To find media’s future, look at radio’s past

On Wednesday 18 March 2015, I was talking at Rethink Media, Birmingham City University’s Annual Media Conference. I spoke in a panel, and we were each given five minutes to talk at the beginning. As I normally do, I wrote my speech, and then didn’t read it out — adlibbing a few parts of this, reflecting the more relaxed feel of the day. Here’s the speech in full.

I call myself a radio futurologist. I’m a writer, speaker and analyst concentrating on the future of radio. I’ve worked for the BBC, for Virgin Radio and companies in Europe and the US, helping prepare radio for what’s next.

Now, you might think that radio is yesterday’s technology. Actually, 9 out of 10 of us tune into the radio every week. That makes radio more popular than Twitter, more popular than Facebook, more popular than email, and more popular than the internet itself.

You might think that radio is old-fashioned. But actually, when we tune into the radio at home, we’re more likely to be doing it through a new technology like DAB or the internet than old-fashioned FM. And no wonder, since radio has embraced the mantra of choice, with three times the number of stations on new broadcast platforms than analogue.

You might think its audience is dropping: yet radio is actually seeing record numbers of people tuning in. Ah, you’ll say, but I bet the audience are spending less time with radio. And you’d be right, I admit. Total time spent listening is down. The last ten years have seen the invention of the iPhone, widespread broadband, Facebook, YouTube, 4G and the BBC iPlayer. Yet radio listening is only down by 8%.

Radio is, of course, better than TV. Not only is the picture quality much better, but it is a multitasking medium, letting you enjoy radio while engaged on something else: driving, cooking, doing an essay, tweeting, on Facebook. It’s an opportunity no other media has.

Personalisation is one of the opportunities that the internet brings. We’re already on the way there — NPR One is a great free app which gives you your very own personalised news station. A new app launched this week in Europe called Omny mixes the best bits of radio with a personalised music selection and even a skip button.

It is the human connection that radio offers which is responsible for its strength. That is radio’s unique content. I think that is an opportunity for all new services: not just a blind computer algorithm but a human connection, a shared experience. Personalisation with personality.

Producers have an amazing opportunity — with many more ways to create great audio: more stations, more platforms like podcasting, SoundCloud, AudioBoom and, yes, YouTube which contains a large amount of audio.

Far from being an old-fashioned medium, radio is quite the reverse: beating TV into the on demand world by seven years and streaming live online for even longer. User generated content? We started radio phoneins in the early 1970s in the UK, and interactive request shows in the 1930s. Radio reacted to new challenges from television, the Walkman and the iPod by reinventing itself: and it’ll carry on doing so.

So, odd as it sounds, if you want to know the future of media, you could do a lot worse than to look at what radio’s already done to stay relevant. It’s much to show the rest of the media world, if you’d only listen.