The Future of Radio (after 2009)

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Radio is beginning to have significant competition; will it continue to stand the test of time?

Trends in Technology, Dec 2009

I believe as we look toward the future that we will continue to see a thinning of the herd — meaning more AM and FM radio stations will go dark as they fail as businesses. So, on one hand, we have the possibility that the surviving stations will benefit from less competition; and on the other hand, we have a huge number of new radio stations to contend with — LPFMs and HD Radio stations — that will be available on the radio dial soon. It's not hard to predict that radio will remain as competitive as it has been, if not more so.

Internet radio

What about the ultimate competitive juggernaut though? Will all the changes in over-the-air broadcast technology be mooted by the overwhelming presence of the Internet, and more specifically, Internet radio?

The answer is no. Internet radio will continue to grow in importance, but it will not completely supplant broadcast radio as we know it. Let me tell you why.

There are two points that the early adapters of Internet radio often make and point to when they prophesy the ultimate demise of radio. (There are others, of course.)

  • Point 1: I can listen to whatever I want, whenever I want

  • Point 2: I can listen to previously unknown radio stations and not be limited to what is in my own market

First, point 1. We can categorize radio programming in to three types: background entertainment, real-time importance, and specialty programming. Radio is, for the most part, background entertainment; it's something that people turn on and have on in the background while they do other things, such as getting ready for work in the morning, driving, cooking or working in an office. The time that a certain hit song plays is of no relevance; what it relevant is that the listener hears songs he likes. There's no compelling reason, then, to be able to hear it when you want to hear it, because for the most part, it's always available anyway.

Much of radio programming has immediate relevance, with fast spoilage. The perfect example is of course, weather and traffic reporting. Weather changes fast, but traffic changes even faster. Soon after traffic issues are reported, they're forgotten about. Radio talk shows are much the same way, because the topics are generally very timely, and therefore become irrelevant days (if not hours) after they are broadcast. Sporting events carried on the radio are very much the same: There's no point in listening to a game after the fact when you already know how it turns out in the end. So there again, there's little compelling reason to be able to have this type of programming on an on-demand basis.

The specialty type of programming is more akin to television programs. “A Prairie Home Companion” (to name one) would be a good example of a show that has little real-time relevance, no spoilage, and is more of a foreground entertainment. The ability for listeners to have it available in an on-demand fashion via streaming media, or via a file download, is obviously important, and represents a valuable resource to listeners.

I will assert that most people, though they may claim to want to be able to listen to whatever they want whenever they want will not, in practice, do it that often. It is easier than ever before, to be sure; however, most people just want to be entertained in some fashion, without putting a lot of work in to it. The on-demand aspect of listening to music has been around as long as radio: from lacquer 78s, to 45 RPM singles, to 33-1/3 RPM albums, to CDs and now file downloads, music users have had that capability. That's nothing new. The ability to use a thumb-drive — to plug it in to the dashboard of your vehicle — is a fairly new capability. It really is no different, though, than burning your own CDs — which people have been doing for years — or making your own cassette tapes, which people did 20 years ago.

Although the on-demand aspect is very important with respect to specialty programming in radio, it has little if any importance with respect to much radio programming.

Point 2 — the ability to listen to a much greater selection of radio stations. While I think this capability is interesting — and novel — I don't see it having much effect on radio as we know it. My arguments are very much like those I posed with respect to point 1. Yes, you can listen to 10,000 radio stations. However, much of them are playing the same music — they're hardly unique. And, their unique aspects may be completely irrelevant to a far-away listener: local traffic, weather and events come to mind. A distant station's specialty programs provide the only compelling reason to listen to it over the Internet, or to otherwise download them for play later on.

-- continued on page 3

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