Radio’s Brave New World

James Cridland is a radio futurologist and General Manager of Media UK, where this article was first published. This morning he gave to following address at the Radio Days Johannesburg conference. 

james cridland radio futurologist 300wGood morning. It’s wonderful to be back in Johannesburg. There is always a warm reception here in South Africa, if not always warm weather.

There’s a theme that runs through the conference today of threats and opportunities. This panel is called “Radio’s Brave New World”. It sounds as if radio is heavily under threat. That radio is on its last legs. That we should pack up and go home.

The facts are that radio is as resilient today as it always has been. Radio is tremendously successful here in South Africa, in the UK, the US and across Europe. The amount of people who tune into radio is as high as it has ever been. And that’s great news for those of us who love the medium.

Radio has a unique place – in that we enjoy radio while we’re doing other things. No other medium can say that. Some people call radio ” the secondary medium”. I prefer calling it “the multitasking medium”. There is nothing secondary about radio.

Radio also has unique opportunities. We are part of people’s lives in a way no other medium is. A station in the UK ended up having hundreds of thousands of protestors when the BBC tried to close it down. You wouldn’t get a march on Broadcasting House for a website being closed down. Or a Mobile app. But there’s something in radio that means we are intimately connected with our favourite presenters and our favourite stations. As Franz said, that means that we can be more interactive with our audience, too.

Radio’s reliance on audio, rather than visual, means that it can go places no other medium can. We can make full advantage of podcasts and on-demand listening: something that is continuing to grow. We can use the Mobile internet in ways that are still difficult or impossible for TV. We are fleet-of-foot, and quick to adapt. We have great relationships with our advertisers, and we can involve them in our programming in far more creative ways than TV. Radio is multiplatform. That is our great strength.

And we can now make broadcast quality radio with nothing more than a mobile phone: recording, editing, and sending in to the studio. No other medium has the content flexibility that we do.

And FM is still, in every country, the most popular way to tune into radio. Audiences are not masa-migrating to online.

We’ve adapted before to cope with threats. We will adapt again. Radios future is bright and assured. And anyone who writes radio off is foolish and stupid.

Or… Are they?

Radio is under threat like never before.

In most parts of the world, total time spent tuned-in to radio is going down. As we may hear on Friday, younger audiences are falling out of love with radio: and unlike before, they are not changing their habits when they get older. Commercial broadcasters are hellbent on targeting 30-something women, and increasingly ignoring younger audiences. If we keep doing that, we won’t get them back.

Young audiences are increasingly turning to YouTube to hear new music, rather than the radio.

There’s confusion in peoples’ minds about what radio is. Is a music service like Deezer, Rdio or Simfy, ‘radio’? These companies think they are; we know they aren’t; the audience is being educated that radio offers nothing more than music. That cannot be good for our medium.

We then get confused between internet radio, DRM, DAB and radio over DSTV. It’s all radio. Its a multiplatform world, and it is our duty to be on the platform that our audience is wanting to consume us on. As I’ll show you later, radio via mobile phones are hugely important for our future. But we should ensure we speak with one voice about radio, and not argue about different platform choices.

And then we need to look inside one of the new connected cars on sale. Use a car with Android auto inside, and it turns out that FM radio is four clicks away. No longer is the car radio’s stronghold. Where is the global radio industry in this conversation? Why are we aleep-walking into a world where radio will be harder to find in the car?

Come to think of it, why are user interfaces on radio sets so poor anyway? Why are most radio tuners, particularly internet radios, the worst designed consumer electronics item out there? Why is the FM radio experience in our smartphone so rubbish in comparison to other apps? What can we do to improve our audience’s experience when tuned in to the radio?

And finally, is radio’s measurement system fit for purpose? With the internet providing advertisers with detailed figures, what are we planning to do to fix this? Why have we been unable to maintain our prices over the last twenty years in most markets? Why is radio advertising now cheaper than its ever been?

Now. I think radio DOES have a bright future. I think a shared experience, a human connection, has advantages no other medium can hope to have. I think we have plenty of things to be positive about.

But I hope we don’t get complacent. We’ve a hell of a fight on our hands. I think it might be time to roll up our sleeves, and work together on some of the issues our industry has in the future.

James Cridland