The golden age of radio is here again

Not so long ago we developed a media technology that could get inside a large number of people’s heads, wherever they were, with no physical delivery of paper required. In a matter of 15 years it went from being present in 2/3rds of American homes to being present in 94%.

Surprisingly we are not talking about television, we are not talking about the phone, and we are not even talking about the internet. Even more surprisingly we are talking about a technology introduced to the mass market more than 75 years ago.

It’s a medium that has become so ubiquitous we almost don’t notice it: radio. Before television started to establish itself in the 50’s its much more heavyweight cousin had been in 2/3rds of American homes by 1935 – by 1950 radio had penetrated 94% of all American households. A little perspective is interesting: these days we regard it as a remarkable achievement that the internet in the UK is now available in 2/3rds of homes.

Now the 30’s to 50’s is known as the ‘Golden Age of Radio’ and the excitement radio’s introduction engendered is only remembered by an older generation that is fast disappearing.

Despite the competition from other electronic media, the benefits of radio haven’t dissipated with the years: for the consumer radio doesn’t require online metered connections, the receiver is a fraction of the cost or complexity of a personal computer, you can listen to it whilst doing visual chores like commuting or cooking dinner, and for the radio producer the production cost is miniscule compared to visual mediums like television.

Traditional radio also has its disadvantages: there is variable transmission quality in a world of high-rise buildings, there is unrelated chatter from the electronic signals fog we live in, a limited transmission footprint based on the power of the transmitter, and government restrictions on electromagnetic spectrum use. The result is what economists refer to as an oligopoly: competition between local radio stations is restricted to the dozen or so in range of any particular receiver, most of which sell news-talk and music formats stuffed with indigestible ad breaks.

Yet there are changes taking place that could leave radio almost unrecognizable in a couple of years.

On-demand radio 2005-style

Cut to 2005 and maybe nothing has changed in traditional radio but everything has changed in music leaving the fault lines visible all over the industry.

In October 2004 Swedish DJ Eric Prydz’s single, “Call On Me”,  topped the UK singles chart with the lowest sales of a number 1 since chart records began in 1969. People seem to still be listening to music but it seems like they aren’t acquiring it in the same way.

Music majors like Sony and Bertelsmann have suffered heavy downward pressure on their share price in recent years, blaming online file-sharing from companies like Napster as a significant factor. Since then we have seen the systematic legal targeting of both corporates and individuals who are seen as encouraging copyright breaches by helping to distribute online music. Most recently there was the June 27th US Supreme Court ruling against Streamcast Networks who authored the Grokster and Morpheus file-sharing systems.

Downloadable songs, distributed by whatever means, are normally encoded in the MP3 format, a compression format that collapses your normal 3 and half minute single into a 3 megabyte file. For the downloadable music industry the switch from dialup internet to broadband has been a godsend. In the UK the number of household connections with broadband has just passed the number with dialup this year with a resulting greater than tenfold increase in speed – one song downloads in 30 seconds.

For those of us with internet-based technical backgrounds the legal maneuvers are finger-in-the-dyke stuff – they are no more going to stop downloading than radar stopped speeding. The
legal and technical beauty of these ‘peer-to-peer’file-sharing systems coupled with the anonymous and global nature of the internet means that there are no central servers to seize (each user effectively becomes part of the ‘infrastructure’) and there is always another variant of the software available from some offshore jurisdiction. Want to find and download the soundtrack of ‘Skippy The Bush Kangaroo’ from the 70s TV serial of the same name? Somewhere online it’s there.

In tandem with the music majors’ legal maneuvers, vendors like Apple are also providing condoned legal download services like the iTunes service. At the time of writing, iTunes has sold more than 500 million individual singles with more than 1.5 million tracks online. And online you can often preview tracks before you buy by listening to the first 30 seconds.

It’s not just music we’re talking about here. Respected talk radio broadcasters like the BBC, National Public Radio in the USA, and thousands of other stations all over the globe are
providing high quality streaming audio online – for free.

Digital players

Apple iPod classic on Amazon

While some of the downloaders out there are listening to tracks on PC speaker systems, the transition to radio’s new golden age is hastened by the emergence of the ‘transistor radio 2005’: the portable digital music player. The current Apple iPod with its 20 gigabyte capacity can hold approximately 6000+ tracks, or roughly 300 hours of music, and can be plugged into everything from the car to your home stereo

To think about it another way, that’s the size of a 5 week, non-stop, radio station playlist – for all your waking hours – with no ads …

Like the transistor radio, these digital players are cheap. The high capacity players like the iPod can be had for about US$299, but you can also buy players for $40-$50 dollars that hold ‘only’ 500mb or 150 tracks (still 10 CDs!) which are the size of a cigarette lighter. With no moving parts, and cellphone-driven battery life improvements, these players run longer than you can listen.

Have you started to notice the increasing number of people listening to iPods and other MP3 players on public transport? Apple sure has: in Q3 04/5 they sold 6 times the number of iPods they sold in the comparative quarter from the previous year. Get used to it, you’re going to see a lot more of these players than you’re going to see cigarette lighters – notice that a lot of the new mobile phones come with integrated MP3 players for example?

Connecting the dots

Ok, so there’s a huge amount of music and news audio available online. Ok, so broadband availability has soared, and ok, there’s all these cheap players available on the market. But what has all this got to do with radio: surely the iPod is just an updated Sony Walkman circa 1979? After all, the portable cassette player didn’t exactly redefine radio as we know it.

The difference this time is the emergence of freely downloadable management software running on personal computers. Want to have the top 50 tracks available for your MP3 player automatically downloaded to your digital music player every week? Or every album ever produced by the Cowboy Junkies? You can.

Out there in commercial online music vendor-land there are hundreds of software developers building online music shopping engines that match genres and individual tastes – if their cross-selling database tells them that 9 out of 10 people who buy Coldplay also like Joss Stone then as a Coldplay buyer you can bet you will be offered Joss Stone real soon.

Equally interesting to those of us who like news or current affairs radio you can freely download software like iPodder that will ‘subscribe’ to specific shows you like for free – the software checks for new online episodes of your favourite radio shows and automatically downloads these to your digital music player.

Although ‘podcasting’ (a contraction of ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcasting’) only emerged in October last year there are already thousands of podcast subscriptions available: ranging from one man bands like John Smith Jnr in Saskatchewan Canada to Melvyn Bragg’s BBC discourses on philosophy in “In Our Time”. When you next sit next to a teenager on a bus with earphones it’s entirely possible that they may not be listening to the latest cool track from Gorillaz, they may be listening to a Forbes investment podcast. Already in a matter of 10 months since podcasting got started, online podcasting directories like Podcast Alley have emerged that provide a guide to the best podcasts out there on the web.

Thinking back to the ‘disadvantages of traditional radio’ list at the beginning of this article there’s a sea-change going on with on-demand radio delivered via digital players. You’re no longer limited to music or talk radio stations from inside your local transmission footprint but have the choice of the best of radio globally, you’re listening without ads and can fast forward, rewind and pause, and you can be sitting deep in a train tunnel with crystal clear sound. And best of all, unlike the web, radio doesn’t demand your whole attention: jog, commute or cook; you don’t have to be staring at a screen for this stuff. Finally, the appeal is completely cross-generational: Gorillaz or the Archers it caters to both young and old.

Paradigm shift anyone? One sugar or two?

Now somewhat devalued, Kuhn’s phrase refers to “a radical change in personal beliefs, complex systems or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing.” It’s no exaggeration to say that on-demand radio could be internet ’97 (when the web went mainstream) all over again – and will definitely make the
current hype about blogging look overblown. People in the technology industry get sold the idea of ‘paradigm shifts’ about as much as they get offered cups of coffee so it’s easy to be cynical but on-demand radio looks like a damn good candidate for cultural and consumer change, and industry disruption.

If you’re a music publisher and you’ve spent all that time and effort building up retail relationships with Virgin Megastore, that’s no longer where the sales growth is. Start looking online – fast. Also be aware that Joe Bloggs in his back bedroom can distribute his new mix online almost as easily as you can.

If you’re a radio station you’re going to have do something more than just provide music – you’re now competing against radio stations all over the world – not just the ones in your transmission footprint. And start looking at more than just ads for revenue.

If you’re a broadband provider you’d better not be providing flat fee internet access – I now download 500 megabytes of podcasts a week where it used to be 250 megabytes a month.

If you’re providing operating systems like Windows or Linux; if you’re selling PCs and hard disks, you need to be able to effectively support large volumes of digital audio files.

If you’re providing high quality audio news/analysis the size of the market for it has expanded worldwide overnight and for the best there will be people who are prepared to pay for
it – but if you’re someone like the BBC how do you tell whether they’re an existing UK license payer or not? And if you don’t put your own programs online in podcast format is someone else going to do it before you and land-grab your niche?

If you’re a consumer congratulations! Roll up for personalized radio. Out there somewhere on the web there’s a podcast for every interest and directories to find them – any time you’re bored on a commute or exercise bike you needn’t be. And be aware that over time your CD collection is migrating to hard disk to be available throughout your house via any device connecting to your wireless LAN.

Get ready for a generation who are resurrecting several hours a week of currently dead time into entertainment and information. Yep, it’s 1935 all over again. The golden age of radio is here – but sell your radio shares and buy Sony.

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Article posted by @Drivelry on January 18, 2009

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