Could the next superstar radio host be an AI? Maybe not soon, but it is coming: experts

Estimated read time 7 min read

Spark53:59The extraordinary power of terrestrial radio

It took a while for Ashley Elzinga to craft her artificial intelligence-powered counterpart.

“It sounded a bit monotone at first. It was a bit emotionless, which you know, all things considered … that’s not too surprising,” said the morning radio host, who’s based in northern Michigan.

Elzinga also records material for other local radio shows, including Portland’s weekday afternoon program on Live 95.5.

In mid-2023, she reportedly became the first radio host and DJ to launch an artificial intelligence-powered host. Called AI Ashley, the host fills in for her on air at the Portland show when she’s on vacation.

Tech and media experts said it will likely take years before AI voices can convincingly replace real radio personalities en masse. But whenever they might come, they’ll bring with them new questions about ethics and trust.

Photo of a caucasian woman in a broadcast studio speaking into a radio microphone.
Ashley Elzinga is a morning radio host for Live 95.5 in Portland. But when she’s away, an artificial intelligence version of her voice takes over. (Dylan Salisbury/Live 95.5)

AI Ashley’s scripts are written by local writers or managers, then vocalized with a digital version of Elzinga’s voice, using hours of her recordings as a foundation to sound like the real deal.

She admits that listening to AI Ashley can be “a little scary,” since she isn’t the one writing the script that a simulacrum of her persona recites on the air.

“The biggest thing is … be actually funny,” she said she would tell her content director. “Don’t try to make a joke that falls flat, because I’ll die.”

The technology was provided by U.S.-based AI media company Futuri, using a tool originally called RadioGPT that recently rebranded as AudioAI.

In Canada, Rogers Sports & Media announced last year it was also “beta testing new AI voice tech” with Futuri. CBC News asked Rogers for an update on where that project currently stands, but it did not provide any further updates.

Futuri says its tool can generate and broadcast accurate and up-to-date weather reports, and even AI DJs that speak with local dialects.

Interest in AI radio hosts isn’t limited to local programming, either. In January, American rapper launched a show on SiriusXM that he’s co-hosting alongside Qd.Pi, an entirely AI-generated personality.

Threat or opportunity?

News about AI hosts taking over the airwaves “put a bit of a panic through the radio industry,” digital media researcher and consultant Fred Jacobs told Spark host Nora Young.

Last year, Jacobs gave a talk about tech and media trends at the Country Radio Seminar, a radio conference in Nashville. He had just a few minutes of material prepared to talk about AI. This year saw multiple panels at the conference dedicated to discussing how AI might upend the industry — for better or worse.

Profile pic of a Caucasian male with short white hair and brown-rimmed glasses.
Fred Jacobs is a digital media researcher and consultant, and president of Fred Jacobs Media based in Michigan. (Submitted by Fred Jacobs)

Elzinga says that when AI Ashley was announced, listeners were worried it was going to totally replace her. They were relieved to hear that wasn’t the case. Elzinga said Futuri doesn’t own her voice or on-air likeness. So where she goes, her AI goes with her, though she declined to elaborate on specifics of her contract.

Jacobs noted that much of the “rampant concern” about AI in radio rises from fears that it might come at the expense of real people’s jobs. 

“The overall climate is really getting kind of nasty, and the layoffs are coming pretty fast and furious,” he said. 

“I would hope that instead of looking at this technology as a way to replace real people … it is entertaining or informative or good enough to be able to keep them tuned in.”

Paul Nahin says that even radio was a strange new technology upon its debut, bringing with it implications for communication, and then-unanswered questions.

“One of the concerns of fact was people would be finding out what was really going on in the world,” said Nahin, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of New Hampshire and author of The Mathematical Radio: Inside the Magic of AM, FM, and Single-Sideband.

“Whereas before, it got filtered, you know, through newspapers and word of mouth, that sort of thing.”

Jacobs said AI could streamline behind-the-scenes radio production, and the local radio industry in particular is beset with shrinking audiences — and budgets.

“It can do a really great job of kind of eliminating the 20 per cent of our jobs that we hate, right? Because they’re mundane and … pedestrian activities,” he said.

“AI can really handle a lot of that kind of stuff so that the creative part of what we do on the air can really come through.”

A hand touches a car dashboard.
Jacobs notes that while AI-generated metadata could provide more information on radio or device screens, designers will have to pay particular attention to avoid distracting drivers with too much info. (David Horemans/CBC)

AI-powered metadata could supercharge the amount of live info available on a car radio’s dashboard, said Jacobs, showing weather and emergency alerts, or identifying the host and guest during a live interview.

“You know how frustrating it is to turn on a radio show in progress, and it’s like, well, there’s Nora Young, but who the heck is she talking to?” he said. “But if it’s actually on the screen, that can really be a helpful thing for listeners.”

He said designers would also have to balance the amount of information shown at once to avoid distracting the driver.

Building trust

Blair Attard-Frost, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto researching AI governance, said a morning radio host chatting in between songs is one thing — but a full-AI host leading news coverage, for example, would raise trickier questions about accuracy and trust.

“How has this AI radio news broadcaster been trained? Where is it getting this data from? And what assurances do we have that it’s accurate or reliable?” they asked.

“I think it’s very context-situated; it depends on what the type of the program is, [and] what the audience’s expectations are.”

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Wyatt Tessari L’Allié, founder and executive director of AI Governance & Safety Canada, said some people may end up preferring an AI over a human host, as the software becomes more capable of generating naturalistic-sounding speech.

“I think even the best radio talk show hosts are going to have a hard time competing against AI in the coming years,” he said.

However, “in the radio context where that human flavour is so strong and so important, it’ll probably take longer there than in other areas.”

The potential issue appears to be on hold for now, at least for listeners of Live 95.5: AI Ashley is currently on hiatus; Elzinga says it’s undergoing upgrades so an improved version can debut in the near future.

Can’t replace ‘a great personality’

Attard-Frost says the demand for AI-powered personalities could rise significantly once people figure out how to best implement them in various markets, including radio and audio.

“Once it becomes more and more normalized, we won’t even think about it too much,” they said. “It’ll just be something that’s just kind of … there.”

In a market where local radio stations have lost staff, a virtual host could be a potential solution compared to airing syndicated content created elsewhere, said Jacobs.

Still, it would only be a “fairly efficient” answer to a shrinking industry.

“Ultimately, a great personality, I think, is always going to be better than a robot.”

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