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Wondery Sports Podcast Now Has An AI Host Named Striker

The logo for Wondery's THE LEAD: STARTING FIVE

Each weekday since May 2022, a rotating group of hosts have talked sports on a podcast called The Lead: Starting Five. Each 10-minute episode of the show, which is produced by the podcast network Wondery, features a discussion of the day’s sports topics. “This is the ideal show for the busy sports fan,” the promo pod said. It has more or less the same purpose as the average Magic Johnson tweet—an attempt to give casual fans a heads up on what’s going on. Listeners in the New York area this week were introduced to a new host on the show: Striker, an AI sports anchor.

“Hey, if you’re listening to today’s episode of The Lead: Starting Five in the New York region, stick around for a fun New York sports update,” a real person says at the top for listeners geotagged in that area. “Give us a listen and tell us what you think.” When the Starting Five hosts sign off, Striker abruptly comes on.

“Hey, New York, gear up for something cool and new,” the AI voice says at the end of Monday’s show. “I’m Striker, your AI host, whipped up from the magic of machine learning. In terms of writing, I chipped in quite a bit, collaboration with a human writer. Think of me as New York’s very own creation.”

And then Striker lays out some rote recaps of recent New York City area sporting events. The segment basically turns box scores into sentences that are less useful than a box score. Occasionally you get a little bit of extra information besides the stats; the Jets-Texans recap notes that Zach Wilson had been benched for two games and that C.J. Stroud left with a concussion. Otherwise there is not much else to note from Monday’s recap except that Striker pronounces it “Evinder Kane,” and that Wondery’s definition of New York metro area sports includes Princeton basketball. The segment is about two and a half minutes, and ends with a note that some information is sourced from Stats Perform and the Associated Press.

Marshall Lewy, chief content officer for Amazon-owned Wondery, gushed to staff about Striker in a Slack message on Tuesday. “I wanted to give a shoutout to the team behind our first customer-facing Al audio experiment that launched this week!” Lewy wrote in a message reviewed by Defector Media. “Yesterday, we launched Sports Flash, our first Al generated original podcast segment as a two-week test to gauge internal and customer feedback… Sports Flash features a synthetic version of the dulcet tones of our very own Dave Easton. This has truly been a cross-functional collaboration across Content, Product, Legal, Research, and DOPS.” (I cannot figure out what DOPS means. After consulting with Jasper and Sean, Defector’s business guys, our best guess is “digital ops,” as Wondery has job listings with that phrasing.)

Lewy continued: “While Al tools play a large part in generating this content, with a synthetic voice and an Al-produced script, each segment is built in partnership with humans, including with human oversight into the design, prompt engineering, editing, fact-checking, and publishing. It’s an important ‘test and learn’ that is being executed in accordance with the Content Team’s Al Tenets. We’re trying to better understand the opportunities and challenges with utilizing Al to support our workflows and whether we are able to create content that listeners find compelling.”

Easton is head of sports, comedy, topicals, and alternative programming at Wondery. Neither he, Lewy, nor anyone else at the company returned my requests for comment. The Lead: Starting Five is a spinoff of The Lead, a twice-weekly half-hour sports podcast. Recent episodes cover the tush push and “The Surprising Power Of Baseball Memories.” Anders Kelto is the creator and executive producer, and co-hosts alongside Tiffany Oshinsky. Kelto also produces the Starting Five spinoff, and occasionally appears alongside rotating hosts Oshinsky, Matt Stroup, and Sarah Kezele. Tate Frazier was the show’s everyday host before returning to The Ringer earlier this year; John Gonzalez, recently at The Ringer and Sports Illustrated, took over that spot late last year. The show is short and punchy and I can confirm after a week of listens that it does provide a short, entertaining primer on the previous day in sports.

Hernan Lopez, a former Fox exec, founded Wondery in 2016. In a few years it became one of the larger podcast networks, with a bunch of successful shows. Podcasts like Dr. Death, The Shrink Next Door and WeCrashed were adapted into television shows. In April of 2020, the federal government charged Lopez with wire fraud and money laundering, accusing him of bribing FIFA to obtain the rights to the World Cup while at Fox. In December 2020, Amazon acquired Wondery for a reported $300 million. In March of this year, Lopez was convicted on those charges. In September, a federal judge overturned the verdict, ruling the federal bribery statute did not apply to his actions. Lopez now runs Danvas, which his website says is “a company that is bringing NFTs and digital art into the real world.” Desperate for a comment from someone, I even asked him about the AI host his former company is rolling out. He did not respond.

Per Lewy’s note, there is human oversight in five aspects of the two-minute segment. It simply seems like it’d be easier, and maybe even cheaper, to just hire someone in New York to write a short recap of local sporting events. But it’s pretty obvious what the actual play is here, and what the next step would be. That begins with expanding this type of recap to multiple markets, with the humans currently overseeing the New York version overseeing multiple robot recaps around the country. It is equally easy to see where things might go from there, and how Striker’s role in the podcast might expand.

The use of large language models, generally called AI, is spreading across sports media. In my experience all of it is aggressively bad. G/O Media launched several bots earlier this year. The Deadspin Bot currently does posts like “2023 NBA blocks per game leaders,” which are less useful presentations of information available on Basketball-Reference, ESPN, and many other sites. Last month, Futurism reported Sports Illustrated was running terrible machine-generated product reviews; one noted it was hard to play volleyball (the sport) without first obtaining a volleyball (the ball). The Arena Group, which operates SI under a license from owner Authentic Brands Group, fired CEO Ross Levinsohn in the wake of that report. The company named majority shareholder and 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava interim CEO.

SI isn’t the only once-storied name that’s currently chasing AI gibberish. The Associated Press contracts with a company called Data Skrive to produce machine-written stories. They read a lot like the Wondery segments. You might get a special note if the game ended on a half-court buzzer beater. But exciting games are often made dull. In a men’s college basketball game in November, Little Rock’s Bradley Douglas hit a jumper with a second left for a two point lead; Tulsa’s Carlous Williams caught a full court pass and hit a shot at the buzzer to send it to overtime. Some of that is mentioned in the very last sentence of the AP report. Whatever the Associated Press is paying Data Skrive, it’s too much.

The Wondery recaps from Striker run along the same lines, which is to say that they are basically worthless. They are repetitive. They are boring. They are the exact opposite of the ostensible idea for The Lead: Starting Five. Today’s human version of the show discussed things like Shohei Ohtani’s introductory press conference, the Celtics’ win over the Cavs and Anthony Edwards commenting on Michael Jordan comparisons. It was a fine mix of topics. The Striker segment today, on the other hand, tells you who won, who scored how many points, and that the Jets could beat the Dolphins on Sunday because “anything can happen.” So much of this just sucks. Lewy told the staff that so many different divisions of Wondery worked on this, and yet the output still sounds like half-assed nonsense. There’s even already a longtime real DJ named Stryker! (A request for comment with alt-rock station KYSR-FM, where Stryker hosts an afternoon show with Chris Booker, was not returned.)

Despite a distaste for the broader enterprise, I can see plenty of possible value in AI or similar tools to help create content. But this is not it. This is garbage, in concept and also in execution. And I think it really hurts the reputation of the outlets that have grasped onto it. When Dan Gelston wrote from the Big 5 Classic in Philadelphia earlier this month, he provided a game recap and a vivid picture of the scene at the arena. The Data Skrive recaps do none of that. Sports Illustrated, the magazine every sportswriter read in awe as a kid, is now running nonsensical guides to buying volleyballs. Wondery has produced multiple acclaimed shows; I have listened to dozens of episodes of Patrick Wyman’s Tides of History. Now I will always associate Wondery with An. AI Voice. Telling. Me. The Nets. Lost. Last Night. In This. Weird. Cadence.

And I think Wondery knows that this sucks, too. They did not respond to my repeated requests for comment about the AI test, and about how to spell Striker. They did not put out a press release about the AI rollout. Internally, they are calling this a big deal. Externally, they seem to be trying to hide it from a public that would obviously reject it with good reason. It’s awful. No one should allow an AI created by Jeff Bezos’s company any growing pains.

Fortunately Wondery is open to feedback. “Speak your mind,” Striker says in one bit. “I’m ready for it.” I hope so.

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