Radio in the 21st Century: Quality or Commodity?

Staff Writer

Guest contributor Peter Don is a founder shareholder of Broadcast Programming and Research.

The 2012 Consumer electronics show in Las Vegas had a number of new innovations on show. Among the latest gadgets offered in this glimpse of the future are ‘useful’ things like The Tobii, which tracks eye movements using infrared technology to execute commands, Tagg, a GPS-enabled dog or cat collar so you need never lose your favourite companion again, together with some possibly less useful innovations like a combo digital photo frame with Skype terminal and Samsung 's fridge that streams Pandora and Twitter.

Some of these innovative developments may yet find their way into our lives, after all we’re already living with gadgets that we would not have considered essential to our lives even five years ago.

We’re living in a period of fast change, some caused by the technology revolution, but apart from the speed of change in today’s world, this is not new  …   consider


"Well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value."

— Boston Post, 1865

So what does the latest round of technological change mean to radio in the 21st century?

The UK experience

Despite the advent of personal computers, smartphones and iPads, in the UK 91% of adults 15+ listen to radio every week for an average of 23 hours, accounting for more than one quarter of the average adult’s time spent with media across the day.

More than that, radio is used more by younger audiences than older  …

Despite these impressive statistics simple logic tells us that there is a change in the way that today’s listeners use radio. The greatest demand that technology makes on our lives is time which means that radio needs to adapt to listener’s lives and lifestyles more than ever before.

Back to the UK again …


Listening via a digital receiver reaches 28.2% of all radio listening
Internet listening hours up 15.4% quarter on quarter
Access via a mobile phone up 24.2% year on year

— Source RAJAR (radio industry research Q3 2011)


Historically, radio has survived by its ability to adapt. The arrival of mainstream TV in the 50’s was once thought to be the death of radio, now, more than 60 years later the same sentiments are being discussed – there are a number of ‘new’ views on radio, however the critical factor is that radio can’t simply continue to do things in the same way that it did 30 or 40 years ago.  None of this is about the changing tastes of radio listeners, that’s going to happen anyway, the discussion is more about what radio can and must do to meet (and exceed) expectations of today’s listeners.

Radio is surrounded by a new batch of competitors …  Pandora, Last FM, iTunes Genius, Spotify and others all offer a ‘music-only’ solution that may be better consumer music match than radio provides – this reduces radio to its base ‘commodity’ level – a music only machine.  On the other hand, Sirius and WiFi radio provide the opportunity to listen to tens of thousands of radio stations from all over the world. Ironically Clear Channel Radio has just re-branded as Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, while Pandora is now built on providing Pandora Radio on line in the US (via Android and iPhone)  

So how should radio stations meet these challenges? …  it’s unlikely that radio will win the ‘commodity’ battle – someone else can always do it cheaper, on the other hand the answer is clearly not simply providing more talk. 

Radio is a medium that can adapt to its changing audiences, on-line forums, blogs, Twitter and Facebook provide a new reality to a radio community, one in which communication can be two way, and visible, while podcasts, and the ability to record streamed content put more control into the hands of the listeners.

It’s highly unlikely that listeners will want to record 10 in a row to play back later, but it is possible that 10 in a row may be just what is needed by radio listeners in other circumstances.

Listener expectations are as always personal, but they still want to share the experience that individual media can provide. In a recent UK study called Radio: the Emotional Multiplier, listeners characterised different media in ways that are clearly distinctive.

So while radio can provide narrow streams – specialist 60’s 70’s 80’s and 90’s ‘radio stations’ via digital and on-line, at the centre of the radio experience is still a community that connects and stimulates through information, personality, news and entertainment as well as music. Do specialist music streams provided by one radio station meet ‘specialist’ music needs as well as Pandora, Spotify and others can? Probably not, but what it can do is support the radio station brand in a way that a single broad based music programme can’t.

The key advantage that radio retains over other media is engagement with listeners. While cume listening remains strong,  time spent listening to radio has been declining, notably among younger listeners, Radio’s challenge is to maintain a strong connection between the station and its listeners. To be able to do this, radio needs to adapt to the changing media landscape, and use the new tools to enhance the relationship – without some change, decline is inevitable.

Social media provides the opportunity for engagement in different forms, but perhaps more important is that it allows people to broaden their use of media through the opportunity to multi-task. This may be one of the biggest challenges for radio is adapting to the new media landscape.  ‘old’ media may end up being defined – or limited – by the fact that it remains a single use medium.

For now, it’s possible to be a radio listener, listening to my favourite songs, chatting to friends, commenting on whatever issue is interesting to me , and watching video clips on You Tube all at the same time.  Is that your station they’re listening to?



Peter Don is a founder shareholder of Broadcast Programming and Research. A Sydney based company, BPR consult and provide strategic research and programming solutions to radio stations worldwide. Peter can be contacted by email at [email protected] or through the BPR website at


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