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This article was published on April 22, 2011

How radio looked at the past to find its future

How radio looked at the past to find its future
Brad McCarty
Story by

Brad McCarty

A music and tech junkie who calls Nashville home, Brad is the Director TNW Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @BradMcCarty. A music and tech junkie who calls Nashville home, Brad is the Director TNW Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @BradMcCarty.

Here at TNW we’re spending the week talking about the future of media. You might remember a few days ago when I did a post about In it I talked about the difficulties that terrestrial radio had when it came to competing on the macro scale on which internet radio and cloud services operate.

Given my own background in radio and the fact that I come from a childhood where my Dad always worked in it, I figured that it was worth the time to look at how terrestrial radio is forming its own future in order to stay relevant. Over the years, traditional radio has made a lot of mistakes in trying to become something that it wasn’t rather than focusing on its inherent strengths. So let’s spend a bit of time looking at both sides of this equation.

Setting The Stage

To start it’s worth noting the things that terrestrial radio was trying to compete with. With album sales declining, handheld digital music on the rise and generational format preferences changing radio found itself in a position of wanting to be everything to everyone.

One of the most obvious places that I started to see evidence of this was in the rise the Jack format. Radio saw many people opting to listen to their own music collections and noted the somewhat eclectic nature of them. In order to try to compete with the iPod, Jack was born. The idea was that if you took songs that everyone knew and played them without the typical curation that you would see in a radio station it would mimic the iPod experience.

There were a couple of deadly mistakes with this train of thought. First, the typical iPod owner’s music collection goes far deeper than just #1 hits. Jack-fm also operated under the belief that no listener wanted to have a DJ interrupting their music. Other formats of radio, in order to cut costs and also seemingly in taking a cue from the Jack format, disposed of their DJs as well. In doing this radio had eliminated the topical, to-the-minute source of information for which it was famous.


Fast forward a few years through the hemorrhaging of listeners who no longer had a reason to listen and radio learned a very hard lesson. The first thing that had to be re-learned was an adage that had held true for many years previously — see it tonight, read about it tomorrow or hear it right now. Radio needed to focus on its local, information driven strength on which it was built.

The other lesson that radio had to learn was balance. While it was important to have advertising, I saw stations running 18 (and in one case even 24) commercials in an hour. What you were left with, after station identifiers, DJ vocal breaks and the other “non-music” elements, was somewhere around 35 minutes of music in an hour. That might be great for the bottom line, but it sucked a lot for the listeners.

As that listenership dropped, so too did the advertisers’ combined interest in high-priced radio commercials and that bottom line bore the brunt of the problem. It took time but radio had to learn how to do more with less. Exclusivity and creative, effective advertising became the selling point, rather than massive availability.

What listeners were moving to, increasingly, were their own collections. Those who wanted that radio feel were inclined toward online services such as Last.FM and Pandora. In short, they wanted music, with a minimum of commercials. But what they were missing is what “real” radio could offer.

Fixing The Problems

In the past couple of years, many radio companies have done an admirable job of fixing the problems and innovating to provide something more than what jukebox-style online stations could give. Facing facts, people still wanted local, topical information. Radio was still where they turned when severe weather hit or when breaking news was happening and they were in the car. Focusing on these strengths, while driving forward with interaction, is what has set some radio stations apart from a weakening crowd.

It’s not uncommon, these days, to see a radio station that also streams its content online. Increasingly though, we’re seeing stations that are letting the listeners have a true voice in the musical programming choices of the station. They’re optimizing the experiences of their websites, providing song samples, lyrics and links to purchase tracks. These stations are learning from that interaction and tailoring their broadcast material to meet the preferences behind the information.

What we’re seeing, from smart stations and conglomerates, is a healthy mix between online presence and on-air content. From Facebook integration to promoting that social media presence via the DJ’s, radio has found itself growing up all over again, finding itself providing the things that worldwide, non-local broadcasts simply can’t.

The future of radio is still somewhat in question. While it’s highly unlikely that terrestrial radio as we know it will ever die, it will absolutely evolve into something far more than it is today. That evolution — its ability to adapt to new technologies while holding true to its advantages — is what the future holds. How it is implemented will be the difference between those who make it and those who are left wondering.