Voice control has arrived – Nordic public service providers share knowledge and inspiration

What would you like to listen to right now? Tell your smart speaker, and a few seconds later you’ll be hearing exactly what you asked for. Voice control continues to conquer the world of audio content, and Nordic public service providers have already made good progress with this technology.

Smart speakers are conquering the market. Photo: Kjart Michalsen.

Last year, the craze for all things voice-controlled stepped up several notches across the Nordic region.

The first smart speakers landed on the shelves, and the Google Assistant became available in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian.

All indications suggest that voice control will also play a key role in technology development in 2019.

Tomas Granryd is Product Manager for Play and Head of Innovation Teams at Swedish Radio.

“We believe that this technology will have a radical impact on the way people consume audio content,” he says.


Consumers embrace the new trend

The key benefit provided by voice control is the seamless and simple way it navigates audio content.

Tomas Granryd believes that consumers will want to use this technology, not least as it becomes less expensive and more commonplace.

“Radio has always been a medium you listen to while doing something else, and that’s where voice control is so useful,” he says.

In Finland, Swedish Yle was the first media provider in the country to launch voice-controlled services.

Mikael Hindsberg, concept developer at Swedish Yle, talks of this new technology making quantum leaps.

“It’s happened so fast that half of the users haven’t even had a chance to test it, while others already predict a complete paradigm shift in audio consumption. It’s definitely exciting,” he says.


Nordic meeting was an eye-opener

Swedish Yle has been working with voice control since June 2018. A meeting of the Nordvision beta team in Oslo turned into a real eye-opener, Mikael Hindsberg explains.

“We set to work straight away, with support and inspiration from our Nordic colleagues. Swedish Yle does quite a lot of work at pilot level in Finland, as Google Assistant now includes three Nordic languages, but not Finnish,” he says.

So where is the technology right now, on a scale from test level to full-scale application?

Tomas Granryd explains that most of Swedish Radio’s work so far is at the experimental stage.

“However, we’ve started asking a lot of difficult questions. It’s all about looking at the details: What’s the smallest feature you’ll want? Users will be giving this technology a few tries, and that’s when we’ll have to be cutting-edge and make things simple. We need to establish these features,” he says.


“This technology offers amazing potential. In a lot of situations and for a lot of users, it’s much more convenient simply to use your voice to ask for the content you want to hear.”
– Mikael Hindsberg


Sweden is a pioneer in the world of audio

It has been said that we live in ’the golden age of audio’, even when listening figures for traditional radio formats are falling.

According to Tomas Granryd, Swedish Radio has noticed such positive trends for quite some time.

“Podcasts have been very popular in Sweden for several years now, and we may be the country in the world with the highest percentage of podcast listeners. You might even say that we’ve gone pod crazy,” he jokes.

Swedish Radio was among the first to launch its own podcast content, and it took off quickly.

Besides, Sweden is home to a lot of prominent audio companies – Spotify is one example that immediately springs to mind.

Tomas Granryd believes that voice-controlled assistants are another step in this development. Swedish Radio has been very generous in its knowledge-sharing, even at EBU level.

Not only experience, but also programming code has been shared.

However, Tomas Granryd takes his hat off to all the Nordic public service providers.

“The Nordic countries in general are extremely generous. We have excellent collaboration on difficult issues, and it’s great that this works so well between the countries,” he says, mentioning the cooperation with Marit Rossnes, Head of Product Development for radio at NRK, as particularly important.

For her part, Marit Rossnes points out the significance of being involved in a new trend from the very start.

“In order to appreciate what this media may entail for NRK and our audience, I think it’s important to be present from an early stage. We need to experiment and understand what changes are required – from an editorial, technical and production point of view. In particular, we need to work on improving the user experience of a medium that has no visual elements to support it,” she says.

Both in a Nordvision context and beyond, there is intense collaboration on new technology.

“Regarding audio, I would say that the three Scandinavian public service providers have a close and fruitful working relationship. We also have two dedicated collaborations with DR – a shared radio app and a Nordvision project on atomisation of audio (breaking content into much smaller parts),” Marit Rossnes explains.


Photo: Kjartan Michalsen/NRK


Technology with huge potential

So what does 2019 have in store? Mikael Hindsberg is certain that voice control will keep evolving at great pace.

“This technology offers amazing potential. In a lot of situations and for a lot of users, it’s much more convenient simply to use your voice to ask for the content you want to hear. We’ve already received thanks from a visually impaired person who enjoys the improved accessibility,” he says.

Marit Rossness notes that the public service providers’ own grasp of this technology is crucial.

“Our role is not to act as fortune tellers with regard to technology. For NRK, it’s important to understand and explore how this technology, like many others, may affect the media consumption and media needs of Norwegian users,” she explains.


A new phase ahead for public service

Tomas Granryd adds that while this will be the year when sales of voice-controlled products take off, consumers will also start looking at the technology in a completely different way.

He predicts that public service will enter an existential phase in terms of audio content. Swedish Radio started off the new year with workshops about their own voice assistant.

An essential question is what kind of personality the broadcaster projects when communicating with users.

“Is this a warm person? A fun person? Does the assistant tell jokes when asked, or does it take a neutral approach to questions? The next step will be to work out which services really personify Swedish Radio – are we talking podcasts, news, etc…” says Tomas Granryd.

As for himself, he has managed to find one or two favourite services in the voice-controlled audio landscape.

“I have a thing about curated lists. And they do work – in fact, it’s surprising how often I’m pleased with the content.”