of the challenges of moving away from ‘broadcast first’towards on-demand and co-created content, including letting go of editorial control and the need to improve audio management. “We love to fail. That’s typical for innovation. You have to embrace your failure; if you are able to fail then you will be able to learn from what you have failed on, and you will be better for it.” According to the Innovation team, there are potential plans to expand the audio storytelling project across various content formats 

Daelemans explained to PMA, “Our audience is moving to digital, so we have to move to digital. That’s a given… Digital is very different than broadcast. The realm of digital possibilities is much bigger than the old-time radio broadcast and television broadcast.” 

He also highlighted the benefits of joining a project consortium by working collaboratively with other organisations such as software developers, which allows media organisations to improve their productand testified how research or development funding schemes can allow media organisations to take an innovative risk. 

Another way of addressing news”: Podcasting 

In recent years, more public broadcasters have experimented with producing more pre-recorded pieces which have a greater emphasis on audio production, rather than live showsNikolai Thyssen is the Head of News at current affairs radio channel, P1which is part of Denmark’s public broadcaster, DR. He shared how DR experimented with broadcasting a daily 30-minute news podcast on P1 in the last two yearsHe told PMA that despite it sounding “slightly weird” at the beginning – “it was definitely another pace, another way of addressing news” – the audience really responded to it and the number of podcast listeners has doubled.  

What we’re trying to do now is readjust the way we work so more and more of the channel will be almost like a playlist.” He explained that limited funding may be one main reason why DR is making more live radio (which is less expensive) and producing more podcasts. “It may hurt us in the short while but in the long run, this is something that we need to do,” Thyssen said. 

DR’s future plans involve “taking every single programme we have”, assessing what audiences want and rethinking it for the digital era. Thyssen sees this challenge as a positive move because “it means that we’re [clearer] on what we actually do… We have to earn people’s attention. We need to earn their willingness to look us up… So I think that’s going to change radio a lot. 

DR’s other successful podcast format is ‘På Bagsædet’ (‘In the backseat’), a weekly, youth-oriented podcast that plays urban music and discusses lifestyle issues, produced by DR’s popular music channel, P3. Producer, Andrew Mojo, explained to PMA why it has become particularly popular among younger listeners. “It’s funny but it also has some sort of depth to it”, touching upon subjects such as love and relationships as well as mental health as young people continuously look for answers. He reflected on how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the podcast was incredibly useful for many people experiencing loneliness. “The only real thing to combat that was laughter and good company.” The team has adopted a multi-platform approach to source content ideas as well as promote the podcast by using Instagram to publish video content from the show. To help reduce the number of steps listeners go through to put the programme on, DR now offers a direct link – a streamlining method that many public media organisations are also adopting.

Creating audio for digital 

When asked about how important it is for public service broadcasters to be experimenting with digital innovation, Zachrison responded, “I think it’s absolutely crucial that we do that because if we’re not relevant to the audience, then we don’t have a reason for existing. We have to put more resources into innovation – that is my absolute conviction.” He added that, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to speed up the transition to digital. “We have to create audio for digital platforms.” It was a sentiment which echoed around Radiodays Europe.  

Meanwhile, another of VRT’s current projects involves developing ‘synthetic voices’ that can be used for smart speakers and radio apps – another trend that many public broadcasters, such as Radio France have also been experimenting with. Through AI machine learning, presenters can record their voice, which Daelemans suggests can be re-used to narrate personalised traffic updates or breaking news that is most interesting and relevant for the individual. 

Daelemans emphasised the myriad possibilities for personalising VRT’s audio: “We have a lot of radio stations at VRT that produce content constantly, and if you could combine content from all those stations tailored to my personal interests that you could find from my personal profile, we could produce a personalised podcast, narrated by a virtual voice that is making that podcast a complete offering for me by linking together all those bits and pieces from all those radio stations. So that’s a way for us to tap into on-demand content and stay relevant in a digital age but still using our strength to produce good audio storytelling.” 

In the increasingly platform-oriented media landscapewith growing competition and technological change, recently exacerbated from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure to innovate has never been greaterBut while the concept of innovation is exciting and digital-driven, these projects and experiments can often be time-consumingcostly and involves taking risks. 

The underlying importance is to ensure that public media organisations continually adapt and evolve their multiplatform offerings to reach and maintain relevance with their audiences, improve access to content and ensure viability. To do this, they need stable funding to be able to take risks, along with regular research and discussions with their audiences to understand their needs and consumption habits. 

And as VRT’s Floris Daelemans claims, “Innovation is something that we really hold close to our hearts because if we don’t innovate then we will die.”  

"We have to earn people’s attention. We need to earn their willingness to look us up… So I think that’s going to change radio a lot.

Nikolai Thyssen, Head of News, P1, DR