September 2007

Would we develop radio in todays' world if it didn't exist?

Would we develop radio in todays' world if it didn't exist?

In last month's comment we asked if technological development could kill off broadcast media as we know them: this month we have decided to look at the same questions from the different perspective: - with the technology that now exists - whether radio would be developed and if so in what form, and how would it be financed.

So in the situation where people can put fairly easily together their own packages of audio or video material and carry them around with them, would we bother to invent radio as such?

Our answer to that is very much a yes albeit we might well not develop it in line with the way the industry has grown. When it began as an entertainment rather than communications medium (dating from the wireless telegraph days) it not only the first broadcast mass entertainment and information medium but also effectively the sole one for a considerable time and the sole mobile one for much longer.

Where do we start?

So where do we start? Well rather than a world where the telegraph wire was followed by the wireless telegraph and then wireless (later to become radio) as a form of entertainment, then TV, then Internet audio and vision, suppose we were magically transported into a world where the latter existed with wireless Internet universally available but there was no broadcasting system.

Would it then make any sense to develop broadcasting as we know it? The concept is in some ways analogous to the telephone system in many parts of the world where the copper wire phone system is, to be polite, decrepit, and mobile phones have become the preferred option.

Would we now develop broadcast radio?

So -assuming content was available from somewhere on this wireless internet - would we bother developing a system to broadcast it on a one-to-many basis as well?

We would argue that it would indeed make sense albeit other factors - such as music royalty charges - could mean that content was somewhat limited compared to nowadays: The position, of course would then be similar to that currently faced by broadcasters who can't provide podcasts of music itself from shows they have aired but can provide the DJs and talk since the cost of the music could be greater than the cost of providing it.

Reasons in favour!

Such content cost caveats aside, however, there seem to us to be some very strong arguments in favour of broadcast radio (and to a lesser degree TV).

Firstly the distribution system is very cheap - transmission is not particularly expensive compared to the cost of Internet infrastructure (albeit this is buried because of other uses).

Secondly the reception system is (well the analogue one is: Digital is less robust, more power hungry, and anything but universal) - robust, already nigh universal and also cheap as well as having the advantage of being able to operate on battery power or indeed as a wind-up device.
Receivers are also already owned by people in most of the world's communities.

Thirdly the medium is still the only one that makes sense, unless there is massive investment in wireless broadband and a reliable reception thereof over a wide area using battery-powered equipment, the only one that can reasonably deliver changing information such as news, sport and weather and traffic warnings to people on the move or in remote places.

The above, you will notice, does not highlight music, the main foundation for many commercial stations and we regard music as a secondary benefit of the system for the well-off who can afford portable players although still most valuable as a convenient means of listening in many cases and still the main source for those who are too poor to afford the purchase of recordings and playing devices.

The problem here, therefore, is not so much one of demand but of whether the demand will finance the supply using current advertising-funded broadcasts. Alternatively, of course, if commercial companies cannot make a go of frequencies they can be offered to other groups - as has happened to a limited degree in the UK where at least one frequency handed back by a commercial owner went into the pool for community use.

In summary therefore, as a system for wide distribution of emergency warnings that may well be needed when power supplies are affected, radio remains supreme. It also remains supreme when it comes to an economical way of distributing the same information to many listeners.

What of the commercial sector?

When it comes to commercial radio, however, things may not be as rosy. Other media are not only competing for listeners' attention but also for the advertising income that sustains commercial stations.

We therefore expect the balance for radio to tilt more in favour of public broadcasting and community-type stations rather than the big conglomerates. The process is likely to take a considerable time and the station owners have a tremendous base from which to work to take their existing listeners to their web site or to garner income from them in other ways such as paid-for downloads.

What we are concerned about is the possibility that pressure from existing commercial broadcasters as they come under increasing financial constraints will be devoted to pulling down public broadcasting rather than being positive about what they can do and also in some areas that the pressure will be on to dump analogue in favour of digital since it favours the interests of the radio companies rather than of the listeners.

We can only hope that were the latter to happen - and it is after all a development that would shift massive costs of replacement equipment to listeners for the benefit of the commercial companies - public pressures would force the politicians to take measures to ensure that community broadcasters, many of whom are financially strapped, can continue on air.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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