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Radio Futures

Posted on 22 November 2014

“It’s a podcast. It’s kind of like your radio show except people listen to it on purpose.”

– Jesse Brown, Canadaland, Episode 1

Yesterday, I argued that the success of Serial/StartUp/Radiotopia heralded the arrival of a new era of highly-produced, digital-only audio storytelling. Today I’d like to carry that line of thought to a new question:

What does this mean for radio?

For radio producers with a love of storytelling, I think this new era is largely good news. They have new ways of creating and distributing programs and reaching audiences who want to hear them. And the relationship between podcasters and audiences is, I’d argue, in some ways even MORE intimate than the one between radio presenters and audiences. Here’s Roman Mars, the producer of 99% Invisible, a show that started as a radio segment but today is a podcast-first production:

“If I were to just put a value proposition in terms of what I get back from a podcast in terms of financial or emotional rewards, I’d rather have 1 podcast listener than 10,000 radio listeners. They mean more. The show means more to them, and they mean more to the show, and it’s that connection that makes it all possible.”

How much does the show mean to listeners and listeners mean to the show? When Mars put out a Kickstarter to create 99% Invisible Season 3, he asked for $42,000 and was given more than four times that, getting $170,477. Through future campaigns he was able to get enough support to not only keep his own show going but to fund six other programs, as well. The latest campaign has raised over $620,000 and the network is adding three new shows, all highly produced with mixing, tape gathered in the field, music, and more.

And that’s not the only money out there. A lot of the “podcasts are back” story has focused on the profitability of  some of these new endeavours. The aforementioned Gimlet Media has raised over a million dollars from a combination of traditional investors, tech investors, and fans with a thousand dollars to spare.

That has got to look attractive to people with the skills to make high-quality productions (especially those who have been bothered by the time constraints imposed by radio broadcasts). Podcasts are no longer the world of motivated amateurs and talented talk producers. This is an alternative path for the best in the biz, and an ever-growing number of the best in the biz are taking it.

But what does that mean for traditional over-the-dial radio? Seth Godin has predicted that Bluetooth cars and data connections mean the end is nigh:

With so many podcasts, free downloads and Spotify stations to listen to, why? With traffic, weather and talking maps in your pocket, why wait for the announcer to get around to telling you what you need to know?

I think that is a serious question worth considering. More and more I find myself turning to my phone to find out what the forecast is, despite having the morning radio on. Apps like Waze and websites like DriveBC are slowly eliminating the need to find out about road closures elsewhere. I wouldn’t take it for granted that people will have any need for this sort of information from the radio in five or ten years.

So broadly speaking, here are the types of radio programs I think are the most at-risk:

1. Music programming (high risk)

2. National/international interest talk/current affairs (medium risk)

3. Local interest talk/current affairs (low risk)

1. Music radio is one that I think might still be working for now, but that I can easily imagine being replaced. Top 40, classic hits, any format easily replaced by an algorithm I just don’t see a long-term future for. When your major differentiator from Spotify is that you have local ads, I just don’t know.

2. The reason I think talk and current affairs programming aimed at national or international audiences is at medium risk is because they are still fairly robust, but I can imagine the rise of podcasts becoming an issue. Whereas before a strong arts program on CBC might be the only option for cultural talk, it is now up against work from BBC, NPR and any number of independent or semi-independent producers. A few years ago, fans of high-quality audio documentaries could only get them on the radio. Now I can go into iTunes and search for all sorts of material from around the world and on-demand. Just as more people are turning to Netflix instead of accepting whatever happens to be on TV, I think you’ll have more people choosing specific programming from their downloads queue rather than listening to whatever’s on Ideas. It may take a while, but it could happen.

3. Which isn’t to say there’s no future for traditional radio. There’s still lots of talent there and the traditional funding and distribution models are not dead, by any means. I also won’t take for granted that apps will replace radio as the medium of choice for getting information. Its tough to beat the simplicity of pressing a button and getting current news, information, roads, and weather while you about your morning routine, which is why I think local talk/current affairs is currently the most robust. The more local it is, the better, I think, because in a lot of cases the types of stories local programs cover are only going to be heard on local programming. Throw in the serendipity aspect of curated stories and the personal relationship you feel with a favorite host, and there’s a lot to be said for radio, particularly the local current affairs program.

Radio still has a lot to offer, particularly on a local level. But I do think a new era of disruption is coming, and that a successful podcast model will be a bigger challenge than TV or the earlier internet ever was. Radio is no longer the only game in town for the people who like to listen to audio or the people who like to create audio. More real-time information coming in the form of apps and notifications is another risk. What this all means for those of us still making radio, I think, is it’s time to figure out what can be offered by the radio-delivery model that can’t be duplicated elsewhere, while at the same time attempting to do what we can to be a part of the growing options for online audiences.

Filed under: radio

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