Is “Technology Killing the Radio Star”?

From the Sunday Times of London:

The days of turning on the radio to hear inane DJs rambling, or the same irritating adverts being repeated hour after hour, could almost be over. A million Brits are now tuning in to personalised stations online every week, and many are also tuning out traditional radio. Taking personalised radio fully mobile, although it’s available only in the US for now, is Slacker.com’s Portable Radio Player (from $200/£100). Launched this week, it comes preloaded with up to 40 stations containing thousands of tracks. As you rate individual tracks, Slacker learns your tastes and refreshes the player’s built-in memory with other songs, using your wi-fi connection. Personalised broadcasts of the future will probably have either advertising or a price tag attached, just as they do today. But once your radio knows exactly what you want to hear, the idea of a human DJ – however cheeky his banter – might start to sound a little dated. In Germany last week, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), the service that offers easier tuning and catchup facilities to radio listeners, had its funding cut because of poor take-up. One reason was that consumers were switching to listening online, a classic case of a new technology being overtaken by an even newer one before it has had a chance to take hold (remember how laser discs were overtaken by DVDs?). In Britain, a survey by Rajar, the research organisation, revealed that one in six listeners to personalised radio were listening to less live radio than ever before. Might this all signal the beginning of the end for music radio as we know it?

Now let’s sort out some of this.

The difference between radio as it is now (in the US) and what’s being described here is a difference between passive and active listening.

That is, the more “into music” or “active” you are, the more apt you are to happily invest the time and effort (not to mention the money) required to dramatically better fulfill your musical tastes. That, in essence, is what personal radio is about, because the very act of personalization requires personalizing by the user. And that’s a task that some are up for and many are not.

So, in other words, the folks who want their music to flow over them without any effort and aren’t really that into music to begin with (and this describes a lot of people) are unlikely to be seduced by these technologies.

For the other folks, however, the writing is on the wall, radio.

Over the long haul I fully expect the influence of music-oriented radio to diminish. Because music, my friends, is a commodity. Not only can anyone string together a playlist, but nobody can string together my favorite playlist better than I can.

Note, too, the fascinating reference to DAB (the European equivalent to HD radio), where the analogy is made between digital radio and laser discs. The fact is that all technology is transitional – the only question is how long you have between transitions. This is the first time I’ve seen any evidence to suggest that Internet radio is killing digital radio. Food for thought, folks. And not likely to surprise any reader of this blog in the least.

Finally, note the survey indicating that a fraction of personalized radio listeners were listening to less terrestrial radio, now that they could have their own customized version of it. The most amazing thing about this result to me is that the number is so low! Only one in six? When you can have exactly what you want? Again the difference between “passive” and “active” listening (sure, some folks want to be introduced to new music by human beings – a “curated” music experience. But nobody ever said those human beings need to have their own radio show).

What it all adds up to is the gradual near-obsolescence of music radio, not in a blink, but by a slow and persistent siphoning of audience and attention and interest and advertisers. This process will take years to happen.

Let me be painfully clear: If radio doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee the future will bring lower-rated music stations and a disappearance of those stations which are driven by new music and music fans. We will be left with an audience that is older, less affluent, more multi-lingual, and perhaps less engaged in the medium of radio and the advertisers who support it.

Indeed, we’re seeing this play out in Alternative and Active Rock and in the erosion of time spent listening among younger audiences already.

What a fabulous opportunity for non-music radio. What a fabulous opportunity for new non-music experiments (which may or may not be “Talk”). What a fabulous opportunity for radio to plant its flag in the future, given that so much of that future can be seen coming now.

Once upon a time, radio was built by programs, many of them non-music.

Then along came TV, and much of radio retreated into the world of music, which it could own.

The exclusive ownership is no more.

And now the pendulum swings back….

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