Radio listening is as popular as ever. An average radio listener consumes 21 hours per week of live radio and almost 35 million people listen to a BBC Radio station in any given week. However, there is a false belief that radio listening is declining, which is perpetuated by those who claim that podcasting and streaming services are ‘killing off’ the medium. In a talk at Paris Electronic Week, the Head of Dance and Electronic Music at Spotify, Austin Kramer, reportedly claimed:
“Radio is of the past — it’s not relevant […] I think it’s just a matter of time before radio either adopts that philosophy and admit they are looking at things like Shazam and Spotify, or they die.”
James Stirling, Head of BBC Music disagrees, responding that radio may have changed over the years but audience figures show that it is just as relevant today*. Stirling went on to say that radio is not in danger, it simply needs to maintain the same enthusiasm in younger listeners as is present in the medium’s older listeners.
The disparity between the enthusiasm of younger and older listeners could be explained by the PR problem of traditional broadcasting. Radio isn’t continually shared online like YouTube videos, podcasts, and clickbait articles are, as such, the fast-paced nature of the online media environment drowns out what is otherwise a personal and direct method of consuming information.
Even so, podcasting has a discovery problem and suffers from an inability to search for, and share, points of interest — much like you can with YouTube videos. In the USA, This American Life is making audio shareable by transcribing all of their shows, as well as offering users an audio sharing app, Shortcut. Though few other media producers are being seen to leap forward in making radio accessible online in the ways that videos is.
We see embeddable videos on Facebook and Twitter, but Facebook audio is only just beginning to be tested and other social media platforms are making little to no advances in sharing audio. It is no wonder that heavy users of the internet and social media assume radio is not popular when the medium is not in front of them in the same way other platforms are. Only 27% adults aged 15+ listen on the ‘radio’ we all have access to, our smartphones, despite 65% of all adults aged 16+ using a mobile phone to get online.
The nature of podcasting
Despite live radio listening being surprisingly low on mobile devices, podcast listening is booming, with the popularity of podcasts and number of podcasts being produced continuing to rise. The low barrier to entry means anyone has the opportunity to host a programme, giving a voice to people who previously went unheard on-air. The democratisation of audio has diversified the industry in many of the same ways as when pirate radio offered more listening choice in the 1960s.
Podcasting offers more options for listening than can fit into a 24-hour broadcast schedule. Whilst some radio stations have little content available at night due to budget being placed into day-time programming, podcasts offer exactly what you want to listen to, when you want to listen to it. Podcasts are cheap to produce — producers don’t need to hire experts because they are the experts. Successful podcasts make money through a portfolio of funding; from listener donations, through sponsorships, to paid subscription.
As a product of this low barrier to entry, it’s common for podcasts to be low quality or only run for a period shorter than six months. However, over half of the top twenty podcasts on iTunes** are produced by major media companies such as the BBC, The Guardian, Sky, This American Life/WBEZ, with five of the top twenty being BBC Radio 4 programmes. Podcast listening isn’t included in the RAJAR figures listed above, meaning that even when listeners are listening to podcasts, they are also listening to radio, too.
In essence, both mediums are a method of audio distribution. Podcasting represents a DIY movement in audio production, although radio productions can be distributed as podcasts. This doesn’t mean to say that all podcasts are amateur, many of the most popular podcasts which aren’t taken from radio are produced by companies such as Gimlet, Relay FM and WNYC Studios.
At the time of writing, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are increasingly available and voice control is becoming ubiquitous. This poses a new platform for audio producers to distribute their content — a platform which could become central to a majority of homes. This technology means that any content is only a voice command away, reducing friction between listeners and the content they want to consume. This universal method of accessing audio will mean that we refer to audio to describe the content itself, and terms like ‘radio’ and ‘podcasting’ will simply be used to distinguish modes of delivery.
Two sides of the same coin
Above all, claims that radio’s reach is declining are unfounded. Listening is simply being fragmented across different platforms and methods of distribution. There are now more opportunities than ever for media professionals and aspiring media producers to produce content which can be listened to and enjoyed by the audiences they are targeting. If anything, social media, internet forums and podcast listening data gives more power to producers to tailor their productions precisely to listeners. For listeners, on-demand audio which is accessible in a number of taps on a smartphone screen means that exactly what they want to listen to is available when they want to listen to it.
It is more important than ever that radio embraces new technology whilst continuing to create what it excels at — live programming. By broadcasting unique events which can’t happen anywhere else, radio ensures that people are excited to tune in live, as well as being able to capture those moments for online release to be consumed later.
However, listeners aren’t bound by listening to programmes at the times stations air them. Choosing what you want to listen to allows for a more fulfilling listening experience, but that doesn’t mean radio is losing listeners to podcasting. In some cases, listeners may choose to listen to a BBC Radio 4 podcast instead of listening to whatever is live on Radio 4 right now.
The habits of younger tech-first listeners don’t reflect the entire market, though. Imagine a group of builders blasting out an episode of This American Life on site, a hair salon playing My Dad Wrote a Porno to all its clients, or a boutique flower shop with The Joe Rogan Experience broadcast from a small set of speakers behind the counter. Let’s not forget the everyday people who tune into the radio in the morning, on the way home, or whilst winding down after a long work day.
Listeners can now manage their own listening schedule and optimise everything they consume to suit their mood, the time of day or what they are doing at that moment. The idea of linear radio dictating times a consumer has to listen and what types of programming they listen to is dying, not the medium. This may become even more prolific as finding something new becomes only a voice command away.
Radio’s listenership has never been higher, likewise with podcasting. It’s dangerous to assume everyone has the same listening habits as us. It’s a great time for audio, we can at least agree on that.
Hi, what you’ve just read is a (very) abridged version of my undergraduate dissertation which studied how internet technology is affecting the ways in which young people are consuming audio media. I aim to publish more of my writing, research, and recommendations from this dissertation in the future. If you’d like to read more, follow me on Twitter for future updates.
*Personal Communication: James gave a guest lecture at Bournemouth University on 10th January 2017. When I asked him about the Austin Kramer quote, he said that he totally disagrees — radio has changed over the years but is just as relevant now — but the figures stand up. Consumption of radio dwarfs TV. Radio isn’t in any danger — the trick is how do we maintain the enthusiasm of older people in younger people listening to radio. Of digital content, he said that “the trick is getting the balance right and ensuring content is strong across the board”.
**At the time of writing, January 2017. As of publication, this statement still applies.