Monday, December 16, 2013

Is Traditional Radio On The Way Out or In?

When TV was just getting established in the early fifties, many predicted that radio would rapidly loose audiences and become a footnote in mass media history.  While radio stations did begin to loose some listeners, the industry changed focus from offering long-form dramas and variety shows to music and news.  The stations also emphasized the portability of radio.

One of the most significant driving forces in preserving radio’s viability was the auto industry.  Radio was a perfect companion for the increasing number of commuters opting away from public transit to the personal automobile. In fact, many analysts point to Detroit as the savior of FM radio in the US. When FM and FM stereo radios became standard equipment in Detroit’s new lines, FM radio stations went from second class operations to cash cows.

Jumping ahead 50 years, we may be seeing that the savior of broadcast radio, i.e. the auto industry, may be its worst enemy.  Major changes in wireless internet technologies are making our cars as connected as our homes and offices have already become.

If you listen carefully to the most recent ads for new models from most all manufactures you will hear words like “Pandora enabled” or “Spotify-ready” touted as features as important as antilock brakes or leather heated seats.  The internet connectivity in cars provides a way to listen to most any music or program on demand regardless of geography.  Where traditional radio stations have an average coverage area of about a 60 mile radius, there are no restrictions if the programming is distributed via the internet.  So if a station in Cincinnati chooses to stream live on the internet, a driver on I-75 at the “cut-in-the-hill” can be listening along with someone stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica Expressway.

How this will change radio is still a question.  For sure it may change the advertising since the person stuck in LA will not be stopping by Skyline Chili at the next exit.   There will still be a need for local only information.  Reporting on weather, traffic, local politics and sports will still be needed. 

One other important aspect of over-the-air broadcast technology is the relatively simple technical infrastructure that enables stations to continue to operate in times of serious disaster.  A radio broadcaster needs only a single generator and transmitter to stay on the air.  The consumer needs only to turn a few knobs on the dashboard or use an inexpensive battery powered receiver to get programming.  Internet delivered radio programming, be it wired or wireless, relies on thousands of individual routers, fibers, wires, towers and computers to remain operational.  Often after storms or other calamity one or more of these critical systems fail bringing online to off line.

So is Radio on the way in or on the way out?  My advice is to stay tuned.


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