Business Unusual

Radio's past may ensure its future

Newspaper circulation, subscriptions and advertising have fallen. TV audiences, viewing duration and advertising is falling too. Radio’s media position is being challenged as a more mobile and younger audience explore alternatives. This is a look at radio’s potential future.

To see the future, start with the past.

Radio’s past is very similar to the web’s beginning.

A new technology offered access to a vast amount of information electronically and instantly to anyone with a receiver. The businesses that launched radio offerings did so with little knowledge of how to generate revenue but looked to capture new audiences.

The investment appetite saw radio stock valuations rise to unrealistic levels that finally came crashing back to earth in the US with the Wall Street crash that lead to the Great Depression.

Radio took off in Europe after the First World War and in the US in the 1920s. Europe’s approach favoured broadcasting as a state function while in the US it was principally a commercial opportunity.

Newspaper publishers started stations to not miss out on the rush for new audiences and even retailers started broadcasting to help drive sales of radio receivers.

However, it was the telephone companies that found a way to get radio to pay for itself. In the same way you paid for a call by the length of the time you spent using the service, the first radio ad was created in the same way. On 28 August 1922, a 10 minute ad aired costing $50 and set radio on the path to become a profitable and hugely popular media form.

Radio receivers grew in numbers to the point that almost every home had one in the 1950s. The invention of the transistor led to the next revolution for radio, allowing the receivers to become portable. It also allowed for all new cars to have a radio included.

Radio now had truly become a global medium. Not until the advent of satellite broadcasts would a media type have such a broad footprint; in effect reaching every corner of the globe and providing access to almost every person.

It was used for entertainment, education, commerce and propaganda.

A station started ahead of the Rwandan genocide is likely to have increased the extent of the killings by spreading hate speech and inciting violence.

Radio is an intimate medium and has the ability to significantly affect its audience.

Whether passively providing background music, or breaking into scheduled shows with developing news stories, radio became the go-to medium for immediate and, often, eyewitness reporting.

When talk radio added caller contributions it added interaction and even more local and immediate reporting.

When TV launched it simply added pictures to radio shows and the first TV stars were those that had become household names on radio.

When the mobile revolution began, one of the reasons for buying a mobile phone was that it could also receive FM radio broadcasts. The FM chip has remained on almost every phone since, although is either no longer promoted or sometimes deactivated.

Radio broadcast reach is still significant with over 80% weekly access in most populations, but the percentage of younger audiences is shrinking.

Some regard that as the end of radio, but that is missing the point of what radio actually is.

Radio’s future

Radio’s key feature is an ability to connect to a single audience member even though it reaches millions. Newspapers and TV also have significant reach, but lack the intimacy of radio.

It is partly this aspect that may have seen radio become part of Google’s giant ad business. Research about the impact on search and online purchasing behaviour showed that radio had a significant impact in converting searches to purchases.

Google had sought to create an ad platform with a playout system that would integrate with their own. Radio would become a part of the giant Google ecosystem. They did not pursue it, though, selling off their assets in 2009, as they refocused on their core business following the 2008 financial collapse.

However, the industry is working to build the same functionality itself. Programmatic buying allows for more sophisticated campaigns across multiple radio platforms to be placed and tracked to ensure a better return for advertisers while offering better inventory management to broadcasters. Broadcasters have also begun to offer campaigns both on-air and online which allows for even more sophisticated offerings.

One offline element that is enjoying a significant increase are podcasts which were initially radio segments made available for time-shifted listening, but now include stand alone series covering almost every subject imaginable. The ability to receive the latest edition straight to your device makes access and consumption even easier.

Using an alternative means to access a radio broadcast is also growing. Streamed audio is not restricted to a broadcast area and is less affected by growing interference to traditional radio signals. As vehicles become fully mobile and data access speeds and reliability increase it may become the preferred way to access radio broadcasts in the future.

Voice recognition is growing in popularity and accuracy too and many devices already understand when you ask for it to play your favourite radio station.

Radio is a medium dedicated to the storytellers and the stories it features rather than the means of transmission. The production process allows for breaking news to be aired or shared on social media immediately. Articles, videos and interactive content can be added soon after ensuring you not only have rapid access on any device but deep and comprehensive access too.

Radio (and TVs) use of the electromagnetic spectrum may even provide the next era in even faster and more reliable data access. If the spectrum used for the current analogue transmission migrates to digital transmission, or potentially to full data transmission, it would free up a massive amount of additional capacity to unify all broadcasting via data, making the innovation and cost of providing broadcast capacity the same as providing mobile access.

That would allow the medium that was named after the spoke on a wagon wheel and a method of sowing seed (radio and broadcasting) to become the single means for us to connect to any media type and ensure that the art of storytelling that is as old as humanity itself is safe for generations to come.

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