What Happens to Radio?
NMK’s event on Tuesday 27 February attracted a packed room of radio industry professionals, digital media experts and service providers eager to discuss the next stages of this unique medium.
Chair Steve Bowbrick, a self-confessed ‘radio junky’, revealed that he’d been ‘brought up by Radio 4’. Bowbrick is one of the people revolutionising the consumption of radio, though, with his tumble log of R4 and other spoken-word programmes, Speechification. The blog effectively adds permanency, time-shifting and a social element to what has traditionally been an ephemeral, one-way format.
Daniel Nathan occupies spaces at both ends of the brave new world of radio: he operates the MP3 mix-and-match service TotallyRadio, but also runs community FM stations in the Brighton area. He felt that we were entering a ‘connected media universe’ where a lot of people’s assumptions about what radio is and does are already being undermined. It’s currently the most exciting period he’s ever witnessed in the radio space, allowing considerable innovation. At the local end of the scale, he remarked that Global had de-localised, allowing start-ups like his FM stations to have increasing commercial scope.
The BBC’s James Cridland revealed that the corporation no longer uses the word ‘radio’ internally: it talks about ‘audio and music’ instead. The format is entering a ‘Martini’ era where content can be accessed anytime, any place, anywhere. Whatever the future of radio holds, he said, it isn’t about ‘big sticks on hills’ any more. It’s about being able to offer and access the ‘right content in the right place’. The ability to personalise radio broadcasts, recommendation, tagging and sharing is also coming quickly.
Gregory Watson of Folder Media agreed, suggesting that the multiplicity of formats and the effective widening of the spectrum offered by DAB and Internet radio would allow for the viability of very niche ‘stations’. He also believed that analogue would continue to grow and diversify.
Nick Piggott from Global is also excited by the possibilities new technologies are allowing. He suggested that in many ways the radio industry is quite clearly getting things right: 90 per cent of the adult population listens to radio on a regular basis. There is something very enduring about the format: in 20 years, he suggested, people will still be getting out of bed, eating their breakfast, driving to work listening to the radio. (Cridland pointed out that one in five people surfing the Internet is also listening to the radio.)
However, the industry is failing to create the same amount of money that it used to – and so the main focus of his creative team was in creating stuff that clients and listeners want to buy. Innovation is around closing the financial gap that has emerged between consumption and sales.
Widen the Appeal
Nathan argued that the owners of radio licenses have a responsibility to diversify. While new formats allow new entrants, FM licenses are a scarce resource and should be used properly. Watson agreed that licenses should not have been awarded in cases where listenership is so low that such stations cannot be commercially viable. Local stations can’t just play music all day to keep costs low. If you are, say, Radio Pembrokeshire, then being in Pembrokeshire is your USP – you will not get advertiser or listener support by being exactly the same as every other station with a rotation of the same 12 singles every hour.
Piggott suggested that the industry needs to learn how to get better value out of music. “This is no longer a marketplace about teenagers buying singles from Woolworth’s. Every part of that sentence is broken.” Nathan agreed and said that he thought it should be the radio industry that should be coming up with new models of consuming and sharing music, like last.fm.
Answering to the charge that the BBC didn’t have to worry about all these commercial pressures, Cridland said that the corporation has to offer great value to earn or deserve the license fee. However, it is not about putting commercial radio companies out of business. The media ecology and the diversity it allows is extremely important. Cridland worked at Virgin before joining the BBC and suggested that it was imperative for commercial stations to explore other revenue streams. One example was the launch of a new station that was paid for through sponsorship and carried no advertising.
The topic of advertising brought up a question from the audience. Why are the majority of radio adverts so horrible? Piggott said that that the quality was proportional to the client’s budget and, sadly, great creative is too expensive for local advertisers. The quality of advertising on stations such as Classic.fm is considerably higher, he said, since the advertisers tend to be bigger and the audience likely to be less tolerant of poor creative.
This led to the discussion of the new Internet service, Spotify. The service plays music of the listener’s choice, with advertising slots every ten minutes. Bowbrick said that he was surprised to discover that he didn’t find the adverts intrusive. One strength of the service, said Watson, is that because Spotify knows your IP address and has an idea of your musical tastes, thus it can provide customised advertising. This route is also starting to open up for radio, with the advent of wi-fi radio services, personalised channels and devices.
Audience member Jan Whyatt expressed some concerns about the personalisation of radio services. If people can choose what they want to listen to, does content production concentrate on the lowest common denominator, she asked. A particular issue here is with news – if the vast majority of consumers only listen to show business and sports, what incentive would there be for stations to report on foreign affairs, finance and politics? Cridland responded that the most-read item on the BBC News site was, for many months, ‘Man Has Sex With Goat’. However, he had not detected any particular impact from this on the site’s news agenda.
Summing up, Nick Piggott reminded everyone that while there are enormous possibilities for new interactive bells and whistles, radio has a stable, popular appeal the way it is. ‘To recall Walt Disney’s aphorism, “Don’t f--- with the mouse”’. New endeavours such as visualisation, recommendations and personalisation need to remain options.