Dear Radio: Learnings from intl radio stories of the year so far
by Paulo Dias (@therealptp) Six months into 2017 is a good checkpoint to pause and see what is happening in radio internationally and examine what we may learn.
Norway switches from FM to DAB+
Norway has been one of the first countries to start shut down of its FM broadcasts and move over to broadcast on DAB+, with the aim of having the whole country and most-listened-to stations turned off FM by the end of the year.
DAB+ is broadcast radio, just like FM. It does require a new receiver, but offers extra choice to listeners as more stations may be accommodated. It also gives listeners a better user-experience with show and “now playing” information. There’s no consistent improvement on quality over FM and DAB+ is not an imminent FM-killer.
It’s often asked why stations are bothering with DAB+ when streaming is so prevalent; shouldn’t they just all move online like streaming video services? The problem with this argument is that, unlike Netflix, Amazon and the like, there is no subscription model for radio and the more listeners and connections a station has, the more money it costs the station for their listeners.
Takeout for South African radio
Local DAB+ tests are ongoing and fully supported by the big local broadcasters. Old infrastructure and the pure size of the country are currently hampering rollout. A South African move to DAB+ shouldn’t be a priority as receivers, unless subsidised, will be expensive. Let’s not forget the biggest draw of radio in SA — it’s a free medium that doesn’t require fancy tech and takes information and entertainment to the furthest reaches of the country.
The one benefit would be the competition. Suddenly, more stations could join the conversation, forcing the established hierarchy to up their game.
Amazon Echo has a say
Classed as a smart speaker, the Amazon Echo has been one of the hot tech releases across the US and UK. No buttons, no remote control — it responds to voice prompts starting with the simple phrase “Alexa”.
Without having to pick up your phone, the Echo can tell you sports score, give you weather updates, read out Wikipedia entries, check your calendar… and, of course, tune in to radio stations.
Supporting apps such as RadioPlayer, Spotify, TuneIn, Prime Music and Audible, using the Echo as a “touch-free” radio lets you keep listening while in places where you may not be able to use your hands, such as washing up or during your morning shave.
Here’s a really simple video showing how the Echo works as a radio alternative:
Takeout for SA radio
Radio suffers from a lack of coolness. Radio doesn’t have gadgets or gimmicks and the Echo — and other similar voice-prompted devices and services — allows listeners to get on with their chores while still having full control of their music or radio station.
If voice-prompted speakers and devices start infiltrating the upper-income households, we could see a rise in podcast-listening and -production, giving those who are moving away from mainstream radio and audio infotainment more choice and a richer connection with the intimate storytelling power that only radio provides.
Beats 1 claims to be the biggest radio station in the world
I’m willing to beat you’ve never heard of Beats 1, despite the possibility that it’s sitting on most of your phones.
Run by Apple, Beats 1 was given the super shiny treatment that our Cupertino Overlord applies to all its products. Poaching prominent presenters from leading stations and building state-of-the-art studios in London, LA and New York, Beats 1 was validation that online radio has made it.
Larry Jackson, Apple Music’s head of content even claimed, “It’s the biggest radio station in the world. There’s no way you’re going to find another station that has as many concurrent listeners and audience-wise as Beats 1, period.”
He said “Period”, so argument over.
Except….there are no real stats to back up that claim, as is usually the case with the sometimes-murky measurements used by online radio platforms.
With some UK stations boasting over 10m listeners and even our own Ukhozi FM hovering around 7m — can Beats 1, a predominantly youth focused station with no physical connection to its audience, that lives mainly on mobile — really come near to that?
Takeout for SA radio
The radio stations that do well are the ones that capture the mood of a city or language group. Beats 1 presents itself as a radio station for digital citizens, not connected to one location.
I’m not sure that works: music can only connect for so long; eventually you want someone to relate to what you’re going through, even simple things such as cold snaps or traffic jams — listeners want to know that you get that.
Listening to a radio station broadcasting from LA to a kid in Cape Town loses its novelty once the music gets tired.
Also, there’s still an issue over listenership figures for online radio platforms. The local media industry understands buying radio in a certain way. While listenership measures for traditional radio are not perfect, they’re accepted and are right more often than wrong. Gut-feel anecdotes also play a part — more people talk about what they heard on Metro in the past few days than what happened on Touch HD. Until the online stations can prove and back up their numbers, they’ll find it hard to be considered by advertisers.
They also need to stop fighting against traditional radio. It’s not the enemy; effectively, we all want people to listen to something instead of watching or reading. Online radio is a complement to traditional; we should work to build each other up instead of having the online guys slamming broadcast as a dying medium every chance they get.
Paulo Dias (@therealptp) is the head of creative integration at Ultimate Media. He works closely with the programming teams at leading radio stations to help implement commercial messaging into their existing formats. He contributes the regular column, “Dear Radio”, looking at the changing radio landscape in South Africa, to MarkLives.com