Radio Week: Why radio is the ‘cockroach’ of media scuttling on despite the odds

The death of radio has long been predicted. Just think of that classic hit by The Buggles ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Yet, somehow good old radio has managed to sidestep every media tsunami heading towards it, surviving television and now living through the age of music streaming. But, how? 

Listen up

Though many might presume a gradual decline, radio is still hugely popular in New Zealand. According to the most recent commercial survey results released in November 2017 by GfK, 3.57 million people (86 percent) aged 10-plus listen to radio each week.

This is an increase from 3.36 million recorded from the previous results.

When looking only at the commercial results (without RNZ’s listener share), 3.32 million people, or almost 80 percent of New Zealanders aged 10-plus listen to commercial radio each week. This is an increase of approximately 150,700 people aged 10-plus on the final survey in 2016.

The average listening time (for commercial radio) is also very high, at 17 hours and 11 minutes each week.

Any media channel, new or old, would be happy with that level of engagement across the population. 

Against the odds

So, how is radio remaining so staunch in the face of these music-streaming giants?

We reached out to both Spotify and Apple Music to find out about their popularity in New Zealand, but unfortunately, the media juggernauts don’t release country-specific subscriber or listenership numbers.

However, in an interview from 2015, Spotify Australia and New Zealand former managing director Kate Vale said Spotify had a high take-up of premium subscriptions in New Zealand.

“The average conversion rate sits at about 25 percent but in New Zealand, we are sitting in the low thirties. This means we have a huge audience and it’s a great opportunity for brands to target passionate music lovers in an engaged manner,” she said.

At the moment, Spotify is the world’s most popular streaming service and has 157 million users, including over 71 million subscribers, across 65 markets. However, it’s yet to turn a profit.

Slowly gaining on it is Apple Music with around 36 million paying subscribers, according to The Verge. Google and Amazon are also investing billions into their own streaming platforms.

One of the earliest music-streaming platforms, Pandora, shut down in New Zealand and Australia last year after struggling to compete with those mentioned above.

But, despite the popularity of these music-streaming platforms, they don’t appear to have deterred radio listeners in New Zealand.

MediaWorks group content director Leon Wratt says radio’s edge over the streaming giants is its emotional pull and the personalities on air.

“We make sure we have brands and personalities people love to listen to. You might hate them, love them, cry, whatever,” he says. “We try to evoke some kind of emotional reaction.”

Adapt or die

For media to survive in this day and age, it needs to be everywhere. We’re not just finding radio in our cars or blaring out of our alarm clocks, we can listen through our computers, our smartphones, our tablets, we can even watch radio.

In fact, Wratt affectionately refers to radio as the “cockroach” of all media. It’s everywhere and seemingly indestructible.

One stand-out example of its adaptability is The Edge TV, which MediaWorks launched in 2014 to replace long-running C4, successfully pushing radio into television.

It also has its own streaming platform, Rova, which Wratt says gets about a million streams per month and has had over 300,000 downloads.

NZME’s equivalent, iHeartRadio, is also performing well, according to NZME group content director Mike McClung.

“We now have over 750,000 registered users and the vast majority of listening on iHeartRadio is to our terrestrial stations,” he says. “Smart speakers will only be positive for radio in that they will further reinforce radio usage in the home and we’ve recently launched ZM and Newstalk ZB on Alexa [Amazon’s cloud-based voice service].”

He says iHeartRadio is continuing to grow and its unique users average over 300,000 each month.

“We’ve invested heavily to ensure our brands have the best talent,” he says. “The role of video and social means these brands and personalities are part of listeners lives and daily routines whatever device they’re on.”

NZME also posts and live-streams a lot of video content of its radio hosts from inside its studio.

RNZ has taken big steps to expand from traditional radio. It’s teamed up with the likes of Te Papa and NZ on Air for a podcast series, and regularly posts its own video online for shows like Checkpoint with John Campbell.

In 2016 RNZ even teamed up with Fairfax, signing a deal that allowed Stuff to publish audio and video from RNZ.

According to the broadcaster’s website, in February this year, RNZ had 1,478,941 unique audio downloads, up 21 percent on February 2017. There were also 262,100 requests for on-demand audio on the website.

From ears to pockets

With a high listenership and ability to reach ears and eyes in a number of places, radio has remained attractive to advertisers, and Wratt believes it’s a better choice for advertisers than Spotify or Apple Music.

“I [pay for]Apple Music and Spotify. So, no advertisers are reaching me. All I’m doing is picking up my record collection and listening to it,” he says.

“Spotify do have a free service but from what I hear you just can’t get the cut through or the reach. We get a lot of people coming into radio who need an ad for today and need to reach half-a-million people. We can do that. But you’re only getting ‘x’ amount of ads on Spotify per hour.”

AUT’s Dr Matt Mollgaard says radio has become much better at telling advertisers’ stories, measuring audiences and delivering targeted and precise campaigns.

“It has solidified its techniques for getting key messages to audiences and it has become even more cost-effective as it has developed stronger ratings and listenership research data gathering technologies and strategies.”

Listening ahead

But, what about the future of radio? Will it remain relevant? What if AM/FM frequencies are shut down in favour of digital, will radio still have that same reach?

The radio realm and advertisers have nothing to worry about at this stage, assures Mollgaard.

“Most New Zealand broadcasters are signed up to their frequency leases until around 2030, and they have the right to renew. The ease with which you can transmit radio on AM and FM compared to other technologies like wifi – which is to low power and very costly to run – means predicting the end of broadcast radio is a mug’s game.”

If anything, radio will increasingly expand into digital broadcasting using the radio spectrum, he says.

McClung seems optimistic and says radio and streaming services can all co-exist. “Radio offers a local connection through its talent and content that Spotify and Apple Music can’t.”

Despite the supposed threats coming after radio, like the cockroach, it seems like it’ll be around a long time yet, shocking us, surprising us, and carefully laying its advertising messages. 

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

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