May 2004

Radio as a medium in a time of technological advance.

Radio the medium as technology advances.

It's been more than a year now since we have commented on the way radio as a medium is developing as various technological developments have their impact on what is practicably rather than theoretically possible and in that time a number of developments have moved into the practicable and seem likely to have their impact in the near future.

Some of the changes relate merely to cost, others to practicality but none that we have seen involve any revolutionary new concepts although the ultimate effect of the combination may well be revolutionary.

The good news in some countries is that the medium is in robust health and in the UK it has overtaken big brother TV in terms of audience hours although the picture is less rosy in the U.S.

The basic strengths of an aural medium.

Before considering radio as such, we feel it sensible to note that if we include audio available through the Internet we are considering an aural medium rather than the more narrowly defined broadcast medium of radio.

The distinction is important in that many in the industry think largely in terms of the traditional whilst others are busy looking ahead to new kinds of service, some of which will deliver what used to be "radio" not via traditional receivers but by other means and others of which will add additional features, text, stills and even video.

The last may yet be a significant feature when it comes to the economics of some services - certainly Sirius seems to think that delivering video on its satellite radio system could be valuable both to increasing the numbers who subscribe to its service and its income.

In our general consideration, however, we propose to concentrate on the aural and the two tremendous strengths it has over any visual medium, firstly that it can be appreciated whilst doing other things in ways that the visual cannot; secondly its advantage in terms of mobility, although that could decrease over time; and thirdly the way it impacts on the imagination and draws the listener into an intimacy that TV cannot match.

Ways of accessing that medium.

Not that long ago, radio receivers were large items, sometimes masterly examples of the cabinet makers craft, using valves; They were not portable and that situation was only changed for the real mass market with the development of the transistor and robust and reasonably-priced "trannies" that could be carried almost anywhere. The transistor also made the receiver a practicable proposition for the average automobile.

There was then little development - unless you count developments such as the Walkman and competitors allowing recorded audio to also be added to the mix - until digital came along and allowed audio to be moved into a realm much less demanding of information transfer. That made it practical to stream audio on the Internet, and send much more information including additional video and data services on terrestrial airwaves
It also made it practical to offer on-demand services, something that extended the range of services significantly albeit this is probably only of great value for a limited part of broadcast radio.

It and the other changes, notably satellite radio, do not mean that terrestrial radio will lose its supremacy but they could dent it enough to have a significant effect on the profitability of commercial stations. So what for commercial, as opposed to public stations, are the strengths that remain with the terrestrial medium

Radio's commercial advantages.

Although there are significant variations round the world, especially in advert loads, radio is universally cost-effective as an advertising medium and the UK experience shows that there can be a significant "multiplier" effect when radio is used in conjunction with other media meaning it makes sound effective sense to switch around a tenth of the budget for a planned TV campaign to radio.

Interestingly the UK experience also shows creativity to be the most important variable in the efficacy of a campaign: Maybe the UK is different but we rather doubt it and would suggest that an advert that is well produced - and suited to the programming around it - is much more likely to succeed because it isn't perceived as an annoying interruption in the way that a run of more pedestrian adverts may be.
The other great advantage radio has is that it is a more intimate medium and this can have significant advantages when it comes to sponsorship and promotional income.

And of course for those on the move or doing other things, radio leaves TV at the starting gate because it doesn't demand the same forms of attention that TV does and it also ties in more effectively with other activities, be it getting listeners to stop chatting and text or call a station or just continue doing something on the Internet while listening: Indeed as more time is spent on the Internet, radio is the one other medium that stands to benefit apart, we suppose, from those who are reading a newspaper or magazine.

Other advantages.

Eventually the take up of broadband may mean that TV from round the world is widely available, although we suspect Hollywood will do its level best to restrict this in the same way that the recording companies have and cost factors also seem likely to affect the spread of Internet TV.
Radio is already, however, an international as well as a national and local medium.

Where short wave was once the international distribution form of choice, increasingly satellite delivery and subsequent local FM broadcasts plus Internet streaming are taking over in this segment and the reach of powerful AMs has also become of less value.

Tie the Internet in with cell phone technology - and the phones themselves will soon probably become radio receivers as well as phones, either through receiving digital terrestrial audio or being able to tap into Internet streams - and yet another avenue for listening opens.
Equally tie the Internet in with computer wireless technology and the same is true both for people in the home - there are already reasonably priced portable receivers that can be used to listen to Internet radio in every room - or on the move as wireless facilities are being provided in more and more locations from airport lounges to coffee shops.

Where local or national stations are streaming their services - and in some cases making programmes available on demand - this is another area where listeners' involvement with and appreciation of their stations is of increasing value.
It's already possible with BBC and NPR programming, for example, to open up your laptop at many airports and listen to the programme you missed while in flight and soon it may be possible to listen while on the flight. Tag in the possibility of e-mail or text to the station and you can even get on air feedback at the same time.

And the concept that you can achieve this whilst doing something else? We'd suggest it shows strengths that no other medium is likely to possess.

The economics of this may still be problematical - and it's no real surprise that the leaders in on-demand have so far been public broadcasters - but what a strength and what a medium that is available when you want, is local and international at the same time, and can be enjoyed while doing other things.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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