BBC News Releases Synthetic Voice Newsreader for Online Articles
BBC Global News has debuted a synthetic voice to read articles to those visiting the BBC website, starting with “The Life Project” series of articles on BBC Worklife. The text-to-speech tool was built in collaboration with Microsoft and generates a very human-sounding voice that is clearly aimed at evoking the BBC news presenters on radio and television broadcasts.
Microsoft applied its deep neural networks to build the voice and make it capable of sounding as close to a human reading aloud as possible. The male voice sounds like someone trained in elocution, practiced in reading news at a cadence useful for people doing other things while listening. The reading can be paused or halted but is set up to keep going even if another browser window is open or a phone is locked. For now, the voice can only be heard on The Life Project’s 16 articles about life during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. The limited experiment will expand at the beginning of next year to new articles under various BBC verticals chosen by editors. An icon on the page will indicate if it is one that has the synthetic reader embedded. Though the voice is supposed to sound warm and authoritative, it will adjust based on the kind of story, with more somber tones for sadder stories and a more chipper demeanor on happy ones. The AI isn’t just an isolated reader of articles either. It includes Microsoft’s cognitive learning algorithms, meaning it can analyze the kind of stories a user is interested in and prioritize the order of stories it reads based on what it learns.
This isn’t the BBC’s only experiment in audio AI. In June, the organization launched its voice assistant, Beeb, as a beta release after over a year of development. The voice assistant is supposed to connect users to the BBC’s audio programming, as opposed to the text stories, with users able to request radio shows and podcasts and ask about different presenters and show schedule. The AI also offers a feature called Update Me with personalized news updates based on the user’s preference and culled from BBC news reports. Though Beeb serves a different function, it further indicates the BBC’s intent to keep growing its voice AI presence.
The BBC isn’t the first new group to want to give a local voice to its text stories. South African news provider Media24 launched a synthetic voice to read stories on its News24.com website in September to ensure they would be read with a local accent. The audio AI, designed with British voice tech developer SpeechKit, speaks English with a South African accent and vocabulary. The standard robotic voice doesn’t work well when it comes to words and phrases that aren’t standard in American English. South African English has a unique accent and 11 official languages incorporated into the names and phrases used in the country, so the need for a localized synthetic voice is very evident. British English has its own quirks, and international stories aren’t limited to words in Webster’s dictionary, so the same reasoning applies to the BBC.
The new feature is part of the BBC’s Project Songbird, which is working to bring more audio tech to the website, including background soundscapes and the option for advertisers to sponsor audio ads as part of the listening experience. According to the BBC, there’s a rising interest in audio content, with 62% of its online audience spending anywhere from half an hour to four hours listening to podcasts every day. Converting the text stories into audio that’s easy to listen to makes sense as a way to get more people to hear what they don’t have time to read.
“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,” BBC global senior vice president for business development and innovation Errol Baran said in a statement. “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.”