Finding our voice – News24

A publication's voice is what makes it special. With the launch of the News24 subscription service, took the lead with one of the first uniquely South African home-grown AI text-to-speech voices.

Why did News24 need a voice?

With the implementation of the News24 subscription service, discussion arose around what a subscription-based model would offer subscribers. News24 is renowned for its breaking news, but has recently placed more emphasis on being seen as a publisher of trusted South African news.

We looked into what competitors were offering, and while a few features that intrigued us stood out, we recognised the value that a uniquely South African voice element would bring. By giving users the option to engage an additional sense and listen to the news instead of reading it, we could empower users to stay up to date with news while on the go, as well as giving users with sight-related disabilities access to our articles.

Why not use ready-made tools/voice options on the market?

There are several off-the-shelf tools available which transform text to speech, and we looked into quite a few of them. However, the available voices didn’t have any South African flavour and would have needed additional training to cater for quite a few South African names and landmarks. It quickly became apparent that we needed to create our own voice, one with which South Africans could relate to.

We approached several different text-to-speech publishers in our search for a technology partner with the tools to help us bring the News24 text to life. Ultimately, we partnered with BeyondWords - a UK-based company with a South African co-founder.

Tim Bongo The Voice Of News24

Finding our voice

When users listen to our articles, we want them to feel like it’s coming from home. We wanted to provide our News24 subscribers with the best possible user experience and that meant a local voice. And so our search began. After listening to many voices, we found exactly what we were looking for in the professional and natural voice of South African voice actor Bongolethu Swalala Mbutuma (Bongo).

With the search over, our next step was to work closely alongside BeyondWords to figure out the words and phrases that needed recording in order to train Bongo’s voice using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to cater for our wide variety of articles. We provided BeyondWords with thousands of articles to determine a sufficient set of phrases to record, which would ultimately be built out into a library and used to probe the synthesised voice. In order to guarantee that the voice could pronounce the names in our articles, we also recorded Bongo pronouncing the names of key South African figures and landmarks.

The final script consisted of 4180 sentences and totalled 35 recording hours. Bongo spent four hours a day, spread over two weeks, recording in a studio in Cape Town.

After we finished recording, BeyondWords applied their technology to our audio files and we started testing. The entire process was approached with care to ensure that we refined the voice and pronunciation as much as possible so that it can truly be a uniquely South African offering. Once it reached that point, integration to our CMS (Content Management System) and articles took place to ensure that our journalists can seamlessly get a voice recording on to their articles.

Breathing life into news and effectively transforming readers into listeners was no small feat, but the numbers speak for themselves. Since the launch of the News24 text-to-speech feature in August 2020, the system has created nearly 180 000 individual sound clips and our subscribers have listened to articles over 350 000 times. The feedback on the rollout and implementation has been encouragingly positive as well, with Kelly Anderson, Audience Engagement Editor at News24, saying, “The synthetic voice we developed with BeyondWords handles local names better than anything we’ve heard before. It’s much more engaging to listen to a voice that sounds like our brand”.

Our AI-driven -Bongo is becoming better and better, with new words being added to his vocabulary every day. It’s an enormous accomplishment and one of which we are extremely proud, knowing that the technology we create at is not only useful, but continuously impacts and enriches South African lives.