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Radio’s Future in a Self-Driving Car


Estimates vary, but the consensus seems to be that we’ll see a meaningful number of self-driving cars replacing the human-powered ones by 2020, less than four years hence. Personally, I think that’s a bit optimistic, but I have no doubt that the future of cars is a self-powered one.

While we fret about the future of radio in fast-changing conventional dashboards, we’re missing the much bigger worry: What happens when all the tech sacrifices made to cater to the driver’s attention and concentration vanish? What happens when the car becomes as engaging and as powerful as the gadget in your pocket or on your lap and transportation becomes what the car does rather than what you, the driver, need to make it do? What happens when the car becomes the ultimate mobile platform for work and play?

What happens when the front seat becomes the back seat?

I have talked with many thousands of radio users over the years, and it’s clear that while folks come to radio as their in-car choice for many reasons, the most critical reasons tend to be these:

  1. It’s not distracting – it doesn’t interfere with the challenge of driving

  2. It’s easy

  3. It’s familiar

  4. It’s music I like

  5. I have a relationship with the morning show

  6. I value the news updates, traffic, and/or weather information

Contrast that with the reasons why people are addicted to today’s mobile devices:

  1. They help me to do more faster – they make me more powerful

  2. They are built to distract me – concentrating on them is the whole point

  3. I can connect with my friends

  4. I can get exactly what I want exactly when I want it – it is the “mobile me”

  5. I can use more of my senses

  6. I can do a much greater variety of things: Get entertained, get informed, play games, chat, work, etc.

  7. I can share me to the world and the world can share back

When you remove the “distraction” of driving the car, you create what Apple’s Jeff Williams describes as “the ultimate mobile device.”

One thing is clear: If [autonomous vehicles] maintain their projected path, those minutes and hours will no longer be filled with radio and reverie, but with visual content digestion. From streaming video to gaming to just plain old surfing the web, the driving experience will transition from its primary purpose of transportation to a combination of work and pleasure “found” time.

David continues:

Historically, radio and associated media, podcasts, tapes, cassettes, CDs and now streaming music have ruled the road. If you don’t have to pay attention to the road, video or computer time becomes a natural new medium. Radio won’t die, but it is compromised and will need to reinvent itself one more time.

There is no question that this is right. None whatsoever.

While there will still be demand for a one-to-many background music source that plays most of the songs you like most of the time, witness the disappearance of conventional radios from many homes and workplaces: When people have choices that can reflect their individual tastes, they make those choices. I have walked into digital agencies and seen rooms full of coders saying not a word: They were all wearing earbuds and listening to their own customized content, and I don’t mean their own commercial radio station.

So what does the medium called “radio” have to do?

At the recent hivio conference, NPR’s Anya Grundmann indicated that the total audience for NPR content under 35 was about equal to the total audience over 55. Younger folks are as apt to consume that content, but not on the same legacy platforms as their parents and grandparents. That’s the key.

People will seek out the content they want in the places they want to find it. They will not worship the broadcast tower.

Further, it’s not simply about your radio being platform agnostic with your own content. You see, distribution is also content-agnostic – it doesn’t know from good or bad; that’s the audience’s job.

So your challenge is not simply to be everywhere, it’s to matter everywhere you are.#radio's challenge is not simply to be everywhere, it's to matter everywhere you are. Click To Tweet

It seems to me that the only answer for radio is this, and this was echoed by many of the speakers at hivio:

  1. Many more format and content experiments

  2. Much more focus on talent

  3. Increased development of unique and compelling content

  4. More research to match the audience with things that spark their attention, even – especially – in a world of choice

  5. Integrate or partner across media platforms – become video, too

If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.

Unless I’m in an autonomous vehicle. Then I’m too busy online to pay attention to you.

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