The Future of Radio Starts with Sucking on Phones
Mon, May 4, 2015 at 1:35 PM by Doc Searls.
  • In Why are Radio Station Simulcasts Failing to Compete on Phones?, Larry Rosin of Edison Research offers a set of compelling arguments, under these subheads (hit that little black triangle above):
  • And he's correct with each of them. Radio has always had intolerable spotloads (piles of ads), while online streamers have few (e.g. Pandora) or none (e.g. Spotify). Station streams are hard to find, and curated poorly. (Apple, for example, has buried their selection, never provided a way to search, and worse.) Common wisdom in music radio programming (e.g. playing the shit out of hit songs) doesn't fly online. There are too many station apps, and too many of those suck. The aggregation apps (TuneIn and the rest) are hard to navigate, change constantly, and try desperately (and poorly) to be "social."
  • But the biggest problem is that over-the-air radio is an anachonism: so stale that it's starting to smell dead. Even its founding metaphors no longer make sense.
  • The term "station," for example, suggests a place, and "channel" a conduit. Those metaphors worked for the eight decades (roughly 1927 to 2008) when radio was mostly an over-the-air thing, transmitted in one direction to local and regional audiences by licensed entities assigned by governments to a finite array of frequencies. And there wasn't an app for it.
  • Now anybody can stream or podcast to the whole world over a medium that puts everybody at a functional distance apart of zero. Yes, there are costs, but they are radically different than the old ones. So is the tech. Servers aren't transmitters, and apps aren't radios, despite the similarities. Servers and apps can do many more things, many more ways, including countless current and future interactive ones.
  • More importantly, people are no longer tied down by time and space. They can listen to what they want, when they want, and participate as well. The means aren't perfect, but they're good and easy enough for the norms to start shifting toward maximized listener choice.
  • Radio also has another problem, which it shares with TV: a compulsion to fill up the day with whatever it can. Again, this is a requirement of "stations" on "channels."
  • But what if the stuff people want to hear (or watch) isn't on the air (or online) round the clock? What if they only want to hear a show at a time that suits them? Or what if they just want to hear something good, that isn't a "station" or a "channel," but simply comes from a source that's likely to have good stuff?
  • These questions could never have been asked in radio's long golden age. Answers to them are cracking the old media apart, like an ice cap breaking into floes. Or flows.
  • IheartMedia (née Clear Channel) knows this well, which is why they've moved their center of gravity from over-the-air radio to the Net. Their iHeart player app is about the whole company more than any one station: evidence that the company wishes to be as far as possible ahead of the curve when AM and FM listening collapse, and stations are worth less than the ground they stand on. (One example: : WMAL-AM, which I wrote about in some depth here.)
  • And now, thanks to live metadata streams published by stations everywhere (both on the air and on the Net) it's possible to listen for the songs you like across all of them using RadioSearchEngine. Naturally, there are also apps that do the same thing. All of this further blurs the ancient framings of "stations" on "channels" with "coverage" within "ranges."
  • And then there's podcasting. Nearly all podcasts are talk, rather than music, since it's too onerous for podcasters to "clear rights" for every tune they play. So, if you want music on demand now, it's gotta come from a streaming source or — if you want to hear a particular song — a radio search engine or YouTube (which has the rights thing worked out somehow).
  • Now there's another podcast modality emerging as well. You can see and hear it with Dave Winer's Podcatch: a river of current podcasts that are likely to be interesting. To me that's the new talk radio. The difference is that I'm depending on Dave's taste rather than the program lineup of an old-fashioned radio station. And if Dave has his way (which he will), the new "stations" for podcasts will be the listeners' own rivers of them.
  • Not that I don't like radio. I love it and hope the best stations, program producers and distributors adapt to the new world where listeners are in charge. I've even put up some good advice for the radio business, here and here.
  • Meanwhile apps, which include many of today's virtual radios, are hardly the victor here. They're just scaffolding toward a future that is hardly designed, much less built. All the ideas, insights and rationalizations about apps are provisional. Paul Adams, for example, levers all three, plus a hearty dose of irony, into The End of Apps as We Know Them, and It's Not the End of Apps. John Battelle calls apps "chicklets," with good reason, and offers up some provisional thinking of his own. (Those links were from last June and September. Not sure where John's at with all of it now, though I am sure he's ready to point in other new directions.)
  • Whatever happens, the new context for radio is the Internet: a place where everybody can contribute, and "content" is far less bound (if at all) by time and space. So the trick at every moment is to be mindful of the end state while leveraging the best of old and new conventions, all of which are provisional.
  • What isn't provisional, at least in the near term, are copyright laws and music licensing terms, some of which have been around for a century and more. (The historical parts of this slide deck — 1 to 24 — unpack the main items.) If we were to zero-base them today, they would be totally different, or would not exist at all. But they do exist, and as a context they are huge.
  • "Law is the practice of rules in the context of deals, and Lincoln believed in both," Adam Gopnik writes (in Angels and Ages: a Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, which I highly recommend). How long and well old-fashioned radio lives will depend on exactly that principle, since everything on AM and FM lives in the rule & deal filled space Bob Frankston calls "The Regulatorium."
  • So watch the most enterprising players do things that make no sense except within the context of rules & deals. For example, last year Pandora bought KXMZ, a radio station in South Dakota. Why? By being a "real" broadcaster with a licensed station playing music, Pandora would pay only 1.7% of its revenues to ASCAP rather than the 1.85% required of music streamers that don't also broadcast the old fashioned way. (More here. And yes, it's very complicated.)