Radio - what does the future hold?
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
As the Netherlands celebrated the official centenary of radio proper, I was invited to fly across to Amsterdam to opine about radio past, present and future.
The radio past is rich with stories wherever you are in the World. Not least the case of renowned Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba in Essex in 1920 - delivering the World’s first entertainment broadcast by a celeb. A precursor to Jingle Bell Ball, I guess. Rumour has it she worried she’d have to go up the aerial mast to perform.
Overall, history delivers many lessons. Lessons of how technology shaped the medium – as the hefty valve sets gave way to the portable set. Lessons of how the market sets the mood – as listeners found overseas stations to feast their appetite where domestic stations failed. Lessons too of the tension between doing good - and being entertaining; and of what the State should and shouldn’t fund.
Let’s just pause to celebrate radio’s enormous stature a whole century on. Wherever you are in the World, it reaches around 90% of all adults.
And - of all one can feast one’s ears with - this ‘radio’ thing accounts for the lion's share of listening.
We are where we are now - simply because of where we were.
Radio was linear because it had to be. Radio was local because it had to be – transmitters were small and receivers not powerful. The number of radio stations was small because it had to be - frequencies were limited. Radio ads were segmented into breaks - because they were required to be. Radio stations were in their own buildings - because that's where the studios were. And radio sets looked like they did because they had to – they usually had a hefty transformer, aerial, speaker and other weighty components.
Now those variables have all but changed - and generation Z cares little for the alibis they offer. How will radio now shape up without such constraints?
All I can offer are questions.
Which business are we in? Some folk predict a bloody scrap between radio and on-demand/podcasting. That’s nonsense. We are in the curated audio business - regardless of distribution. Already the podcast and broadcast world are growing and fusing. And some music ‘radio’ stations arguably have become simply powerfully-branded and well-curated audio ‘streams’. Similarly, some bright new streamers are building something which could well be dubbed 'radio' - were they given a DAB transmitter for Christmas. It’s all becoming a delightful audio fusion - and that should help us all if we throw our arms around it.
Will radio station loyalty still exist? For years, listeners have shown a puzzling loyalty to a radio ‘channel’. Even when music policy, presenters and frequency - and sometimes name - have changed, loyalty has still been slow to erode until listeners really are pushed over the cliff. Listeners used to say to me, in a past life: ‘Bring back BRMB’ - but what did they mean by that exactly?
Now, I suggest that loyalty to particular content, talent or brand will rule, wherever it resides. Analogue stars will enjoy a spell of success in the new world, but when they retire, the new names will have to earn a profile before contracts and pay deals are offered. Brand familiarity and trust will also count for a great deal: when you want a station playing 80s and you flick through the options the World has to offer, the familiar Heart or Absolute will have a pull. They will be the ones you’ll select when the mood strikes. Powerful non-media brands will also be stretched into audio space - and some will succeed, likely drawing on many time-tested ‘radio’ skills.
Where will the money come from? How much longer can the BBC count on an impressive earmarked £3,6980m+ funding to do all it wishes? The licence fee will disappear and a lesser amount of direct tax will be channelled into audio projects of note - addressing genuine market deficit and ’public interest‘ - maybe as a publisher on broadcast channels operated by others, or such concepts as the local democracy reporters or Audio Content Fund (of which I’m proud to be on the panel). I worry that change will happen destructively, thanks to unwarranted criticism of the BBC - and the Corporation‘s failure to address that from the top.
How will commercial revenues fare? The power and influence of audio generally is, at last, being reflected by passion from advertisers and gangly ad agency Millennials, thanks in no small part to its sexy new podcasting sister. Listeners, however, will not tolerate 12 minutes of interruptive ads in an hour on 'radio' when there are many audio alternatives. We will graduate to heightened reliance on branded content. Whilst press pundits suggest that podcasters invented commercial integration, great radio stations have been doing it since Ofcom wisely lessened the rules. Other countries, such as Ireland, are less forgiving about such regulatory freedoms - but they will very soon come into line, or see audiences disappear.
Where in the World will our audio originate? The vast majority of audio consumed in the UK is home-grown. Whilst we merrily watch American films, few listeners currently savour a US breakfast show. Although podcasting now offers overseas content, consumption is currently miniscule. But can we imagine a time when a great music and entertainment radio station is beamed from New York to appreciable UK audiences? Possibly. That’s why it’s great to see UK radio now flexing its muscles to ensure that the Radio Luxembourg effect is not again felt on these shores.
What tech will tomorrow bring? The radio set will not exist. Already in homes with smart speakers, you just yell what you want. Soon, voice tech will be be native in everything, everywhere - you won’t even think about how it’s getting to you. Your desired slice or stream of audio thus available perfectly - provided you know what it is. The 'battle for the dashboard' will rage - and radio cannot rely on special treatment. It will be a significant opportunity for the most powerful personalities, content and brands - with its ubiquity offering much more incremental value than even video has commanded. The audience to audio content will multiply.
Will linear survive? For some news, sport and for daypart offerings, linear and live works - but it’s not always as important as some suggest. Great voice-tracked stations have already proven how cannily pre-produced programmes can work excellently. But what of linear? One of the reasons radio enjoys the relationship it does with listeners is because it has grown up with them in real time - a linear feed which started the day you were born. You’re bound to have an affinity with the breakfast presenter who was on-air when you left school and is still there when you have your first child. Once linear and non-linear is equally accessible, content will find its best home. Much of what has traditionally been delivered live, however, will not be - and will be the richer for it.
How will we measure audiences? When audio is consumed from all manner of sources, in all sorts of places, live and not-so-live, new methods will be devised to measure the audio listening day. The results for ‘radio’ will look very different from Rajar. Not because Rajar is flawed, but simply because the methodology will be so different. That data disruption will only be tolerated when the value of non-live audio grows to such an extent that the major broadcasters feel that the transition can be swallowed.
What role will personalisation play? I’d suggest it can be overstated. Personalisation has always been possible - since your grandpa Albert stacked up the skiffle 78s he wanted to play - or you bought a 10cc cassette. But there was always something different about a radio station - it knew you well enough to be consistently of appeal - but still surprised - with no faffing. With the World at our fingertips on the internet, we still rely on Google to help us navigate - and we click on the front page searches it volunteers. Radio similarly helps guide us - and in a new world of infinite audio, that reliable curation and human recommendation brings heightened value.
Many things now can be personalised but who really bothers? If you really need to keep deleting songs you don’t like from your radio station playlist, then it’s probably easier to find a better station. I suggest the monoculture of ever more targeted music stations or streams will fit the bill without tweaking - and much talk content will be selected on demand, without anyone needing to create a linear stream.
How will news sound? As I’ve suggested before, I believe that news bulletins only sound like they do because that’s how they used to be in 1922. Radio is no place for complex lists - let alone ones read out bang in the midst of a music station. Focus groups I’ve talked to recall surprisingly little of the journalists’ hard efforts.
Content and advertising regulation generally in the UK has been proportionate, proactive and sensible. In an increasingly international media world - and one where listeners will choose exactly what they hear rather than stumbling across things - the last remaining legacy rules of a bygone era will gently fade. We will move from regulating things which don’t really matter much to anyone - to trying even harder around the world to clamp down - on all media - on the things which really do matter, including incitement, reputational damage, fairness, accuracy and bias in news.
As we toast the New Year, the second century of radio will loom - heralding a new era; and the most exciting - and disrupted - time since the 1920s in our audio world.
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