September 2019
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Future radio’s will not care

The topic of what radio is, and what it will be in the future has popped up a few times in my Twitter feed recently. It seems that there’s mixed views on what that future is. At a recent conference in Asia Commercial Radio Australia CEO Joan Warner told an audience that radio’s future was as hybrid. This echoes many opinion formers such as James Cridland and Adam Bowie. This is a scenario where a radio is still a radio, but can do other things; like connecting to the internet to download shows or connect listeners directly to the studio.

GMC Car Radio

Of course, this is all really exciting. The problem that radio faces is that our eyes are being taken off the ball by cool iPhones and in-car systems that offer streaming music services. This misses the really benefit of radio as a distribution platform. Radio is free to all at point of use, and it doesn’t matter if 10 people, or 10,000 people are listening the costs of distributing that content remains the same. Move the same station online and things get more experience, for the radio stations, for the audience and for the mobile networks who distribute it. Imagine the problems if the internet was all we had? Would you be happy at not being able to listen to radio on the way to work because the kid in the next car is watching cat videos and sucking up all the data? OK, I know that’s not really how it works but data is infinite and to replace radio with mobile internet you need a lot of data, and who pays for that? We do, and that’s a bad place for radio to be.

Whilst the radio set above does do need neat things for HD radio, it also buries AM/FM behind other useful, but competing apps. The face of radio is changing, it’s becoming more visual and more social. The internet lets the audience into the studio and into the archive and that is part of the future

Big Weekend (C) BBC

Events like the BBC Radio 1 Big weekend run across radio, TV and the internet with opportunities to watch and engage socially. The fact this doesn’t feel like the radio of the past isn’t important. If that was the case all newsreaders would still dress for dinner. As radio people we push, reflect and change our medium to fit the environment. Radio has always evolved. Content producers have done well to keep with us this change, management and owners less so. The big shift will happen when manufacturers get this too. Recent moves suggest that the first real battleground will be the car.

Last summer I attempted to consolidate some of these thoughts in a conference paper, all being well that will be published later this year but in the meantime here are the slides

The path to digital is not straight

Yesterday the Culture Secretary, Ed Vaisey, made his long-awaited statement on the proposed Digital Switchover date (or switch-off) for Radio… the upshot of which was, there isn’t one. This is what most us expected him to say. The idea that turning off analogue radio any time soon is absurd and has been a worry for many for a long time.

The problem is that radio isn’t television. Consumers (we like to call them listeners) behave differently. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that over the past few years sales of DAB radios have slowed; even though coverage is up and the amount of digital listening is also up. Although, some would it’s all a bit rubbish and we should abandon DAB now.  It could argued that the lack of clarity about our digital future is to blame here; as without a definitive end date for analogue for radio, then why bother buying DAB? There might be some truth here, the real change with TV was when when we knew when our screens would start going blank. This is where the real difference between TV and Radio is clear. We tend to own more radio’s than TV’s and we probably don’t change them as often. Upgrading to a bigger screen or adding IPTV to the lounge has real benefit and the inner-geek in us all makes us want it. Radio on the other hand tends to be something we live with, until it breaks. Then we buy a new one.

My guess is that sales have levelled as the initial rush of interest has peaked and we’re now into the phase where radio’s are being bought not as an additional sets to listen to DAB but as replacements to broken or tatty sets. So, should we take this is a sign that interest has also peaked? Probably not. OK, so I am radio geek. I have DAB radios in most rooms of the house and on my desk at work. The only place I don’t have it right now is the car – and that’s only because I need a new kit for my Pure Highway. The statement this week addresses this, with plans to send DAB information out with every DVLA tax reminder. This coupled with the announcement from Halfords that won’t be selling analogue only radio’s from 2015 will add some movement to the one place that was clearly a problem for DAB. However, this alone is not the solution.

There are two other big problems when it comes to switchover. The first is choice. This week the Minister told us that Ofcom will once again issue a 2nd National Digital Multiplex; which might go some way in dealing with one of the problems of DAB. Whilst the likes of Absolute Radio and Bauer have understood that Digital offers them opportunities to build out brands, much of what we can hear on DAB is already available on FM. Choice is limited and – to be honest – my kitchen radio spends more time tuned to internet radio than it does to DAB. I love Absolute 80’s, I appreciate 6Music and think that the BBC World Service is amazing and I’m glad they’re all on DAB, but it can feel like the incentives offered in DTV were better. Content will be a key to the future and we have to hope that D” offers choice, rather than re-workings of current brands or the relay of another London FM station.

The BIG problem though is what happens when there is no path to digital. This is the case for lots of the smaller stations, such as those owned by UKRD. In November they joined forces with others to warn that switch-off was not an option. For their stations, the current arrangements for digital transmission means they would be covering areas much bigger than need to and at costs in excess of their ability to pay. This is an even bigger issue for Community Radio, where budgets are even tighter. The minister promised some action here, including funding to examine future options.

The key thing, though, is that he did not set and end date for analogue. If anything, he reaffirmed that notion that the future will be a mixed economy of analogue AND digital. So, bad news for those who wanted DAB to turned off (sorry guys). Interestingly, he also slipped in a suggestion that there may be some further change ahead for Community Radio to make their lives even easier.

Despite the flurry of small announcements and whatever stability his words have generated, we are no further on. We know that AM and FM will around for some time to come. We know we will get more DAB and that the government will continue to support it. What we don’t know is if the likes of the BBC and Global will slowly move their brands onto DAB only, leaving FM to the small independents and community stations; like the chains leaving the high street to move into the shiny new shopping centre on the edge of town, leaving behind boarded up windows and charity shops.

It’s all about the service

My better half and myself decided we wanted to have a meal out yesterday. We had been talking about going to a specific chain (which I won’t mention, but it’s red) and so wandered in.

The place was empty, I mean like totally empty. No customers. No staff. We stood there for a while, took that as a sign and left. We went instead to a burger chain, where we’ve been dozens of times and loved every time. We were greeted quickly and generally made to feel welcome. The staff here always seem happy to be there and actually willing to make their customers experience a positive one.

Now, this got me thinking. I’m finding more and more that I am making choices about where I spend money on the level of service I get there. If someone has been helpful, friendly and informed, I’ll go back there. This could just be me getting old and maybe I am becoming a grumpy old man but when I want to buy something I do expect there to be someone ready and able to help me.

I think I need to lie down

The final edits

I’ve just been making the final edits to a conference paper on visualising radio. I think it’s one of those cases where the 15 minutes allocated is not enough. At one point I had over 20 minutes worth of material, that I’ve cut, re-cut and re-edited down.

There are so many things to talk about. The key things I’ve picked up and wanted to talk about

This is not about changing radio (it’s about augmentation)
It’s not just happening in the UK
Some of it looks like TV
Most of it doesn’t look like TV
Some of it is there to drive in audiences
Some of it is there to make the radio experience better
Most of it is quite basic
Some of it have high people and technology costs
Most of it is cheap
We can draw links to Spreadable media and developments in 2nd screens

But the main thing is that the fundamental nature of radio is unchanged

Visualisation does 2 key things to radio programmes: It enhances the programmes by allowing listeners to become viewers and see pictures or videos. These images are not necessary to make sense of the radio show but they help. Visualisation also extends output by adding content that isn’t heard on the radio.This might allow programmes to send listeners online to experience content outside the broadcast slot. Both of these forms can build close links with the audience and therefore build loyalty.