This commentary originally appeared in 2018.
Ever since the inception of radio, nearly 100 years ago, pundits have been predicting its demise. Time and time again, the predictions fail because radio is one of the most adaptable technologies in the marketplace and continues to fill important niches for consumers.
For example, when television became a strong market force after World War II, radio was pushed out of its front and center living room position in the home. Radio responded by adapting to the mobile and portable environment. Today, the pundits are saying that streaming technologies are going to destroy radio, but radio is adapting around this challenge as well, offering streaming options as well as over-the-air programming.
And, so far, streaming has not overtaken radio as a primary engagement platform. According to United States Ratings giant Nielsen, more Americans still tune to AM/FM radio than any other platform, and 93 percent of U.S. adults listen to radio every week — “more than those watching television or using a smartphone, TV connected device, tablet or PC,” they say.
It isn’t just older listeners, either. According to Nielsen, as of 2017 radio has the largest reach with Gen X, with 97 percent of U.S. listeners aged 35 to 54 (80.5 million people) tuning in each month. Ninety-five percent of Millennials (18–34) tune in monthly. When combined with the Baby Boomer population, AM/FM radio’s monthly reach for listeners over 18 exceeds 243 million people in the U.S. alone.
In Malaysia, Nielson has radio’s weekly reach in 2015 increasing to 94 percent and continuing to grow. In the United Kingdom, radio reaches almost 90 percent of adults, with the average listener tuning in for over 21 hours per week (source: ofcom.org.uk).
In short, Radio Matters. Here are some of the reasons:
Radio is local
Unlike television, satellite broadcasting or most forms of streaming, radio is created and consumed locally, with local news and local advertisers. Even though print media is on the verge of demise in many areas, Radio still remains strong for informing you on what is going on in your area.
Radio is immediate
Nothing beats radio’s ability to provide up to date news from breaking events, as well as timely advertising. As compared to television, radio is quicker from the event to air, due in part to the reduced production time and quantity of needed equipment. It’s much easier to get remote coverage on the air using radio, especially with today’s technologies for feeding high quality audio back to the station over IP and other networks.
Radio is cost effective
Radio delivers many more consumers per dollar spent than most other media. As a result, targeted niche programming can be created and delivered at lower costs. Streaming services must create a new path for each listener, and the network and the server work harder with each listener. Radio doesn’t work like that — one transmitter handles the entire coverage area, regardless of the number of listeners.
Radio saves lives in emergencies
Time after time, when disaster strikes, the first thing that fails is the internet and cellular telephone networks. Radio stations are often the first to provide timely information to the population, which can be received by battery powered portable radios.
Radio is mobile
Unlike other media, radio is in the dashboard of most cars, and is carried by joggers and to the beach by millions of people weekly. Because of the transmission medium and consistent coverage from location to location, it’s ideal for automobile commuters. And with digital broadcasting technologies, a myriad of services such as real-time traffic updates including accidents or other incidents are available to listeners in their cars, giving them the information they need to pick the quickest route.
Radio reaches everyone
Many people in developing countries lack the money for a TV, and can’t read, but most still have access to a radio. This makes radio the most accessible media in the world.
Radio continues to adapt! As listeners become more sophisticated, radio is evolving to handle new demands for methods of listenership:
Radio in cellphones
Driven in part by emergency preparedness needs, over 30 million smartphones with FM radio capability will be sold in the U.S. in the next three years.
Digital in-band technologies
Digital radio systems, such as Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) and HD Radio offer clear, noise-free content over AM and FM bands, and often offer compelling new channels as well, over the same transmitter on the same channel as existing analogue stations.
Adoption is growing rapidly. Over 50 million digital radio receivers are in the marketplace today, with more than 5 million more being sold each year.
The country of India is on the way to providing digital radio coverage via DRM to more than a billion residents, having just completed installation of DRM-enabled transmitters in 33 cities throughout the country. Further, nearly a million DRM receivers are on the roads of India already.
An innovative approach using over the air AM and FM radio combined with a low bit rate reverse path over cellphone networks allows consumer interactivity and an enriched listening experience.
Emergency preparedness and alerts
Not only does radio offer the fastest ability to inform people after a disaster, with recent technologies in both digital and analog radio, it can warn listeners before an event, even turning on the radio and retuning the radio.
The above are real, and ready today — but the future of radio holds much, much more.
Single frequency networks
Imagine driving hundreds of kilometers, from one large city to another, and never re-tuning your radio, and never losing your program. State of the art technology allows each analogue or digital FM transmitter covering an area to be synchronized perfectly with others.
Eventual conversion to all digital
In some cities, digital radio penetration is nearing 50 percent in cars on the road. This is increasing the viability of turning off the analog portion of the transmitted FM signal, allowing up to 15 total digital audio channels to be broadcast on the same frequency, with the same transmitter. This means smaller cities could have more content choices without building many stations, and large cities could have hundreds of choices to compete with streaming.
Broadcasters in the U.S. are pursuing this possibility. Current testing includes an AM station in the metro Washington DC area, which received authorization to operate in a digital-only mode for a space of one year. Their test began in July 2018. Additional tests have been run over briefer periods at other AM and FM stations throughout the U.S.
There can be no doubt that radio is positioned to be an important source of news and entertainment for decades to come, thanks to it’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to market changes and to cutting edge technological developments.
At the time of publication the author was regional sales manager Asia/Pacific for Nautel.