We’ve been broadcasting for 1000’s of years, but is it still radio?

March 2, 2009 on 11:41 am | In blog | Comments Off

So the farmer, for thousands of years, sowed his seed on the furrowed ground of a ploughed field; the fertile imagination and ingenuity of man planted the seeds of wireless mass communications in the late 1800’s and radio blossomed a few years later, for entertainment and information. Rather than invent a new word to describe this new medium the English language did what it’s good at and repurposed an old word from a totally different place – the world of the farmer, that most ancient of human industrial activity, was suddenly propelled to the forefront of technology as we began to “broadcast” through the ether.

There are many claims as to who invented radio, with many famous names in the roll call of honour… Maxwell, Marconi, Edison, Franklin, Tesla and Faraday are just some of the illustrious ones that contributed towards the development, exploitation and commercialisation of radio as we know it today.

As the first genuine mass media for entertainment and information, radio represented a leap forward in human-to-human communication and the business of radio created its own momentum; jargon and jobs, tools and techniques. Editing is editing, the fact that it’s digital today is neither here nor there; all digital has done is to recreate the analogue method on a flat screen. 

Everything was set, in the analogue world there was binary measurement. It was broadcast or it wasn’t; shellac, then vinyl, disks were pressed and sold, count them one by one. A royalty payments system was easy to devise, implement and enforce.

In the digital world, it’s all very different. Actually no, it isn’t all very different, but it depends on what you mean by “all”. Digital delivery can be different and whole new experiences can be created for content consumption. But the core of what program makers do remains the same; quality production values for quality content, though it is true some of the tools have changed.

Much of the “digital revolution” that causes the heartache and pain felt by the industry is in delivery or distribution, not production. In the digital distribution world it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to monitor units delivered so the nice cosy world of royalty payments has crumbled to dust.

No longer are the public, our audiences, interested in preset programme schedules, partly because there are more channels or sources to choose from, but also society is more fluid, more fragmented. This means that the constant stream of the realtime broadcast isn’t as important as it once was, as the unmissable has become unmissable. 

A chum of mine makes the point that he can use an iPhone app to program his PVR from anywhere in the world to find “content” on a given topic; these TV shows are recorded and he can watch them whenever suits him. Being a smart chap he can download to iPhone and watch wherever suits as well. There is no reason, in principle, why his search couldn’t also include radio-style content, or any content such as blogs, for that matter.

So here’s an irony – linear broadcast TV is being used to deliver content to a non-linear digital device.

Marketers have a concept of core and augmented services, or products. The core service in the case of radio is the radio show – as it always has been. Until the advent of digital, there were very few ways in which this core service could be augmented; a listing in the Radio Times was about the only way for a long time, followed by a basic level of interactivity by way of the telephone phone in.

Today there are a plethora of options for augmented services; blogs, Twitters, Facebook profiles, Myspace, txt msg, MSN, Ning & other Social Networking sites… There is an argument that says these services ARE the new radio as they are being consumed at the same time by the new audience as the show… but they are not the core service offering. 

It is vital that the content of a radio station is paramount – you can’t have radio with moving pictures otherwise you’re simply re-inventing TV and although the internet audience is more forgiving in terms of production values, there is a threshold below which as a professional, one wouldn’t want to drop. 

The beauty of radio is that it doesn’t have pictures – it’s pure audio. This allows the listener, the LISTENER, to do a host of other things whilst listening. This could be driving a car, or papering the walls, or responding to a discussion thread on a blog. It’s difficult to do this as effectively with television, because that medium required the attention of eyes. 

However all of the added value web 2.0 stuff that falls into the “augmented service” does consume eyeballs. So radio now is a full multimedia experience if those options are used. But the prime function of augmented services is to drive ears towards the core service offering of the radio show.

So new skills are needed in the world of audio content – traditional radio as well as podcasts – but those new skills are all about promotion of shows, brand building and retention of ears.

But the totality of the new offering, the combination of core service and augmented service, isn’t radio – perhaps we need to re-invent another word to precisely capture what it is. Perhaps, as web 2.0 tools allows such personalisation of services, broadcasters should begin to think of themselves as “narrowcasters”.

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