Throughout this series of posts about the future of radio, I’ve made a point of how surprisingly well traditional terrestrial radio has hung on and how it has maintained its audience despite a plethora of digital alternatives. But ultimately few question the inevitability of the internet replacing the technology that was derived from Marconi in the early 20th century. One country, Norway, has already announced a date for the full replacement of FM transmissions with new digital audio broadcasting technologies.
Digital can free up radio in a number of ways:
- There can be an unlimited number of stations.
- On the internet there are no geographical limitations as to where a station can be heard
- Broadcasts need not be live, and the audience can have the ability to listen when and where they choose.
- Government regulation and fees go away as their control over bandwidth loses relevance.
- It is far less likely that a few large corporations can monopolize whole markets as they currently do on AM and FM.
- Radio can be available on an even broader set of devices than terrestrial radio already is and importantly, it can be available on the devices most commonly used by younger generations.
- It makes broadcasting available to everyone, much as the internet potentially made everyone a publisher.
Traditional radio, despite having proved more entrenched than some other traditional media, nonetheless will face the same sort of digital transformation that other media have faced in the last couple decades. As the internet and the web became more and more popular and as the number of people with broadband proliferated, print and television in particular were often slow and awkward in making the transitions. The print media initially responded by taking what they published in print and posting it online. Only after they started to see their audience drift away to online information services, whether it be Google or Facebook, or even the Huffington Post, they began to realize that a digital information service required a different approach than a once a day print newspaper.
Radio’s first response to the digital world was similar. Put up the live stream of the radio programs that currently existed on the station. What came to be called Web 2.0 emphasized interactivity, personalization and on demand information. Digital audio services have delivered some of these same qualities. Pandora lets you program your own radio station. Podcasting lets you subscribe only to the programs you want to receive and to listen to them at your leisure. You can even ask a digital assistant like Siri or Alexa to play only the song you want to hear at that moment. Are we perhaps on the verge of seeing Radio 2.0?
But we should also keep in mind that terrestrial radio has not hung onto its audience because anyone thinks the century old technology is better. It’s because of the programming and specifically the local programming that is led by people who are part of the community. It has local news and traffic and weather, community service announcements and even local advertisements. Radio builds communities and it’s not just geographic but can be ethnic or age group or lifestyle communities. That’s all something that algorithms aren’t very good at. It’s a blind spot for digital news and digital video and it is likely to continue to be for digital audio as well.
Can radio 2.0 leverage the capabilities that digital offers while maintaining the characteristics that make radio unique? Here are a few possibilities:
- As a community builder, radio is a perfect partner for social media. Not just as a way of promoting radio, social media itself could be a broadcast vehicle, or it could offer a kind of conference call environment that talk radio currently lacks.
- Advertisers salivate over the potential for GPS to bring very targeted, perhaps even hyperlocal ads, to your smartphone. Can GPS be a kind of program selector for radio, offering one type of programming for someone in the car, another for someone on a hike in the woods and maybe some chill-out programming for people waiting on line at the DMV?
- Many of the successful early web-based information services relied heavily on curation. Can radio be a curator of audio? Take podcasts, for example. As they continue to proliferate they become harder and harder to find and organize. Radio could fulfill that function and could broadcast podcasts on demand. It would even be a way of providing ‘stations” for niche audiences that want things like poetry or short stories.
- As we approach a time of sensor equipped wearables, can your wrist band tell your smartphone delivered radio to play something with a beat when you’re exercising or maybe something dreamy when you’re sitting in the park?
But more than anything else, what I look forward to with digital radio is hundreds of stations, localized maybe even to the point of a neighborhood or a building, managed by local talent who are part of the community the stations serve. A little bit like the way radio got started.