Is it time to wave radio goodbye in the 2020s? Broadcasting audio across the airwaves seems antiquated. Do we not live in a world of virtual reality and TikTok videos, our eyes continuously glued to a screen? The 2020s are going to be hard on radio. All the secular trends are moving against it, are they not?
In fact, radio consumption is still high today. According to the industry research body RAJAR, radio reaches 88% of the UK population in a given week. The average daily listening time is also high at 2.5 hours. What bodes well for radio is that these numbers have only budged slightly over the past five years. According to consultancy Deloitte, it is actually TV consumption that is dwindling, decreasing three times faster than radio.
So, how is radio consumed? It is usually listened to in cars and in the home. We are all very familiar with radio playing during commutes or while tending to the chores at home. It is a diverse medium. We sing along, barely notice it playing in the background or are intensely focussed on the analysis and discussion it provides.
And radio is not just an old habit that dies hard. There have been remarkable recent successes in radio broadcasting. The Financial Times ran a fascinating feature on how LBC has grown its audience from 1.2m to 2.6m weekly listeners over the past five years. It has achieved this remarkable feat by tapping into the contentious debates of our times and engaging with its listeners along the way.
Radio’s ongoing strength, however, should not be overinterpreted. It will be reshaped – and indeed it already is – by the same fundamental trends that have reshaped the TV landscape. Listeners and viewers increasingly discover that they need not be bound by the schedule and programming of their local broadcasters. Accessing streaming services opens up a world of variety, and the flexibility it provides will eat into traditional radio’s market.
The question is not whether video has killed the radio star. On-demand content is making traditional programming redundant. Both video and audio as media will thrive, it is the way we consume them that is going to change.
Streaming services have already taken over our music libraries. As they get better at implementing discovery and radio features, they provide for a much more tailored listening experiences than most traditional radio stations can offer.
As the technology we use to consume these will be more seamless, people will start trading their FM for their own programming. ‘Smart technology’ such as voice activated speakers, headphones and home technology and the integration of internet into cars will do their part.
But it is podcasts that I am personally most bullish on. Podcasts have been gaining traction for a while now and the 2010s have seen the medium go mainstream. We have seen blockbusters such as the ‘Serial’ podcast or the New York Times’ ‘The Daily’ that draw in millions of listeners. At the same time, podcasting remains creative and quirky with much content coming from talented independent creators.
However, professionalization seems to be underway. Spotify, the Swedish streaming company, has vowed to double down on the medium. It has redesigned its app to feature podcasts prominently next to music. The company sees itself as transitioning to being an ‘all-audio company’. And it is putting its money where its mouth is. In 2019 alone, it has spent 400m USD on acquiring three podcasting houses. A smart business move, me thinks. The medium fills a gap. It democratises access to quality content and connects creators with consumers. It is repeating with radio what streaming did to TV.