BAMM In-Depth: Did Anyone Kill The Radio Star?

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Time for another of our great in-depth features from our London correspondent Zakia Uddin. This time around, Zakia looks at the state of modern radio …

Musicians have been singing about the death of commercial radio for over thirty years, but it’s only now that the rest of the entertainment industry is in agreement. Todd Pringle of the online curation app Stitcher can think of few advantages that terrestrial radio has over online radio: “There aren’t too many – from a user perspective, terrestrial radio is pretty poor. You’re beholden to a particular schedule which may or may not fit with yours, often have to stop listening at inopportune times (i.e. arrive at work), and can’t go back and pick up where you left off.”

The projected future of online radio has long been curation. Has curation been displaced by the driving force of personalisation, at a time when we trust algorithms more than DJs? Some of the team were way ahead of the curve back in the days of Open Thread Radio. One of’s predictions for 2013 was the rapid growth of online radio and streaming services. The picture online is even more dynamic now, and threatens to change radio as we know it. Has radio failed to stay relevant? And if that is the case, what did manager and business mogul Troy Carter mean earlier this year when he said that radio is ripe for “disruption”?

Terrestrial radio versus online radio

A good number of us are still spending our time listening to terrestrial radio – when we listen to radio at all. Figures from Rajar for the first quarter of 2013 show that online radio and related apps only commanded five per cent of the listening market. This might put the lie to the idea that radio in its current form is less relevant to our lives, but there’s no question that conventional music radio faces tougher times than before.

The platform is competing with streaming services which offer customisable playlists, social networking and in most instances, a radio function. There’s absolutely no reason to wait out the bad songs on a commercial radio programme. Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and Slackr have tried to bridge the gap between online and terrestrial platforms by offering “customised” radio based on users’ personal listening habits.

The number of apps that can fine-tune online radio is rapidly growing as well. In May, Spotify bought the app Tunigo which curates playlists across the service according to factors such as mood and genre. The curated playlist emulates radio’s ability to surprise the listener. Clearly, it’s no fun if you’re putting in all the work.

So what can online radio do in order to compete with streaming services? And what can it take from terrestrial radio? Radio has always curated, in the technical sense of pulling information together from diverse sources. The form’s main advantage is that it’s perfect for the multitasking age. You can work while listening to radio – it’s undemanding entertainment. Secondly, the amount of time that it takes to produce good radio content means that it is less disposable than online copy or video. But some experts believe that we’re not doing enough to celebrate this, and in fact, the very idea of what radio involves is becoming so diluted as to be meaningless.

What does ‘radio’ even mean these days?

Radio futurologist James Cridland has said that describing services such as Pandora as ‘radio’ and using the term ‘audio’ has made it harder to argue for radio in its existing form. Soundcloud was described earlier this year by Technorati as the ‘Youtube’ of ‘sound’ and its CEO Jim Cady has often subsumed radio under the catch-all term ‘audio’. Cridland believes that there is nothing terrestrial radio has to do in order to change. “In all seriousness: there’s nothing wrong with ‘conventional terrestrial radio’ – it’s robust and cheap to receive, and works well.”

However, he acknowledges that personalisation is the biggest trend for radio, – and it is best done online. Services such as Pandora and Last FM can create a radio which accurately reflects and predicts a listener’s tastes, based on data generated from their streamed music. “I think personalised content is important to a radio listener. It might be just as simple as ensuring that the weather forecast is the right weather forecast for your county; or that the advertising knows you’re a boy or a girl and doesn’t give you stuff you’re not interested in. It could be as complex as allowing you to skip pieces of content you don’t like.”

Whatever the future of commercial radio is, it can no longer just involve music. Cridland concludes that radio is so much more than playlists and that people are increasingly turning elsewhere to listen to music – whether it be online or through streaming services.

Similarly, other media commentators have called on the distinct qualities of radio to be conserved. Radio advocate Mark Ramsey believes that the surprise aspect of conventional radio has to be retained, and that even systems like the Portable People Meter, a system for tracking listening figures hour by hour, can stifle creativity.

Is it really all rosy for online radio?

Despite ongoing discussion about the marginalisation of commercial radio, streaming radio’s ability to replace the former is still up for debate. In November, Pandora CEO Tim Westergren filed a lawsuit against the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to contest the higher licensing fees paid out to companies by online radio services. He argued that the raised licensing fees put undue financial pressure on internet radio providers, and made it harder for them to compete with commercial terrestrial radio, which has yet to receive the rate hike.

In February, the company put a 40-hour free streaming cap on its mobile service to cover its raised costs. The boss of Slacker Radio even claimed last month that his company’s upswell in listeners was due to the cap – suggesting that the way that services deal with financial pressures may make the streaming market far more competitive than it has been so far. In court, Westergren speculated that a rate hike of similar proportions for on-air broadcasters will make it harder for commercial radio to survive.

Listening habits die hard

Despite the very real question of radio’s future, the contexts in which we listen to radio haven’t radically changed. Car journeys still comprise the biggest chunk of time on which people listen to the radio. For example, Stitcher will be integrated into Ford cars. Similarly, the app TuneIn has also struck up a deal with Tesla cars.

Should music radio stations online expect to be part of much bigger platforms? Music and advertising have become ever more intertwined, so commercial radio stations dedicated to online platforms could be a real possibility in the future. Making radio more visual has been seen as the way forward, especially given our symbiotic relationship with our mobile and computer screens. The most cited examples are NPR and the BBC’s iPlayer, which supplements its radio content with plenty of reading material.

Though we talk about the internet, we’re not just talking about ‘one internet’ – we use different devices in different spaces. The iPad is used for relaxation, while our mobiles (at this stage) are more convenient for those for those in between times travelling and commuting. Visually enhanced radio would be less useful on an office PC or laptop than a manageable, low-key interface that doesn’t compete with software or a bunch of more essential apps (or even Twitter, or Facebook).

The disruption that Troy Carter called for is already happening. What is certain is that commercial radio and online radio’s future will be mutually formative. Both curation and personalisation will have a role to play, though it isn’t clear how the separate platforms will incorporate both of these elements. There’s no way of escaping the personalisation revolution but listeners will still want a way of breaking free from the bubble occasionally.


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