Radio Week: Is radio the immortal medium?

Whether it’s played in traditional AM/FM broadcast form or via the many other ways possible since the internet, such as podcasts or online streaming, it would seem radio has the right formula to keep people tuning in for more.

Writer, consultant and public speaker, James Cridland, has worked in radio for nearly three decades and has been a radio futurologist for the last 15 years, helping radio companies understand what radio’s future may look like.

“The first job that I had in the radio industry I think says a lot about how radio has changed,” says Cridland, explaining his responsibility at a local radio station newsroom in England was to carry the station’s heavy, one-and-only mobile phone for its reporters.

“I think that says it all,” Cridland says, “The amount of technology that we use now has changed so dramatically in 25 years that you can actually see that now here we are walking around not just with mobile phones but with cameras and with computers in our pockets, connected to all kinds of things.”

Here radio has excelled as it can now be listened to beyond just the AM/FM channels that we are so familiar with in our cars.

“It’s the job of great radio stations to produce great audio content and that audio content goes everywhere not just on a transmitter but also on a podcast, online, on satellite radio or HD radio,” says Cridland. “There are lots of different ways of getting info to audiences and therefore, of course, getting advertisers’ brands in front of audiences as well.”

Malleable and opportunistic

As a medium, Cridland says radio has made the most of any advantages online capabilities have presented.

Although he now lives in Brisbane, he was born in the UK, which he says is a very multi-platform market for radio, with broadcast channels but also people tuning in via the TV, smart speakers and mobile apps. He says around 15 percent listen to radio via these alternative channels. “It’s a simple media but it actually allows you to get that content in a tonne of different areas as well,” he says. “It’s very clear that the future of radio isn’t just going to be FM and AM.”

Cridland launched the world’s first streaming radio smartphone app in 2005 when he was digital media director for the original Virgin Radio in London.

“We certainly found that there were lots of people who were tuning into us for the first time online rather than tuning in to us on radio and very much now you can see that radio stations are on five or six different platforms and that’s how they’re getting their audio across.”

This multi-platform ability is a fundamental part of radio, Cridland says. “It’s the medium that you can enjoy while you’re doing other things”, such as while driving. “That’s something radio really has that no other medium has in the same way and I think that’s something that is a real credit to radio, because it really is a unique thing that makes radio as listened to as it is,” he says.

In New Zealand, a 2017 survey found that almost 80 percent of Kiwis aged 10 years and above listen to commercial radio each week. This was an increase of around 150,700 people on the survey from 2016, showing radio continues to have a strong presence here and across a vast age range.

“It’s out of sight but it’s definitely not out of mind,” says Cridland. “When we get into the car, the radio automatically goes on; when I wake up, the radio goes on; when I’m doing the cooking, the radio goes on. It’s a very habit-driven media and I think, as with any addiction, it’s very hard to break that. I think nine out of 10 people really are genuinely addicted to tuning into the radio and that’s not a bad thing.”

He says with the choice of different media at our disposal, the time spent listening to radio has dropped slightly. “But the amount of people still tuning into the radio every single week is still very high if not actually increasing and I think that bodes well to where the future of radio is going.”

Smart speakers and connected cars

Since smart speakers came onto the scene, Cridland says many people have told him they have swapped them for their traditional radios. This could be seen as a bad thing, but he says many people use smart speakers to listen to the radio.

“So in a sense, it’s making radio easier because you don’t have to remember a random number which is always the bane of AM/FM – you have to remember a random number to find a radio station, where’s the sense in that?”

Smart speakers not only make the listening experience easier but they also make the activity more sociable.

“Radio has hugely been put into solo environments; your bedroom, the kitchen or the car,” Cridland says. “A smart speaker is typically put into a living room or on the deck… so you end up having a much more communal experience around the smart speaker and that’s good news for radio as well.

“It obviously means that radio needs to have very strong brands so that people know what to ask for and there needs to be a reason at the end of the day for you to want to have a listen. But as long as you get the reasons to listen right, then actually people will seek out your station on whatever device they happen to have.”

Although radio is already well listened to while driving, connected cars allow people to choose to listen to whatever they want. Cridland recalls a survey that asked people, if they could choose between a car with or without radio, what they would choose and people said they would prefer the radio in it.

“There was a wonderful quote out of it which said, ‘the radio is as essential as a steering wheel’, which I think says a lot in terms of how people view it.”

Developments such as programmatic campaigns and smart billboards are also influencing radio. “Programmatic is a really interesting area that radio has kind of always been in,” Cridland explains, in terms of certain channels that each have a certain audience playing certain kinds of music.

“So therefore, you’ve actually already got pretty nicely targeted ad-buy if you’re buying on that station. What programmatic allows you to do in an online world, of course, is to actually marry up individual audiences in a closer way, assuming that you actually have the data to enable that,” he adds. “It’s certainly something that radio brands are getting very canny at, in terms of using.”

Radio continues to modernise itself while retaining strength in its original channels, as Cridland notes that about half of radio is still listened to on AM/FM in the UK.

“It’s really interesting in that there is clearly an awful lot of excitement in where online fits in and clearly a huge part of the future of radio and of media in general, but I think it’s one of those things – it’s definitely part of the future, but it’s not ‘the’ future. I think broadcast radio will still be there for a long, long time to come.”

This story is part of a content partnership with The Radio Bureau.

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