This is an essay I wrote while doing my MA in Radio at Goldsmiths College in London. It is from August 2006.
The radio landscape is changing. In the UK the government plans to switch off analogue radio by 2012. Afterwards radio will only be broadcast digitally, via DAB, digital TV, mobile phones or the Internet. The effects the switch will have on radio are impossible to foresee. But new ways of distributing, producing and listening to radio are already emerging.
Internet radio is either streaming (live) or more often on-demand, which means that radio content is available anytime and anywhere. And thanks to drastically lowered costs of distribution and production the means of mass communication are now available to anyone. What effects will this have on the content? Can radio programme formats be directly transferred to the Internet? Will radio stay the same or will it develop in new directions? Will on-demand radio open up for new types of content?
This essay will not give definite answers on how radio is likely to change, rather give a brief sketch of the Internet radio landscape and the new possibilities for listeners, producers and broadcasting companies.
Internet radio is interesting in many ways, but this essay will focus on distribution, production and use of audio content. Copyright and media law will not be discussed.
Digital radio statistics
According to data recently published by RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research) over half of the UK adult population is now listening to digital radio.1 The number has increased from 25.5 million adults in the first quarter of 2006 to 27.1 million in the second quarter. But 90 per cent of the population still listen to analogue radio every week.
15.3 per cent of adults live in households which have a DAB receiver. 22.8 per cent listen via Internet and 38.9 per cent listen via DTV. The share of listening hours has risen for digital platforms from 6.5 per cent in the second quarter of 2005 to 13.6 per cent during the same period in 2006. 3.5 million adults (9.7 per cent of mobile phone owners) listen to the radio via their mobile phones. Among young adults the figure is 21.7 per cent.
A fourth of the adult population, 12.8 million people, own an MP3 player. 8.8 million adults listen to music or other audio on it every week and 2.8 million adults claim to listen every day. 1.9 million adults use their player to listen to downloaded radio programme podcasts.
Digital killed the radio
The new audio technologies have led to some people asking if this is the
death of radio. Alan Beck discussed whether radio
may lose its very name in his online monograph The ‘Death of Radio’? in 2001. In the US, radio executives have had long discussions whether radio presenters and deejays should be allowed to even mention the existence of iPods on air.2
BBC Director-General Mark Thompson said in a speech in April 2006:
The second wave of digital will be far more disruptive than the first and the foundations of traditional media will be swept away, taking us beyond broadcasting.3
There is a seemingly never-ending debate over what is and what is not radio. Ever since the dawn of Internet radio the question has ignited discussion on the Radio Studies Email Forum. Several participants have argued that Internet radio can not be classified as radio, whereas other think it can. In 1998 Tim Crook suggested that radio should be considered in terms of sound (recorded or transmitted):
The way of transmitting, whether by electro-magnetic waves or as digital code, is not relevant. What matters is the form of communication with the listener. In all cases it is sound, rather than film, or stage theatre, or television.
Radio on demand
Before there was audio technology, sound was bound to a particular space at a particular time. Audio communication was in the form of oral storytelling or singing. The invention of the phonograph in 1878 made it possible to record and play back sound for the first time. Sound was released from its original point in time.4 The telephone and the radio released sound from its original point in space as well. In the 1920s when radios became widespread, audio communication changed from being one-to-one to being one-to-many. Mass communication of audio, broadcasting, was born.
But broadcasting still had its limitations. BBC’s first Director of Talks, Hilda Matheson, described these as:
The necessity of being in a particular spot at a particular time; and the annoyance which arises when several people wish to listen to different programmes on one wireless set.
She was certain that new technology would change this, and even foresaw the iPod revolution:
The portable wireless set may perhaps become really portable; the pocket receiver may in future really get into a pocket and allow the listener to hear what he wants to hear wherever he may be.5
The first big change in radio listening came with the transistor radio. It allowed people to take the radio with them.6 One of radio’s characteristics has become that it is ‘just there’. Crisell citing Mendelsohn (p. 212) points out that:
[The listeners] do not greatly distinguish between different kinds of content, whether informative or entertaining, but use radio to
structure their day and as a
Listening is secondary.
The MP3 player and the Internet have released radio from its point in time as well as its point in space. There is no longer a need to comply to the daily broadcasting schedule. Programmes can be downloaded via the Internet, long after being broadcast. The listener can catch the programme whenever and wherever it suits him or her. Westbury argues that the personal audio device could make listening a primary activity again:
Walkman effectively severs the aural experience from the other senses, isolating it in a singular, almost virtual space that is delineated by the hearing mechanism of the person wearing the headphones. Self-contained personal audio devices temporarily privilege sound in the hierarchy of the senses.7
New radio producers
Compared to traditional broadcasting the cost of distributing audio via the Internet is low. The Bit-torrent protocol has enabled large files to be distributed without large investments in bandwidth. Anyone with broadband and a website can reach millions of people all over the world. This has made it possible for all media companies as well as independent producers to distribute radio material.
A pioneering independent media company which looked to the Internet for distribution of audio content was IRDP (Independent Radio Drama Production). 1997 Guardian’s radio critic wrote about the site:
Modern or what? […] though at first it seems perverse to put an aural genre on to what is still primarily a visual medium, there are evident benefits.8
Audio downloads and podcasts did not boom until 2004 when iPods and broadband became commonplace. What distinguishes a podcast from other audio content available on the Internet is that it can be automatically delivered from a website to a computer or MP3 player. The listener does not need to visit specific websites to download files.
The first podcast was made in 2003.9 Amateurs and traditional broadcasters were quick to pick up the format. BBC launched their first podcast Fighting Talk in 2004. The blogger and technology columnist Doc Searls has been keeping track of how many hits a Google search on the word “podcasts” produce since September 2004. His first ever search resulted in 24 hits. Five days later the search resulted in more than 2,500 hits. In October that year the number had passed 100,000.10 Googling in August 2006 gives a staggering 169 million hits.
2006 saw many big media companies without previous audio experience take steps towards producing audio content. Public TV broadcaster Channel 4 launched 4radio in June 2006. So far 4radio is offering a range of on demand radio programmes downloadable from the Internet. The plan for the future is to start a national digital radio station.
Channel 4 describes its radio content like this:
We will offer new programmes to audiences who don’t currently feel that radio gives them what they want. We’re going to introduce you to a new generation of radio shows and presenters. […] More than anything we will offer something different, something challenging, something new. Radio will never be the same again.11
In November 2005 the Guardian newspaper proudly announced that they were moving into podcasting. Twelve new weekly shows with Ricky Gervais were made available for download from the Guardian website. Editor-in-chief for Guardian Unlimited, Emily Bell, said:
GU has been experimenting with podcasting over the past year but this represents the start of a much bigger commitment to using different digital formats which give our users the best content in the most convenient way.12
The show became the most popular podcast ever with a quarter of a million downloads for every episode. Gervais is now producing a second season of the show, which is being sold by Audible.com (Wikipedia). Most other national UK newspapers have also launched their own podcasts. The Times is for example calling itself
the newspaper that speaks.
The effect of new actors in the radio producing field was discussed on the Radio Festival in July 2006. It was mainly the fact that other media companies have started to produce audio content that was seen as a threat. Pete Simmons, Group Head of Programmes for Chrysalis Radio, said background and expertise in radio will continue to be an advantage:
Radio should not feel under threat and quality content will always rise to the top. He also said that the solution for the risk of talents going solo and distributing their own content is
to offer them big contracts, working with them and showing them opportunities.13
BBC Director Mark Thompson said in April 2006:
On-demand changes everything. It means we need to rethink the way we conceive, commission, produce, package and distribute our content […] The BBC should no longer think of itself as a broadcaster of TV and radio and some new media on the side (BBC Press Office).
The listeners will do the work
With so much content available it will be vital for the content providers that the listeners can find it. For the listener it means more work has to be done to find content rather than just turning on the radio.
As with many other contemporary areas of consumer-producer relations, this is in effect a radical process of 14
outsourcing labour to users.
There are online directories where podcasts are organised in categories, such as entertainment, news, music, business, etc. But googling “podcast directory” gives you more than 45 million web pages. By checking the first two directories in the search you have a total of around 130 000 podcasts to choose from (The Podcast Directory, www.podcast.net: 35042 and Yahoo! Podcasts, podcasts.yahoo.com: 94987).
Andy Johnson believes an important role for the professional broadcaster will be to act as
a trusted guide or editor charting a path through all the content available. BBC controller Roger Wright agrees:
The audience only has so many hours in the day, so quality navigation provided by trusted brands would be paramount (Radio Festival Report, p. 11-12).
But Chris Anderson is of another opinion. He says media’s traditional “top ten” way of recommending new books and films will no longer work:
The Top 10, 40, and 100 are the staples of the hit-driven universe […] with so many other filters available, the weaknesses of Top 10 lists are becoming more and more clear.15
Top-ten-lists do not take into account the world of niches, genres, sub-genres and categories now available.
Anderson means that the audience itself will be one of the most effective demand drivers:
They’re the new tastemakers, introducing people to niche products and content by serving as a filter. Great bloggers can find gems out there and bring them to the attention of readers who share their interests. This is a highly amplified form of word of mouth (Anderson, p. 23-24).
New ways of recommending
New ways of distributing, recommending and finding content is starting to form on the Internet. The latest example of that is GoogleVideo, where anyone can upload a film for free and for anyone to see. On the US site it is also possible for bigger companies to sell videos.
Another example is Myspace. Myspace was created by musician Tom Anderson to give independent musicians free web space. The site was tiny to begin with but now has more than 40 million users.16 It is not only for posting and finding new music. The most important bit is probably that it is a social network. The “friends” function builds a network of approved people and content.
Other more radio specific sites are PRX and Transom. PRX (The Public Radio Exchange) is an American website where producers can post audio, radio stations can find programming and listeners can find something to listen to. It connects people all over the world. Transom is another American site doing the same thing. Both sites also have professional audio producers reviewing and giving advice.
Recommending content can also be done completely passively on the Internet. On Amazon your trail of clicks and purchases turn into recommendations for other people. What your taste has led you to click on is saved for future customers.
This means that genres and subgenres previously neglected by traditional media can find their audience on the Internet, according to Anderson:
What matters is not where the customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title, but only that some number of them exist anywhere.
The result is that
almost anything is worth offering on the off chance it will find a buyer.17
Anderson says that this is a return to a fragmented culture. The broadcast era is over.
It’s not going to be about watching the same TV show, but more about our certain interests.18
Comparison with TV/film
On of the most lucrative innovations for the film industry has been the DVD. In the 1950s the way to make money from a film was to sell tickets. Today that is only a fifth of the revenues. The rest comes from DVD sales.19
The film industry has therefore not welcomed file-sharing and argues that it devalues the DVD. According to Walter Benjamin a limitless access to music or other content will make it loose its “aura”. It is
some kind of demystification of the previously so worshipped work of art, or, in this case, of the exclusivity of the CD (Andersson, p. 5).
But Andersson is of a different opinion:
For every file copied, the artist’s or content producer’s fifteen minutes of fame is momentarily extended and might gain them in the long run. The sharing of the online file-sharers could here be seen to actually contribute to the value of the content spread (Andersson, p. 13).
He also argues that a downloaded file not always replace a purchase, because many consumers value the “hard copy” of a film more.
The DVD offers more content and of higher technical quality. They are also often desirable for their packaging, booklets and artwork. I have made the nonacademic observation that many young people I know often buy films and special edition boxes of films they have already seen numerous times. Illegal copies of reasonable quality are always available on the Internet, but the purchased items can be placed on a shelf in display of the owner’s identity.
There seems to be a few trends in the distribution, production and use of audio content.
For media content to be efficiently discussed, distributed and accessed, it appears that several media has to be employed. A radio piece requires support from text as well as image. The ancillary media does not need to be of the same excellent quality as the core piece, only sufficient to support discussion and attract the curious.
Internet allows for background material, long interviews, photographs, text and film. It is also crucial “to be” on the Internet in order to “be found”. This could apply to radio formats. For example, a radio documentary could benefit from a website in terms of PR, more information and interactivity with listeners. In a way some radio formats could act more like the film format, in terms of experience.
The Internet is vital now to documentaries. Most working documentarians and many industry films have their own Web sites, but these still remain ancillary to the main works. Historically no new technology immediately begets great artistry. It always takes some time, and trial and error, to find the best uses for new equipment and new means of expression. Internet documentaries have progressed little further than snippets […] As in the large-format technology […] better Internet documentaries will surely arrive.20
Chris Anderson sees a future where
we’ll see the natural shape of demand in our culture, one free of the distortions of limited distribution, choice and findability. This opens up for distribution of radio content that producers have had a hard time to fit in in today’s tight broadcasting schedules.
Radio has previously been a secondary medium. When people themselves demand when and where to listen, listening might develop to a more intent experience. Listening to audio content becomes a primary activity.
According to Crook, radio drama producers were too late to see the opportunity to interest their listeners in their medium when popular TV changed the nature of listening.
Radio became more of an accompaniment medium rather than a (p. 47).
must hear or must see medium
It seems that media companies now see “content” as the most important thing to compete with. That trend can be seen in advertising as well. TV ads often attempt to be short films, and judging by the amount of conversation about these ads they are successful. Those who sell products or services are forced to produce content to enhance their brand. From the other direction content producers are beginning to sell products on the back of their core content.
A recently produced web site for the fashion label Prada plays down the product on sale (perfumes) and pushes a short film, and ever more prominently, the unglamorous behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the film.
- Anderson, Chris, extract from The Long Tail, (Random House, 2006) <http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/minisites/longtail/long-tail-extract-pdf.htm> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Anderson, Chris, ‘The Long Tail’, Wired Magazine 12.10 (2004): <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html?pg=1&topic=tail&topic_set=> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Andersson, Jonas, ‘The metamorphosis of music-listening and the (alleged) obliteration of the aura’, Goldsmiths College, academic paper presented at Sounds of the Overground, a postgraduate colloquium on ubiquitous music and music in everyday life, held at University of Liverpool 17 May 2006: <http://homepages.gold.ac.uk/j-andersson/>
- BBC Press Office, ‘Creative Future: Detailed Press Briefing’, bbc.co.uk 25 April 2006: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2006/04_april/25/creative_detail.shtml> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Beck, Alan, The ‘Death of Radio’? (online monograph). Sound Journal 2001. <http://www.kent.ac.uk/sdfva/rp/index.html> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Crisell, Andrew, Understanding Radio, 2nd edn, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 29
<http://www.channel4sales.com/advertising/our_brands/radio> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Crook, Tim, Radio Drama: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 29
- Doyle, Bob, ‘The First Podcast’, Econtentmag.com 7 September 2005: <http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/ArticleReader.aspx?ArticleID=13515> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Ellis, Jack C. and Betsy A. McLane, eds, A New History of Documentary Film (London: Continuum, 2005)
- Fisher, Marc, ‘In an “On-Demand” iPod World, Something’s Gotta Give’, Washingtonpost.com 15 May 2005: <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/05/13/AR2005051301065.html> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Greeley, Brendan. Interview with Chris Anderson and Andreas Kluth. Economist.com. 13 April 2006: <http://www.economist.com/surveys/displaystory.cfm?story_id=6822455> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- GoogleVideo, <video.google.com>
- ‘Guardian Unlimited to podcast ‘The Ricky Gervais Show’, www.guardian.co.uk 29 November 2005: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/pressoffice/pressrelease/story/0,,1653460,00.html> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Matheson, Hilda, Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1933)
- ‘Press release: Rajar Data Release Quarter 2’, Rajar.co.uk 3 August 2006: <http://www.rajar.co.uk/INDEX2.CFM?menuid=9> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- Schafer, R. Murray, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1994)
- Surowiecki, James, ‘Disk Averse’, The New Yorker 1 August 2005: <http://www.newyorker.com/talk/content/articles/050808ta_talk_surowiecki> [accessed 31 August 2006]
- ‘The MySpace Generation’, www.businessweek.com 12 December 2005: <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_50/b3963001.htm> [accessed 31 August 2006]
- The Public Radio Exchange, <http://www.prx.org/> [accessed 30 August 2006]
- ‘The Radio Festival Report’, The Radio Academy 3 July 2005 [accessed 31 August 2006] <http://www.radioacademy.org/festival/index.shtml>
- Westbury, Tim, ‘Urban Radio’, Radio Rethink, ed. by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994)
- Wikipedia contributors, ‘History of podcasting’, Wikipedia.org 24 August 2006: <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_podcasting&oldid=71550993> [accessed 31 August 2006]
1 ‘Press release: Rajar Data Release Quarter 2’, Rajar.co.uk 3 August 2006
2 Marc Fisher, ‘In an “On-Demand” iPod World, Something’s Gotta Give’, Washingtonpost.com 15 May 2005
3 BBC Press Office, ‘Creative Future: Detailed Press Briefing’, bbc.co.uk 25 April 2006
4 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1994), p. 89
5 Hilda Matheson, Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1933), p. 225-226
6 Andrew Crisell, Understanding Radio, 2nd edn, (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 29
7 Tim Westbury, ‘Urban Radio’, ed. by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander, Radio Rethink (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994)
8 Tim Crook, Radio Drama: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 29
9 Bob Doyle, ‘The First Podcast’, Econtentmag.com 7 September 2005
10 Wikipedia contributors, ‘History of podcasting’, Wikipedia.org 24 August 2006
12 ‘Guardian Unlimited to podcast ‘The Ricky Gervais Show’, www.guardian.co.uk 29 November 2005
13 ‘The Radio Festival Report’, The Radio Academy 3rd July 2005, p.11
14 Jonas Andersson, ‘The metamorphosis of music-listening and the (alleged) obliteration of the aura’, Goldsmiths College, academic paper presented at University of Liverpool 17 May 2006, p. 13
15 Chris Anderson, extract from The Long Tail, (Random House, 2006), p. 29
16 ‘The MySpace Generation’, www.businessweek.com 12 December 2005
17 Chris Anderson, ‘The Long Tail’, Wired Magazine 12.10 (2004) p. 3
18 Brendan Greeley. Interview with Chris Anderson and Andreas Kluth. Economist.com 13 April 2006.
19 James Surowiecki, ‘Disk Averse’, The New Yorker 1 August 2005
20 Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane, eds, A New History of Documentary Film (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 328