By traditional media we mean print, radio and
TV, in that historical order. Each has so far met challenges
from newer technology and survived in a very similar state
to the one it was in before the development but that was a
time when they existed in different compartments: The question
therefore arises as to whether the digital revolution will
fundamentally change things this time round.
Our first reaction in relation to this is to point out that
the technology may evolve but human senses and abilities don't
seem to change that drastically: There are therefore times
when people prefer to get their information or entertainment
from the written word, times when the still photograph or
illustration is preferred, times and places when an aural
medium is the only practicable option and others where a mixture
of pictures and sound -TV being the most common of these -
Since our attention is focussed on radio, note that we said
that at times an aural medium is the only one practicable;
in other words, there are times, as when driving, when print
and visual media are out of the question but the options now
available do not stop at radio even at those times, especially
as mobile audio devices become more capable and sophisticated.
Originally the availability of mobile audio was very limited
- first the car radio, thanks to Motorola, then the Walkman,
thanks to Sony, then with digital the i-Pod and other MP3
players. The first added to the audience for radio at a time
when listening was very much an experience of sitting in front
of a large box and having to wait for valves to warm up. The
second was a competitor for listening time as is the i-Pod
but neither of them competed for the real essential for commercial
radio - advertising revenue.
That last may be about to change as
technology moves on and rather than just loading their players
with chosen (and maybe bought ) music, people start to use
combined cell phone and Internet devices together with digital
storage: There is no reason, after all, why the concept of
sponsored programming tied into podcasting and portable devices
could not take a sizeable share of both listening and advertising
But what if they do? And what if Bill Gates is largely right
about how much advertising will become Internet based in future?
Could the developments seriously threaten radio as now known
and if so which parts will be hardest hit?
We can see that overall, just as a loss of classified advertising
to the Internet and a decline in the habit of buying newspapers
has affected the newspaper business and pushed even laggards
into taking the Internet seriously to varying degrees, the
current environment for terrestrial radio is bound to change.
But just as some newspapers are certainly leveraging their
existing strengths into Internet benefits - albeit the jury
is still out concerning the long-term future for many -radio
companies also have existing strengths: They may not, however
be particularly competitive ones when it comes to attracting
advertisers in a future where widespread development of wireless
technology may yet put the Internet within range of portable
devices and other technology allows targeting and aggregating
of the audience in specialist areas.
The Internet-podcasting combination, we would suggest may
well be better suited to this than broadcast but what of the
more general audience. There we suggest radio still has the
edge providing it keeps the audience.
Unless the nature of time changes, all
new listening or viewing has to detract from the time left
for other activities and surveys already show major inroads
into the times some groups, particularly the young, used to
spend on old media from that they spend on the new, in particular
So we have no doubt that there will be less time spent listening
to traditional radio as it becomes more and more simple to
listen to other things from other sources, one of the reasons
why we have out doubts about how far formats like Jack-FM
can succeed since the other sources now offer a combination
of a much wider range of listening and the ability to choose.
The radio, however, needs only one push of a button whilst
more time and thought has to be devoted to other options if
choice is to be exercised - even the iPod shuffle option needs
the music to be put onto the machine somehow in advance.
It therefore seems to us that radio retains some advantages
that other media may approach but won't necessarily be able
to match fully and it is these areas we feel should be at
the core of radio programmers thinking when it comes to facing
up to new challenges.
The first and one of the greatest advantages
of radio, already mentioned, is that to get the service only
the simplest push of a button is required. True there is the
countervailing disadvantage that this means less choice but
it's one that should not be underestimated since, if the product
is good enough, listeners will keep coming back even if maybe
a little less than before they had other choices.
To us this means that the old adage of keeping the customer
being a better option than finding a new one - not that new
ones should not also be sought - is often just as true when
it comes to keeping the listener: In other words evolution
may often be a better option than revolution when it comes
to format changes. In the UK a good example of the former
came in changes made to BBC Radio 2 a few years ago, an example
of the latter in making perhaps too speedy changes at BBC
Radio 4 although in each case the station was retaining a
broadly similar appeal.
In the US the switch of WCBS to Jack FM has so far indicated
perils there of the revolutionary approach but a gradualist
option was not offer: Hence the decision has to be based on
different criteria but we still feel that if the change is
to be revolutionary it should be accepted that it means dumping
a large portion of the former audience who may resent this
and not only switch to another station but, where the owner
is a conglomerate, resent the - as they see it - big bad parent
and thus the switch could do wider damage.
As well as simplicity in operation radio also has the economic
advantage of cheap receivers, low running costs, and general
availability: For those on the move wireless Internet is never
going to be universally available in rural areas even if satellite
radio not only is but does offer people in such areas the
opportunity to have as much choice as those in the cities.
The above means to us that for people on the move (except
maybe in subways) radio will remain an option on almost anybody's
list, especially if they want to have news availability. It
will no longer however be the only option in some places,
particularly the wired urban areas of the future where developments
will mean the full range of Internet choices will also be
available to allow news and other updating, never mind those
that cell phone development may add and portable players and
podcasts already offer.
The other thing radio can offer is a balance between the expected
and desired and the serendipitous new but again technology
is making this
and overcoming them.
The main disadvantage of radio is that,
come what may, a broadcast medium will never be able to tailor
product to the individual and also, so long as advertising
is the means to pay for it, programming is going to be interrupted
by the adverts or sponsors' messages.
Nothing can be done about the former apart from what is already
done in the variety of formatting already on offer but in
the latter case it does seem sensible to keep the clutter
down. We are still not convinced that in the short term less
will mean more money but Clear Channel's "less is more"
initiative certainly seems to show that audiences prefer it
- and that takes us back to our view that keeping the listener
should be a major priority for radio owners of today.
If they do that - through not only programming but strengthening
local and community ties but also, as digital becomes more
widely available and receivers cheaper, adding - and promoting
extra channels - to pull in new listeners we have full confidence
that radio will be able to weather the changes although it
may not produce the same returns and there may be some casualties
Where we have most concern is that the short-term approach
of many operators allied with trying to squeeze too much cash
by having more adverts than the listener wants may lead them
to losing audience and not being able to recover.
Already it is obvious that many satellite radio subscribers
have been attracted by the combination of more choice and
fewer adverts, are finding its (digital) technical quality
superior and are sticking with satellite once they have tried
it to the cost of terrestrial.
So a final comment specifically for the US - look at the price
of satellite receivers and compare them with those for digital
terrestrial ones and then look at the UK experience of how
DAB prospered as receiver prices tumbled; after that if the
major radio companies don't come up with a promotional deal
to bring receiver prices down they deserve to lose the audience.
Indeed they need a collective kick from a mule for not having
done so already-we suggest that if the four major companies
had put some of the millions they have spent on station deals
into a large purchase of a base-level digital receiver that
could have been available for Christmas this year through
a special promotion the return on investment in the longer
term would have been much greater than they'll get from their
In the meantime others have been more pro-active: XM for example
gave away a receiver (voucher) to all those who attended Game
One of the 2005 World Series and the satellite and various
Internet companies in general have been much more innovative
in terms of product, publicity and marketing. They have had
to because they need to build but that's no excuse for complacency
in these areas by existing radio empires.