Wondery podcast The Lead: Starting Five tried incorporated content from AI voice "Striker" for New York listeners after its main podcast. Wondery podcast The Lead: Starting Five tried incorporated content from AI voice “Striker” for New York listeners after its main podcast. (Wondery.)

There have been several controversies in the sportswriting space recently around the use of artificial intelligence. Now, we’re seeing one in sports podcasting. There, Amazon-owned Wondery recently debuted AI podcast host “Striker” at the end of their daily The Lead: Starting Five for users geotagged in the New York area. Dan McQuade wrote about this at Defector Friday:

First, some background. The Lead itself began in 2019 from Wondery in partnership with The Athletic, part of a large Athletic launch of podcasts at least partially outside their paywall at that point. It was originally co-hosted by Anders Kelto and Kavitha Davidson from 2019-21, with Tiffany Oshinsky taking over alongside Kelto in 2021. It started as a daily podcast on big sports stories, including interviews with Athletic writers on those topics, and is now twice-weekly. (And it no longer appears affiliated with The Athletic; it’s not listed on their podcasts page.)

In 2022, Wondery spun off The Lead: Starting Five, a daily, 10-minute show covering five big sports stories in short fashion, featuring Oshinsky, Kelto, and others. And it’s that The Lead: Starting Five spinoff podcast that has now produced “Striker,” a segment that came on after some shows this week for users geotagged as in New York. Here’s more from McQuade on what that sounded like:

“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.

A lot of this sounds like general AI non-valuable and blunder-filled (McQuade notes that “Striker” pronounced NHL player Evander Kane’s name as “Evinder,” and included a Princeton men’s basketball recap for some reason) content. But this was a pretty limited impact, sent to only some subscribers to one particular show. What makes this more notable is the potential idea of this as a scalable approach, though, replacing actual human hosts in many cities. And the internal messaging McQuade cites on this makes “Striker” sound like a significant Wondery initiative:

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.”

…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.”

As McQuade notes, no one at Wondery returned Defector requests for comment on this. So we don’t know just what their end goals are. But “synthetic voice” and “AI-produced script” are not great signs for those prefer their sports content from actual people, even for all those “built in partnership with humans” disclaimers. And you don’t get the chief content officer for Wondery (initially founded by former Fox executive Hernan Lopez in 2016, Amazon bought the company in 2020 for an estimated $300 million) gushing about a project like this and talking about “a cross-functional collaboration across Content, Product, Legal, Research, and DOPS” if this wasn’t a big project.

This fits into a wider discussion of AI and sports content. There have been numerous efforts to use AI for sports content over the years, from the Associated Press trying it with minor league baseball, lower-level college basketball game recaps, and college basketball season previews to Gannett, Sports Illustrated, and Deadspin all getting criticized for their particular AI usage. On the video/audio side, IBM tried “generative AI commentary” at The Masters this year.

None of the AI efforts to date have been that impressive, and many have come with embarrassing blunders. But content with a significant AI component is definitely a thing many companies are investing major resources in. And it’s interesting to see that now playing out at a big podcast company, albeit in an extremely limited fashion so far. It will be worth watching to see if Wondery continues with “Striker,” and just how listeners respond.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.