Remember that infuriating 1979 single by ‘The Buggles’ – Video Killed the Radio Star? As it turned out video (or TV for that matter) still hasn’t killed radio as a media of choice but there was a time a few years back that the entire radio industry in the UK thought its days were numbered. Well, almost the entire industry.
I stumbled unintentionally into working in the radio industry some 17 years ago into what was then a fledgling station founded in 1985 with a pioneering format for commercial radio in one of the most competitive media markets on the planet – London. Unlike many I’ve seen come and go for job interviews at our place, I’ve never wanted to get behind the mic and so apply for any job going in radio in the hope of wheedling my way into the on-air Studio. I have been on-air several times but not by intent. I have always loved radio from childhood. I may have been one of the youngest followers of the classic BBC radio drama ‘The Archers’ when I remember lying on the top bunk in my shared bedroom with my kid brother Geoff and scrolling through the radio channels on an old beat up battery operated transistor radio at night with just one ear (never had twin earphones in those days). I remember stumbling across this drama and hearing the people in it spilling out their lives for all to hear. It was a bit like waking up in the night to hear your neighbours in a fight. I couldn’t see their faces or what they were wearing or what their expressions looked like. In real life I knew my neighbours and so could have pictured the scene, but the wonder of the radio drama was that I could imagine how they looked. In fact, I could imagine everything. What colour hair they had, the look in their eyes, which way their tears fell, what their bedroom decor was like, what their house looked like even what their entire village looked like or what weather they were experiencing for goodness sake. That’s the key to my continuing love of radio – it fired my imagination as child and it still fires that side of me today. That its future as part of our media landscape was under any threat should have caused me to be concerned not only for my living but for my pleasure. But I was never truly that worried.
I attended many industry conferences a few years back that brought public and commercial radio together in a shared concern for our futures versus a common enemy – the iPod. Of course iPod was not the only villain of its kind at the time among the general mix of ‘MP3 players’, but everyone at those conferences knew the awesome potential of Apple’s wonderchild. Most of us owned one and so we knew how dangerous the enemy was. OK, so I exaggerate a little. The corporate angst of the radio industry wasn’t all aimed at just one product. It was at the rise of the digital media age in general and it wasn’t just radio that felt threatened but all media or what we now call ‘old’ media. The primary cause of our angst was that we, the media, were no longer in control of what the public read, listened to or watched and the iPod summed up in a pocket-sized atom bomb that our days as controllers of what people consumed via the media were over. With the advent of the Digital Age where ordinary people can choose what media they want when they want and how they want, media schedules became redundant to a large extent. For commercial media relying on the revenue generated from the ad breaks (ie my livelihood) the forecast was dire. Ordinary citizens could blitz the ads away just as they could pick and choose what they wanted to watch and listen to. In radio, there was the corporate fear “OMG! The plebs don’t need us anymore! They can even create their own radio stations and share their play-lists with each other! We’re doomed! DOOMED! Oh woe WOE!”. Believe me, it is really not a pleasant experience to be in a conference of radio professionals when there is a corporate wailing and gnashing of teeth going on, especially as many of those teeth are false and tend to drop out and I really don’t want to go into the horrors of public group gum gnashing.
The reason I never felt the corporate fear roots back to my childhood love of the medium of radio, the thing that filled my mind with colour and moving images through hearing the spoken word. I guess in that sense radio and print are close cousins. Both fire imagination through words whereas TV imposes its images on you. Where radio and print part company is that print is more selfish and demanding than radio. As with TV, print demands you drop what you are doing and pay attention to it. You can’t drive and read or cook and read or iron and read or mow the lawn and read. You can do all those things and more with radio. That is the essence to the longevity of radio. The relationship the listener has with radio is unlike that with any other media. Radio is almost like a friend. It can be there burbling in the background when you are busy and wherever you are busy but when you get those rare moments alone when you can ease your shoulders just a bit, radio softly turns up its volume inside you and your mind can be transported elsewhere for a few moments while carrying on with your life. The radio station I work for has an extraordinarily close relationship with our audience according independent market research. RAJAR (Radio Authority Joint Audience Research) is the current industry standard by which all radio stations have their audiences measured. It tells us that our listeners tune in for an average 12 hours per week – one of the highest loyalty factors of any British radio station. Think of what you could do with those 12 hours. Thing is….we’ve neither demanded or robbed our listeners of those 12 hours. While they have been listening to us, they have also been cooking their meals, finishing their assignments, collecting their kids from school…..
Radio ain’t going nowhere but is here to stay as long as it remains live, creative, intelligent, reactive, warm, friendly, feisty and retains the ability to get inside people’s heads and light the stage on the ‘theatre of the mind we all have within. Far from killing the radio star, iPod is actually revitalising him more than ever. An article covered in many sections of the media this week took a look at the top 25 apps of all time downloaded in the UK to date onto iPods, iPhones and the like. At number 7 on the list is an app called TuneIn Radio Pro. I have this app. It gives me access to hundreds of radio stations around the world. Its potency was never more vivid to me than when I was able to tune in to live radio from New Zealand in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake last year and hear the real live grief from the mouths of the people only being mentioned on the TV as they phoned into their radio stations in droves to vent their trauma.
All my thoughts so far have been from the viewpoint of a lover of speech radio, not music radio. I’m afraid I don’t really like music radio though I like many of its presenters and if there is any threat to the radio industry I see it more on that side. Radio is no longer the place you hear new music first and with so many music radio stations around, listener loyalty is virtually non-existent unless you have the best ‘talent’ (the presenters) that can keep itchy fingers off the dial between tracks and adverts. I love speech radio and of the many presets I have on my DAB radio the only stations on my shortcuts (apart from the one I work for) are BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, BBC World Service, BBC 5 Live, LBC and talkSport. Of these, the prince of all radio for me is the World Service. As someone who is an information addict, there is no other media I know that gives me such an insight on the world out of the headlines. The BBC has more news correspondents spread across the globe than any other news media and it’s the ‘behind the headlines’ reporting that I find so intriguing and enlightening compared to the (many) other news outlets I read, follow, listen to or watch. It’s my ‘star’ in Radioland yet soon it will undergo a major change in its operation that I’m not looking forward to. Some may not know this but while the World Service carries the BBC brand, it is not funded by the corporation but by the Government’s Foreign Office. It is essentially the Government’s PR media across the world broadcasting the voice of Great Britain to the four corners. That may make some uncomfortable that a media seen by so many across the world as beacon of free speech and all that is good about the UK is a Government tool. I might share that view if all I heard it broadcast was unquestioning of the UK, but I don’t hear that. I hear good decent journalism. The World Service will soon become part of the BBC family proper and therefore under the same management that could potentially ‘dumb’ it down as I have seen creeping into my 2nd love of all radio – Radio 4. It will also fall prone to the budget constraints that the BBC faces in general as so I await to see how that will play out in the corporation’s continuing claim to have the best network of foreign correspondents all over the world. I guess only time will tell.