It uses artificial intelligence to convert text articles into speech, ‘reading’ them aloud with a synthetic voice.
The BBC worked with Microsoft to create the new voice and AI software, using deep neural networks to create a synthetic voice with a natural tone and clear articulation of words.
Launching globally today, the initial content will be part of a series within BBC Worklife called ‘The Life Project’. Its 16 feature articles, which focus on giving readers the tools they need to make life-changing decisions during the pandemic, are now available in audio.
At the conclusion of The Life Project on 31 December 2020, the product will roll out across select articles from BBC feature verticals BBC Culture, BBC Future and BBC Worklife. These sections will display an icon inviting users to listen instead of reading.
The experience will be available across multiple platforms and BBC editors will personally handpick the best dynamic articles for the audience.
These articles will be given a ‘listen to article’ prompt, allowing users to engage in a way they have never been able to before on the BBC site.
The audio will continue after users navigate away from the article on desktop and when a phone is locked on mobile, for an uninterrupted experience.
Built with cognitive and behavioral integrated tech software, the tool will start to learn the patterns of users’ behaviour and prioritise content based on their preferences, whilst maintaining the BBC’s trusted curation of balanced journalism and ensuring audiences are served the most important stories which also feel relevant to them.
The launch marks the first milestone in an ambitious plan which aims to see the product rolled out to other areas of the site, the introduction of background soundscapes to add to the listening experience, infinite scroll and a number of other innovative tech developments as part of an initiative called Project Songbird.
Uniquely, the speech is in a soft regional voice to make it warm and welcoming. Part of the work involved developing a voice that not only provides colour and character to the recordings, but also offers a rounded, human-like sound which aligns to the tone and emotion of the article and remains engaging even throughout a long-form article.
The use of a synthetic voice means the project will be suitable for a wide range of content as well as allowing the audio to change automatically as and when any text is updated.
The new product also offers the BBC’s commercial partners the opportunity to reach a growing and hyper-engaged audio audience.
Along with pre-roll advertising, sponsored feature sections and full sponsorship with additional bespoke commissioned audio content from BBC StoryWorks Commercial Productions will also be on offer and, withthe ability to download in the background, the new function will offer an even more dynamic advertiser experience.
Errol Baran, global SVP, Business Development & Innovation, Advertising & StoryWorks, said: “As the popularity of audio grows, this new product offers audiences another complementary way of engaging with our content in a format that suits them.
“That, married with the opportunities available to our commercial partners and the quality of the offering, makes this a unique and exciting new proposition in the market.”
The BBC has seen clear demand for additional audio programming in recent years, with 62% of the BBC’s digital audience now spending between 30 minutes and four hours listening to podcasts each day.
The new function is the BBC’s solution to filling that need for the audience and providing an alternative way to engage with its plethora of award-winning content.
It will offer BBC.com audiences a third way to consume BBC digital content, alongside text and video.