Exciting new technologies promise to make radio more accessible and engaging than it has ever been. This includes app-based platforms that enable broadcasters to engage with listeners like never before, software that lets producers edit sound as easily as a text document, and a “radio station in a bucket” that turns a mobile phone onto a broadcast hub.
That’s according to radio futurologist James Cridland, who believes that while innovations like these point to a bright future for the over 100-year-old medium, it’ll take more than adopting cool new tech to succeed in the increasingly splintered and diverse arena that radio is evolving into.
“Radio is more than just AM and shortwave, more than big, old fashioned transmitters. Radio is a shared experience with a human connection,” he said during a recent webinar on the future of radio hosted by Fabrik, a South African-developed software platform for broadcasters and community groups.
“That shared experience is something that [streaming music service] Spotify can't offer. It's something that somebody’s CD player can't offer,” he said, adding that this also applied to radio stations who just play non-stop music. “There's no human connection there. There's no real shared experience.”
A century-old medium that keeps getting better
For those cynical about radio’s future, Cridland had this to say: people have been predicting the demise of the medium since 1894 when Lord Kelvin, president of Britain’s top science academy, the Royal Society, famously said: “Radio has no future”.
“When television came along, everybody assumed that radio was going to die. Of course, that wasn't the case. New technology arose that fixed a lot of the things that radio lacked. We were able to get radio into cars, and transistor technology ultimately shrunk radios and put them into our hands.”
Similarly, dire predictions about the imminent death of radio accompanied the rise of the World Wide Web yet, “Radio is still tremendously powerful and tremendously popular,” Cridland said, citing figures from many countries around the world that show nine out of 10 people tune into the radio every week.
People are listening to live radio on an increasingly diverse range of devices. While the traditional FM/AM receiver remained the most popular, many people, particularly younger listeners, are listening on tablets, smart speakers, and TV sets - using services like DStv in South Africa.
But when it comes to mobile phones, live radio is a much smaller component of the audio consumption experience than it is on laptops and tablets. Cridland said people who listened on their phones favoured on-demand content like podcasts or their own music collections.
Listening patterns also varied significantly according to age, with younger people favouring a mix of live and on-demand content, while older people mainly listen to live radio.
Another trend Cridland identified was the difference in use between loudspeakers and headphones. “Loudspeakers are generally used for live radio, while headphones are for on demand audio. Headphones are used to give people things they want to listen to right now, whereas loudspeakers accompany people as they go about their daily activities.”
But what about content "on demand"?
He cautioned that while as many people as ever are listening to live radio, the amount of time they’re devoting to it has declined, with younger people increasingly favouring on-demand content like podcasts and streaming music.
Cridland said this trend should prompt broadcasters to reconsider the widely held notion that live content is always better, when in fact there were technology issues associated with live radio that often put it at a disadvantage compared to on-demand content.
“For example, if you're doing a live interview, you can't edit that interview to make it snappier and more interesting. You're stuck with whatever it is that you're broadcasting live. As an advocate for radio, this concerns me, because our competitors can polish interviews, can make stories far more compelling by post-producing them.”
It also means a lot of good content is disappearing. “We broadcast it once and it's gone. That's a big mistake. We should be making it available to as many people as we can, in as many different ways as we can.”
One solution, said Cridland, would be for broadcasters to incorporate pre-produced content into live radio. “Polishing things first instead of broadcasting them live works better than taking live content and then editing it down for on-demand consumption.”
He said Apple Music's recently launched radio stations were a good example of this. “These three stations are free to anybody with an iPhone or a Mac computer. When you listen to them, you realise that a bunch of pre-production has gone into them.
“These shows have been specifically built for on-demand consumption and then broadcast on a radio station. And that means you can get more use out of your content. It means that you can put your content in loads of different places. It also means that the audio sounds really good and polished.”
Use data to keep you 'real and relevant'
Cridland said that while live and local is an important part of radio, it's only a part of the future of radio, with being “real and relevant” to your audience just as significant.
“Having relevant content may be talking about things that are going on locally, but it may also be talking about things that are relevant to your audience, which requires knowing who your audience is. This is why having data, having stats, is a really important tool. And we can get a lot more data and stats from online radio than we can from, FM and AM broadcast radio.”
This, Cridland said this is what makes platforms like Fabrik so powerful.
“We need to meet audiences where they are and it’s a dumb broadcaster that tries to control them, that sits there and says ‘we're a radio station, we're only going to broadcast on FM and AM’, or ‘we're only going to put our audio into our own app’. That might've worked 30 years ago. It doesn't work now. You can't control your consumer because if you try and control your consumer by pushing them and bullying them, they won’t be your consumer anymore.”
Watch the full webinar, and share your thoughts.