Why Is Radio Doing So Well in the Digital Era?

Contrary to what a lot of the tech types will tell you, radio is alive and well and profitable. Yes, margins aren’t what they used to be, but they can still run at the 35% level, which is pretty damn healthy. There’s plenty of competition from streaming music services and to a lesser extent satellite radio, but radio is working to adapt and evolve.

Somewhere around 90% of the population of Canada and the US use radio every week. How can anyone say “no one listens to radio anymore?” Britain’s The Spectator takes a look.

Who would have thought in this visually obsessed age of YouTube, selfies and Instagram that radio, pure audio, no images attached, nothing to hold on to but a voice, a tune, a blast of birdsong, could not only survive the arrival of the new image-making and digital technologies but experience an extraordinary flowering of talent and expression. Thousands of radio stations are popping up right across the globe, ready for you to tap into via your smartphone or tablet, taking you straight from SW9 or NE69 to Chicago, Cape Town, Lviv or Marrakech.

The quality of the sound produced by these stations is less important than an ability to draw in the listener, to tell a story, create a narrative, to use audio and nothing else to paint images in the mind. Radio might rely on technology for its transmission but its enduring power is not about clever computer-generated tricks (although there’s always room for digital diversion in the sound-effects department). No, radio’s real power is that it takes us right back into a pre-technological world, to a world of storytelling, of discovery through narrative, not in pictures but as an aural experience. We rediscover in radio the kind of world our ancestors knew, where stories were told and information gathered through human connection. It’s this that makes radio so much more potent than TV.

Orwell might have worried about the thought of having a screen in your room, its spying potential, the loss of privacy. But actually radio is far more scary as a mass-media phenomenon (as Goebbels recognised, calling it ‘the eighth great power’) because of the way it enters the mind, words spoken on air worming their way deep into the conscious and subconscious mind and sticking there, refusing to be dislodged.

Keep reading. (Thanks to Andrew for the link.)

Now having said all that, here’s an interesting article on how long is too long to wait for music when it comes to commercials.

On my way to work a few months ago, I was driving the other car, meaning the one without satellite radio. I was on my own, trying to function in the world of terrestrial radio, basically whatever I could find on my push-button radio.

I was about halfway into my 30-minute trip when this unidentified voice came on and said, “9 in a row” right after this. In radio terms, the phrase “right after this” means you’re about to hear a commercial cluster of anywhere from 6 to 13 minutes. For many it is the cue to start hunting for another station. The problem is, as you punch the buttons in rapid fashion, you run out of stations quickly because they all seem to play those dreaded commercials at the same time.

The radio industry has a term for the long ad clusters without music: They are called stopsets. For the remainder of my drive to work, I was simply a captive audience to the ads. That was it for my musical breakfast in the car.

Many years ago, radio stations played three or four songs then a few minutes of commercials then back to the music. Then, sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s radio consultants had an idea. They decided to stop the music once or twice an hour and play 8 to 12 minutes of commercials. The stopsets have now become an industry standard for the big broadcast companies that own hundreds of stations across the country.

There are some exceptions to the rule. Earlier this year, KNDD-FM in Seattle, an Entercom station, developed the “2 minute promise,” which means it will never run more than 120 seconds of commercials at one time. The alternative music station is ranked 9th out of approximately 35 stations surveyed.

“Once you get past 4 minutes of commercial time, you start losing listeners,” said Scott Gentry, the president and general manager of Summit Media, in Las Vegas.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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