Drew Carson’s new Radio Haver magazine features an article which poses the question: Is Radio Dead? That’s a question I was asked dozens of times in my radio career and one that I and other radio folk try to answer again in Drew’s fine new publication. In the 25 years that I worked for the BBC, I heard countless strategists (usually slumming it from TV) predict the demise of radio. They always got it wrong, just as they got it wrong when they predicted the death of network television and hard-copy books. In each case, the analysts always seemed to be in thrall to the possibilities of digital technology and overlooked key factors in the popularity of the old stuff.
I love my Amazon Kindle, but I dont take it into the bath and it doesnt look good on my bookshelf. Sure, we’ve seen cassette tapes replaced by CD’s and CD’s replaced by online music dowloading and streaming services. That evolution happened because the new technology wasn’t just better or more convenient that the one before, but because it offered a direct replacement for it. Just as on-demand movie services like Netflix offered a direct replacement for video rental shops like Blockbuster, but only a partial replacement for broadcast television. Millions might binge-watch the next series of The Crown on Netflix, but millions will also enjoy the shared Saturday-night experience of watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC 1.
Streaming music services don’t offer a direct replacement for the convenience and companionship offered by live radio services and neither do podcasts. In the U.K. commercial radio owners like Global and Bauer are investing heavily in creating more linear radio stations (funded, sadly, by reducing spend on local content). The BBC, meanwhile, is gambling licence-payers money on the creation and continued promotion of BBC Sounds and the Director of Radio, James Purnell, clearly thinks that radio is heading for the same on-demand future as television. Yet, when you ask people which BBC podcasts they actually listen to, most people point to those connected to existing radio programmes, the kind of programmes they used to find easily on the BBC’s radio iPlayer. Those arent real podcasts, they’re just time-shifted radio shows.
That’s not taking anything away from the work that BBC producers are putting into genuine, specially produced stand-alone podcasts, but the audiences for those are tiny compared to the BBC’s live radio output. Many BBC podcasts are superb, but they are not a replacement for live radio. If anything, they’re filling a gap left by long-form print journalism. The independently produced podcasts you hear curated on Radio Haver offer the kind of specialised music and cultural content that isnt available on linear radio. So again, not a replacement but an alternative.
I’m sure James Purnell’s strategy is being informed by the the kind of detailed and expensive analysts’ reports that I saw time and again in my BBC years. He wont be making this stuff up as he goes along or woking from a hunch. His previous career in politics offers no clue to any hitherto hidden expertise in broadcasting, so he must, surely, be relying on the expertise of others.
In that case, commercial radio owners investing their company coffers in the future of live radio must be wrong…and the BBC is right. The alternative explanation is more worrying; that radio isn’t dead, but the BBC is trying to kill it.
Meanwhile, here’s the link to the Radio Haver magazine.