Radio’s Inevitable Day of Reckoning

The jig is up for radio (or should that read, “The gig is up”?).  Radio is on the verge of falling off a cliff.

I have honest, decent, hard-working friends in radio and still more that depend on radio for their livelihoods.  Bad news, my friends.  You’re going to have to move your skills into another medium.  Broadcast radio, the type we listen to on clock radios and in the car, is about to vanish and it will vanish quite suddenly, just like the Yellow Pages, telephone directories, printed encyclopaedias  and local newspapers already have.

We’re just one clever iPhone or Android app away from destroying the broadcast radio industry completely.  I’ll say more about that shortly.

Today, I can get into my car and it has a Bluetooth-equipped in-car entertainment system.  I can connect my iPhone to the system, wirelessly and can take control over the car’s speakers with my mobile device.  Whatever audio I play on my iPhone, I now hear in the cabin of my car, in pretty good quality and with plenty of volume.

My car’s entertainment system still has a traditional FM radio tuner in it, but I find myself listening to my own music, from my iPhone, using the phone’s inbuilt music player app.  If I have the satellite navigation (GPS) application running, at the same time, the music will dim, whenever there is a verbal driving instruction to be announced.  It comes through my car’s speakers too.

Here is the thing:  With so many podcasts, free audio downloads, audio books, catch-up, on-demand radio streams and Spotify stations or playlists to listen to, why listen to local broadcast radio?  That’s anachronistic.  With traffic, weather and talking maps in your mobile device already, why would you wait for the radio announcer to get around to telling you what you need to know?  If you can get the information right now, on demand, why put up with the frustrating delay?

The only reason you don’t abandon radio, right now, with your existing apps and technology, is because you don’t want to have to fanny around with all the individual apps on your mobile device’s tiny screen, while you’re driving, especially if you need to wear reading glasses to see the screen properly.

I alluded, earlier, to a single app that will kill radio and here it is:  A single app that programmes your other audio emitting apps, according to your preferences, so that instant, on-demand local weather, traffic, news, driving directions and music (that you really like) is just a single screen tap away, is all it will take.  You could even let it run automatically, according to a schedule you define.  Traffic updates every five minutes?  Why not?  You want international or business news, every other bulletin?  Knock yourself out.  It’s up to you.

A technology called “Audiobus” already exists on iOS.  I’m sure there is something similar on Android, or soon will be.  That’s the foundation technology that can enable individual apps to contribute audio streams to a single audio programming app, which will do little more than fade in and fade out the right audio streams, on demand.  You’ll hear that mixed and subtly cross-faded programming on your car speakers, thanks to Bluetooth.

This app is like an extension of your familiar Spotify playlist, if you like, dimming the music stream to overlay audio from your other apps, which know your locality and can give you weather, traffic and news information relevant to your current locale, your destination, or to your home town, in another continent, if that’s what you want.  You can mix and match.

Seth Godin, in his article entitled “An End of Radio”, commented that listening to broadcast radio is now a quaint practice from a bygone age, similar to smoking a pipe.  Here’s the link:

The future of radio is, I’m afraid, everything on demand.  No stupid DJ banter talking over your favourite song, no intrusive advertisements that have no relevance to you, fuming shock-jock talk radio programming only if you really want that sort of thing, with weather and news delivered on-demand and localised to you, if not fully personalised.

With the in-car listening environment fully covered, I suppose that relegates broadcast radio to waking people up in the morning, but who uses a clock radio anymore?  Only old people who still wear wrist watches do; that’s who.  Most young people use their smart phones as alarm clocks.  The same killer application finds application here, too.  There is no convenient, tuned-to-just-one-station radio receiver in a smart phone.  Kids wake to iTunes or Spotify music playlists now.  It’s a short stretch to run an app that programmes and personalises their audio information for them.

Streaming media, delivered over 4G or other wireless networks, will ultimately eat radio, with its rigid format and expensive frequency spectrum allocation.  When the advertisers abandon radio, because the listeners they most want to reach no longer tune in, they’re sunk.

There are other reasons why radio’s day of reckoning is sure to come.  The bigger reason consumers will ultimately dump broadcast radio is that it treated them like garbage.  FM, as a radio technology, could have been a coast-to-coast thing, just like television, which used essentially the same technology.  It could have had wider reach, but it was artificially restricted to protect AM broadcasters, who were the incumbents at the time.  FM radio was crippled, technically, to protect AM.  Who even listens to AM radio now?

The other unsavoury thing about music radio programming is payola, whereby record companies pay to have their artists’ songs played exclusively, on high rotation.  This practice was ruled illegal and outlawed, but the payola thing never really went away, it was just worked around.  Sharp operators found other ways of passing equivalent monetary value, from record company (i.e. the artist, who usually footed the bill) to the radio programme directors and management.  This is why radio stations, increasingly all owned by a handful of consolidated, conglomerate mega-corporations, broadcast universally homogeneous and depressingly repetitive play lists.

Records are played on mainstream radio only if they are promoted by major record companies, not on the strength of their own musical merits or even in response to listener popularity ratings.  Independent artists, without the connections and money to pay to play, almost never find a place on mainstream, commercial, music radio programming.  What the major labels promote is what you hear, irrespective of whether or not the audience likes and wants their garbage.

How you think a song becomes a hit, on merit, because the programme director or DJ of a radio station likes it and because listeners phone in, asking for it to be played again, is a quaint fiction.  It’s all for appearances.  Records become hits because major labels pay for them to be played.  Nothing else becomes a hit, at least while radio rules the roost.

Today, this old-boy corruption is being eroded, increasingly so by YouTube and Spotify, which is why the major labels are keen to do deals with these new music delivery services that consumers are favouring.  It’s also why radio owners are diversifying into live music production and staging companies, and concert venues.  They desperately need to own and control these channels to market too.

From the major label artists’ point of view, the bribes always came out of their recoupables anyway, so they bore all the risk, not the record company.  If they were a big hit, then they made enough money from all the sales to not worry about the cost of the bribes, but if they were a miss, it came straight out of their own pockets, even while the record company was still making profits on the records sold.  Now that physical formats and downloads barely earn what they once did, the money major labels take, to pay independent record promoters and “programme consultants”, is actually hurting those artists financially.  They can also see independent artists succeeding in retaining more of their earnings, without a record company and all the associated spongers that happily spend their money.

Radio, as a business, has been rotten to the core for decades.  They’ve hidden it well, but kept dark secrets.  Playlists have been anything but representative of what the station’s listeners would want to hear, if they could choose.  Now listeners can choose.

Increasingly, as radio’s audience share dwindles, due to the availability of more on-demand streaming services, via cheaper and faster wireless IP networks, radio play will be irrelevant to the sales of independent artists’ music, or to building their fan base.  Independent artists are already tooling up for other ways of relating to their audience and monetising their music.

And we’re just one obvious, clever mobile app away from all of this happening.

It’s sad to say, but nobody, apart from the very most dewy-eyed and nostalgic, will miss radio as it has become.  Fans will, in all likelihood, turn against the artists who previously used the services of shady independent promoters, to get air play and come to prominence.  The backlash against the recent Apple/U2 album release is an indicator of the abandonment of major label artists to come.  These artists are tainted by association and the facts surrounding “pseudo payola”, which has continued unabated until the present day, throws their objective appeal and artistic merit into serious doubt.  Who wants to idolise an artist that paid to be idolised and treated you as a contemptible, gullible fool, in the process?

Radio’s days, it would seem, are numbered.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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