RAI and the future of online audio listening: interview with Andrea Borgnino (RAI)

Andrea Borgnino (RAI): Rai PlaySound is growing rapidly, now also with regional content and versions optimized for mobility. Online, any classic FM listening rule is overturned, as is the case of our Radio3 (culture) network, that is top in the charts. RAI content on 3rd parties aggregators? It’s a very complex issue. Radio 2 Visual is only available on Rai Play, our app is dedicated to audio.

 

RAI and the Online Audio World

We continue our series of articles “Entertainment and Work in the Car”. After talking with Eng. La Teana from RTL and with Charles Kelly, today it’s RAI’s turn, where Andrea Borgnino (IWOHK) has held the role of editorial head of RaiPlay Sound for about 2 years, the RAI app/aggregator inspired in part by the prestigious BBC Sounds English model.

With Andrea we talked about new content, the profile of podcast listeners compared to linear radio listeners, and the issue of proprietary apps (single broadcaster) vs aggregators.

The full audio of the conversation is available at this address.

Andrea Borgnino

A real radio enthusiast, he has made it his job at RAI since 1997. Author of the Radio 1 program Golem, he later dealt with the Radio Techetè channel. For over ten years he has had a weekly slot called Interferences in the Radio 3 Mondo program and since July 2021 he is editorial manager of RaiPlay Sound, the RAI platform dedicated to live, on demand and podcast listening.

The Interview

Marco Hugo Barsotti: First of all, update us on RaiPlay Sound. We left off in April with 12 Live channels, plus dozens of on-demand and as users you said that in the first four months the numbers were going in the direction you expected….

Andrea Borgnino: _So let’s say the project is growing. The live channels have gone from 12 to 14, there are 2 new regional channels, one in Slovenian and one in German coming from the Trieste headquarters and the Bolzano headquarters.

So a big work of integration of regional contents.  In addition to these two more live channels there are also contents from the local newsrooms, Trieste, Sardinia, Sicily and soon we will also bring in Bolzano and Trento.
So: not only content in Italian, but also in Sardinian, Slovenian, German and Ladino, Friulian and Patois.

Automotive World

As for the APP, the big news is that it has been made compatible with the automotive world, meaning Android Auto and Apple Car. For both we developed  an optimized interface  that allows users to enjoy all the functions of RaiPlay Sound through these two interfaces.
This is a big step forward that I can tell you first, since we haven’t officially announced it yet.
We are also working on a platform for connected TVs, which I think will be available in September.

In terms of editorial content, to date we have over 200 original podcasts – and I point out that we’ve only been online for two years. We also have over 500 radio shows available online and 200 audiobooks.

Sophisticated Users

MHB: Do PlaySound listeners make the same choices as FM listeners? In other words, are the “listening charts” of the various programs the same or different?

AB: Well.. these are not data that RAI releases, but I  can give some general information.
The answer is that the RaiPlay Sound audience is very different from what we have in FM, as found in the last TER data.
For example, on PlaySound Radio3 is one of the most listened to live contents.
(Radio3 RAI can be loosly defined as  equivalent of BBC Radio3+BBC Radio 4, Ed. note)

Different (but similar) situation  for on-demand

Now, we made a tool very similar to Netflix’s top 10, which everyone can find on our site.
At this time
(interview recorded on August 4, 2023)  the most requested content is Radio3 Mondo,then Prima Pagina and Out Loud: all three contents from Radio 3.

Overturned Rules

What follows is the audio version of Lucarelli’s TV program Blu Notte, then Wikiradio, then …. let’s say that in on-demand listening, any classic FM listening rule no longer applies: It’s a fragmented listening of more varied content.

And even in linear online listening,  FM rules do not apply,

Aggregators

MHB: Let’s talk about aggregators and dedicated apps. Both you and RTL 102.5, to name just two, have a dedicated, very rich app. But by using it you remain confined there, while many listeners quickly switch from one broadcaster’s content to another’s: an aggregator is very more practical from this point of view. But obviously the dedicated content is lost there. Isn’t it conceivable an integration of the two experiences, at least with the aggregators developed in Italy?

AG:  The issue is broad; it’s a matter of distribution and system.
As for the video, you can see that the contents are not only on Rai Play, our app for video.
Distribution agreements have been made there. But us… we are still very young, not even two years old yet.
The only export concerns Spotify and it was done because the Italian market is on Spotify. But it wasn’t a transposition: on Spotify we go to put some series that we publish on RaiPlay Sound, but at a later time._

Today, RAI’s choice is  clear: to push our own apps  RaiPlay and RaiPlay Sound.

Convergence

I was talking about it a few weeks ago with some colleagues from BBC: they even imagine a single app, a merge of iPlayer and BBC Sounds. A single app for the entire public service.

MHB: … Yes, but… doesn’t it seem to you that from the point of view of listeners it is not the optimal choice? Of course, it is in the interest of the broadcaster, but it is not convenient for those who listen…who could ultimately  reject the product and prefer an aggregator where they have total freedom.

AB:  Yes, but you have to keep in mind that we, as a public body, have to make clear and transparent agreements for the distribution of our content: it’s not a trivial matter, not at all

 

Visual

MHB: Let’s close with technology. Do you plan to evolve the visual offer of RaiPlay Sound, also with a view to meeting the needs of mobile use? I’m thinking of screens for rear passengers or even for the driver, in future self-driving cars.

AB: At the moment, we don’t have any visual offer projects. As you know,   Radio 2 is  available in audio and video format, but its video offer is exclusively on RaiPlay, not on our application which is purely dedicated to audio.
If in the future there will be video podcasts things could change, but for now, as I said, we are a pure audio offer.
 (M.H.B. for FM-World)

A fully AI-run radio? Content on Demand proposes a different, immediately usable approach that builds on what already exists

After the launch of ChatGPT at the end of November 2022, many – including us – got carried away with enthusiasm, envisioning a future populated by AI-run radio  where content is generated by an LLM (Large Language Model, like GPT 3.5, Claude from Anthropic or Meta’s LLama-2), while voices are generated by other models that have  learned to speak like real presenters: Not so Fast.

Not so fast

Nine months have passed: we think we have understood a little more and can correctly position AI as an additional resource, rather than a total change in the approach of broadcasters with consequent staff reductions.

Of course, this is a personal and provisional conclusion because, inevitably, what we thought was feasible at the end of 2022 if not today will likely be possible in the future.

But let’s take it step by step.

Patrizia

Let’s start with an early adopter, the publishing company behind 70-80.it.  In December 2022 they devise a radio format, the Diario di Patrizia, where the vicissitudes of a 70s/80s teenager are invented and written by GPT 3.5-rurbo through the PeperoniAI front-end.

To get the desired result, they started from a series of stories written by a human copywriter: stories of teenagers, love affairs and family problems.

These first scripts were  writtten by humans and not intended to be broadcast, but to train the AI.

Subsequently, the real scripts were generated by AI: specific instructions were provided to Peperoni, such as:

_Number the stories, identifying them with a progressive number
_Use 80s teen slang
_Write short stories (about ten lines) suitable for radio reading and not too complicated.
_If possible, think of funny stories, even if the goal is not to make people laugh.

The program was a big hit and can be still heard on the station.

 Kai

In Germany someone wanted to go a step further, creating a radio totally managed by an AI, called KAI.

This is the case of Absolute Radio AI, whose manager recently told Newslinet that “Much of the work at Absolut Radio AI is handled by our site, which sends the request to ChatGPT and then re-checks and optimizes the response again.
The platform runs the entire workflow completely on its own;  however, for the first few months humans will check all texts and listen to vocals before broadcast.

Reality Check

We of course performed a reality check by listening to the station. We remember little of the German learned in high school, yet enough to be able to say that the chosen format is quite smart: music with segments where the talk is … about the music.
In practice, the AI tells something about the tracks or artists on air, which is feasible without too much risk of  hallucinations,  if the model used has been (as we assume) fine-tuned on music history.

The synthetic German voices are credible and  very enjoyable. In fact: surprisingly good.

Content on Demand

This brings us to Content on Demand by 22HBG.

Let’s take the  experience, by Radio Nizza, an italian station created to and aimed at the Riviera (Cote d’Azur). In the first two months the station had access to was able to experiment with the new “content on demand” service*.

Their conclusion: Content on Demand can effectively complement the work of editorial staff and presenters for services related to current affairs and possibly programmatically connected to specific feeds.

Content on Demand, let’s clarify, is a cloud service created by 22HBG based on what has already been developed for Peperoni and dedicated to creating audio content based on prompts.

As you can see in the screenshot, users can upload a preroll (in our case from the official voice of Radio Nizza) and a backgrounds sound.

Then in the “Context” area users can  insert a text prompt (complex topic that we will return to) to get a complete audio clip created in a few seconds, ready to be verified and aired.

 

An example

Let’s explain the process with an example. The editorial staff prepares content every week, the agenda of events on the Côte d’Azur or the news of the day. But it certainly cannot be present 24 hours a day to monitor alerts or specific events, which are however available online. Such as in this tweet by the public transport of Nizza, “Ligne d’Azur”, warning users of a change in the line 90.

 

Here’s the point. By providing Content on Demand with the message (captured via a Python script) and preceding it with a specific prompt (again crafted via Python) we can automatically create a radio segment, sending Content on demand the following complete prompt:

Prompt: Create an urgent message for Radio Nizza informing – translating into Italian – about the following: “En raison d’un éboulement, la ligne 90 est modifiée le jeudi 3 août 2023.”

And here is the result aired on August 3 (the content starts at second 14):

The text is: “Good morning to all our listeners. We have an urgent announcement to make regarding line 90. Due to a landslide, line 90 will undergo changes on Thursday, August 3, 2023. We invite you to take this into account for your travel plans. We will update you with further information as soon as it becomes available. Thank you for your attention and have a nice day everyone!

French version

The same system can automatically create a French version.  No editorial work is  required: it is  enough to specify “in French” in the prompt:

Prompt: Create an urgent message for Radio Nizza informing – in French – the following: “En raison d’un éboulement, la ligne 90 est modifiée le jeudi 3 août 2023.”

This is the excellent result

t,

The text:

Chers auditeurs de Radio Nizza, Nous avons une nouvelle urgente à vous annoncer. En raison d’un éboulement, nous devons vous informer que la ligne 90 sera modifiée ce jeudi 3 août 2023. Cette situation imprévue nous oblige à apporter des changements à l’itinéraire habituel de la ligne 90. Des mesures de sécurité sont en cours pour évaluer les dégâts et rétablir la situation normale dans les plus brefs délais. Nous vous recommandons de prendre vos dispositions pour éviter tout désagrément lors de vos déplacements. Il est possible que des retards ou des modifications temporaires soient nécessaires sur cette ligne. Veuillez suivre les instructions données par le personnel de la compagnie de transports en commun pour connaître les alternatives possibles. Nous comprenons que cela peut causer des désagréments et nous nous excusons pour les inconvénients que cela pourrait vous causer. Nous mettons tout en œuvre pour minimiser les perturbations et rétablir la situation normale dans les plus brefs délais. Restez à l’écoute de Radio Nizza pour les dernières mises à jour concernant cette situation. Nous vous tiendrons informés de tout développement ou changement concernant la ligne 90. Nous vous remercions de votre compréhension et de votre coopération. Prenez soin de vous et soyez prudents lors de vos déplacements. C’était un message urgent de Radio Nizza.

Gallicisms

As you can see the resulting message is very long, forcing to shorten it by reiterating the request to Peperoni preceded by “repeat the previous text shortening it by 50%“.

The reason is both ridiculous and interesting: the French – we can now affirm from direct experience – tend to be very ceremonious in writing and speaking, turning even short communications into very long speeches. The AI, trained on this style, has therefore excessively lengthened the message, forcing the station to run a second iteration.

English Version

Finally, the same operation with English:

Ongoing Developments

As for Italian voices, the weakest of the three,  we contacted  the head of development at 22HBG who is working on the next version of Content on Demand.

Among other things,  he said, he is implementing the options to change the “mood” or “tone” of the voice: through presets it will therefore be possible to make the artificial voice speak in a neutral way (BBC World Service style, to be clear) or emphatically (as often adopted by presenters in music programs).

Last Note

Last note: did you read above the manager of Absolute Radio AI stating that “for the first few months humans will check all texts“?

Well our advice is to keep checking the output not “for the first few months” but until “future AI systems that emulate the human “super Ego” – additional downstream models that control the AI’s work – are able to reject inappropriate, hallucinated or simply “not radio-friendly” content”

(M.H.B. for FM-World)

FM-World Turns 25: From Analog to AI. A Conversation with Nicola Franceschini

The FM-World System

Our articles cover radio broadcasting comprehensively, but also artificial intelligence, the future of infotainment on the go, and everything else that’s coming up. However, it’s nice to look back sometimes, especially for something like FM-World whose pioneering role in the Italian web scene risks being forgotten or overlooked. That’s why we decided to speak with Nicola Franceschini, who needs no introduction for our italian readers. Stay tuned, it’ll be worth it.

A Quarter Century

*Marco Hugo Barsotti: FM-World has a long history, it seems like it’s been around forever…

Nicola Franceschini: It’s been exactly 25 years, on June 5th, that FM-World has existed. So we’re approaching an important milestone, marking a quarter century. There are really two distinct eras for FM-World: before you mentioned Supereva but that wasn’t even the beginning… and of course the more professional part, with the app and everything else, which started in 2011.

But let’s go in order: FM-World was born as a completely amateur website on June 5, 1998, in a period…

*MHB: 1998? Around the era of Netscape Navigator 3.0*, with the big “N” logo?*

NF: Actually Internet Explorer was out too, that was the big innovation. I was still in university, so I was using the internet directly on campus while studying, and it was a time… you know, like it was for local radio in the 70s: there were amateur websites popping up everywhere.

Two Pioneers

Of course I followed the ones related to radio, where there was an embryonic Newslinet, which later evolved. But I remember there were so many similar sites, like the one in Milan for example, I don’t know if you remember, called…

*MHB: The Daxmedia observatory! BSB, STM, RPB and all the Milanese station codes invented by Dario Dossena.

NF: Yes, DaxMedia created in collaboration with Andrea Lombardo. But there were so many similar sites, scattered in cities across Italy. Basically all aimed at offering very similar content in their own region, mostly to talk about radio but even more to report frequency changes, what could be received in those areas, etc…

*MHB: …and when the Christmas cap would appear on the logos of analog TV stations: thrilling, much more than predictions on who would win Sanremo…

NF: Exactly! Anyway, FM-World was really born very simply as a site for reporting frequencies. It wasn’t so much about content in terms of programs and such. Then gradually, we didn’t even realize it, but we started getting feedback, emails from readers and even official press releases.

Geocities

Initially I had published it on Geocities pages, the very first version, you remember Geocities.com?

*MHB: Of course, I remember Geocities_ very well, it was a hugely popular free web hosting service in the 90s!_

NF: Yes: it was one of those sites that gave you free space, with the Geocities.com address and then slash (“/”, ed), and then slash, and slash, until you got to FM-World at the end.

Supereva

And then Supereva, which at the time had the “guide” project, basically single-topic channels, making it a real portal, with many ‘experts’ on individual topics. They were the ones who wrote to me, proposing to move the content from my site into an already organized space, within their radio channel, which I essentially became the manager of.

When FM-World entered Supereva – 2000/2001 – I gradually expanded it, also inserting the first news related to radio in general… I remember finding the launch of m2o (2002) a few months ago, for which I had written a short article, a project that took the place of Italia Radio, a station with a completely different format.

*MHB: From Radio Regione of Fegiz to the PCI…. to Dance!

NF: Exactly, there had been this epochal change. Then I talked about the debut of LolliRadio in 2006 and other native digital stations. Until 2011 FM-World was always hosted on Supereva and in parallel had a site called Frequenze Radio.

News Gathering

*MHB: Sorry to interrupt, before moving on to step 2 which I think is coming up, there’s one aspect I think is interesting – the news gathering*, that is, how you got the news. It seems to me we can say you were a pre-social pioneer of the bottom-up model, in the sense that news gathered locally by readers who in some way became co-editors. Quite remarkable, in a pre-Twitter, pre-Meta era.*

NF: Of course not “all readers”, but a series of trusted contributors, some of whom have become real friends who still share the project with me today. There were some areas of Italy that were uncovered, but news from Milan, Rome, Naples, Turin or “my” Emilia-Romagna was constantly updated.

But consider that at the time I was already collaborating with Millecanali and this was a big advantage for me. There I was one name among many others, but it was a prestigious publication, edited by Mauro Roffi who we are still in constant contact with.

And then, as you say, there were grassroots contacts, people who spontaneously sent emails with information.

Talkmedia

In 2002 Talkmedia was launched, which today is the social side of FM-World on Facebook: born as a ‘guest’ of Yahoo!Groups.

The method was very simple: anyone who joined (via email, of course) this group automatically became both a reader and a participant, because anyone could write something that would be delivered to everyone.

Facebook

And Talkmedia remained this until the arrival of social media…. When did Facebook start in Italy?

*MHB: I’d say around 2008. Still without the “like” button.

NF: Facebook started when I wasn’t working with Busi (Gianluca Busi, founder of 22HBG, ed.) yet. And the first FM-World page was actually a private profile. Then came “groups”.

Talkmedia

So in 2011 the official page and TalkMedia as a group were born, and it’s also the year I personally met Gianluca. At the time I was working at a local radio station and he came…

*MHB: “One?” At Rete Alfa…

NF: Yes… Gianluca came to visit me at the radio station saying “we know each other…”, because technicians and industry operators were talking to him about me, just as they were talking to me about him.

At that time there was no 22HBG yet, which would be born by combining the start-up with the development process of FM-World as an app too.

FM-World at 22HBG

I was also tired of “playing alone”, so I was happy to have an evolution, capturing Gianluca’s enthusiasm and that of the nascent 22HBG.

Our “roles”? I basically maintained management of the website’s content and he handled everything else, namely the app, technological developments, and the beautiful headquarters too.

An app – FM-world – that today aggregates the audio and video streams of many Italian and foreign stations.

Words, words, words

*MHB: But you don’t provide connection numbers publicly.

NF: Those are company choices, but I can give you some important information. For example, not only major networks work online, but also native digital radios, especially if they have a well-defined format. There are totally “vertical” stations that achieve significant results.

Reality Check: Any Web Radios in the Top 10?

*MHB: But for example right now, at this moment, do you have any radios that are not also on FM among the top 10?

NF: Right now (8:55 AM on Monday May 29, 2023, ed.) the most listened to… let me see… yes: the most listened to is Radio1 Rai, then the private networks we know… and in ninth place 70-80.it, the first digital one.

FM-World for Broadcasters

*MHB: An application like FM-World records a sea of information: real-time listening rankings, listening duration, bounce rate, individual user habits. And it can display metadata. Have you thought about providing interfaces to radio stations so they can analyze and operate on this data? Or maybe enrich what radio offers through your platform with those famous metadata – and I don’t mean just the title of the song on air, but everything else that’s been dreamed up for years?

NF: Of course, obviously this is a very useful service, also demonstrating the importance on the app of prominence, studied positioning, the right logo, the right name: a service we can provide.

But not me: I handle the content side. You’d have to talk to 22HBG directly about that.

Next Episode

And that’s exactly what we’ll do in the second episode of our series “Entertainment and Work in the Car” (M.H.B. with the support of Peperoni AI, for FM-World).