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Seekr’s AI-Powered Podcast Rating Tool Encourages Civil Discourse

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It’s safe to say that Alex Jones and Oprah, who both host their own podcasts, will tackle the same subject matter in very different ways.

But the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), an industry group that develops standards for brand safety and suitability, has made it difficult to distinguish between the two.

GARM’s approach to judging the brand safety or suitability of a podcast is a blunt instrument.

“Everything pulls toward keywords,” said Dan Granger, CEO of audio agency Oxford Road.

Certain words and terms are deemed too risky for a brand to be associated with, regardless of how a podcaster uses them. The tone, the point a person makes or the delicacy with which they treat a topic aren’t taken into consideration.

As well intentioned as the GARM framework is, it’s fundamentally about excluding problematic content as opposed to finding responsible content that aligns with a brand’s values.

Podcast content requires a more nuanced approach.

Seeking to bring more precision to the conversation, on Tuesday, AI content evaluation and generation company Seekr announced the launch of Align, a tool developed with Oxford Road that rates the “civility” of podcast discussions.

The release comes after three months of beta testing. Brand launch partners include Bayer, MasterClass, Quip, Babbel, Constant Contact, SimpliSafe and Tommy John.

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The tool assigns podcasts and individual episodes a so-called “Civility Score” on a scale of zero to 100 based on the severity and frequency of personal attacks.

Ad hominem attacks, which by definition go after the person making an argument rather than the substance of the argument itself, can run the gamut from mockery and insults to verbal attacks based on characteristics like race, gender or religion.

Seekr cited two real-world examples of personal attacks from podcasts. In one, a speaker refers to someone’s “ugly face.” Another podcast episode contains a blatantly antisemitic attack: “I do not trust any Jew. I do not respect Jews. Uh, these are our enemy. They’re trying to wipe out Europeans.”

The score comes with a detailed explanation “down to the sentence and word level,” said Rob Clark, Seekr’s president and CTO. Episode transcripts contain content flags so brands and agencies can see the attacks in context and how a higher GARM category risk contributed to a score.

The tool updates the score with each podcast episode and “alerts brands and agencies as to the deltas,” Clark said, so they can decide whether they still want to advertise within a podcast. It also shows ad buyers podcasts that match the suitability profile of shows they already advertise with, which they can add to their approved list for future consideration.

To date, Seekr has scored 8 million minutes of audio across thousands of podcasts and hundreds of thousands of episodes, Clark said. Seekr is partnering with Intel to scale how much content it can process and to train its large language models to be more accurate and better understand nuance.

Although the Align tool is only available for podcasts, Seekr plans to expand to web, video and social media. “The goal is a multichannel tool that lets advertisers see these ratings applied consistently with industry-specific signals across all those forms of media,” Clark said.

Money and morals

Brand safety and suitability issues have long held podcasts back ad-revenue-wise.

Consumers spend just over 3% of their daily media consumption time spent with podcasts, according to eMarketer research.

“[But] if you look at the percentage of time that people spend with [podcasts] as a percentage of dollars spent on US advertising, we should be [a roughly] $11 billion industry,” Granger said. “Why is [podcasting only] getting 20% of the money that it deserves as an industry?”

Modest though the numbers may be, podcast ad revenue grew 25% YOY in 2023 to more than $2 billion and is expected to reach close to $4 billion by 2025, according to the IAB’s October podcast ad revenue study.

But podcasting’s further growth is partly contingent on marketer sentiment.

Marketers are wary of running ads alongside controversial topics or personalities, said Louis Jones, CMO of the Brand Safety Institute. They’re also concerned about their inability to screen podcast content before it drops.

Aside from easing advertiser doubts and helping increase podcast monetization, the Align tool has an ethical dimension. Discussions can get animated on podcasts, especially in an election year, but Seekr wants to tip the balance toward podcasters who combine passion with restraint.

“Brands can incentivize and reward responsible actors and voices no matter what subject they’re talking about,” Granger said. “We can protect free speech and open ecosystems while making sure that people aren’t rewarded for making [others] fearful and upset and angry at each other.”

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