Is radio dead? This futurist thinks so

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland


Ben Hammersley is a very clever man. He’s a “futurist”, and sports a very fine Victorian bushy moustache and some fancy arm tattoos. He writes for Wired magazine and The Guardian. The word “hipster” might have been coined for him; but then, he coined the word “podcast”, which is quite a claim to fame.

He spoke at Radiodays Europe this year in Vienna. Radiodays is a great event, if a chilly one for someone flying direct from the end of Australian summer into sub-zero temperatures. I didn’t pack a coat. Perhaps I should have done, it was bloody freezing.

Hammersley’s schtick was, predictably, that radio is dead. He drew parallels with Kodak, who failed to notice how quickly the world was changing.

Radio delegates streamed out of his talk, slightly deflated. “I’ve just been told that radio is dead” one of them told me, “so I’m not quite sure what I’m doing at a radio conference.”

When technologists proclaim radio as “dead”, I like quoting the UK’s Chief Scientist, Lord Kelvin, who in the late 1800s confidently predicted that we’d never build a flying machine, that X-rays were a hoax, and that radio had no future. Kelvin later admitted that he was wrong – about X-rays, even getting his hand x-rayed – but he never lived long enough to see his predictions about radio proved similarly incorrect.

Ben’s belief that radio is dead isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. By ‘radio’, he means linear transmissions; and he believes that audio has a good future – indeed, he claimed: “We are living through a golden age of audio, more people are listening than ever before and the diversity of programmes is better than ever.”

There’s no doubt that on-demand audio is growing. Podcasting, naturally, but also the use of personalised apps like those from NPR, Capital, Kronehit and a new personalised radio app that’s been promised (again) by the BBC. Currently, we’re mainly generating audio for these things by taking our linear broadcast and editing it, after broadcast, into small chunks for these apps.

The radio industry, so far, has been keen not to interfere with live radio. Instead, in the main, digital teams are forced to take pieces produced for one medium and crudely refashion them for another. Our desire to feed the transmitter has taken precedence over our desire to create great audio that works on-demand as well as live.

I don’t believe that linear transmissions are “dead”, especially in the next three years. In most countries, 90% of people listen every single week to linear radio. That is simply not going to disappear quickly.

However, much of live radio is also lazy radio: unpolished and under-produced. The difference between the production values of the New York Times’s “Daily” and a typical morning news programme on the BBC, ABC or NPR is stark. A three-hour chunk of audio is unwieldy and a poor experience when compared to well-produced short-form content.

At some point, we need to avoid our own Kodak moment. Rethinking how radio is produced is vital: and better to think about that now instead of when we’re forced to.

About The Author

James Cridland, the radio futurologist, is a conference speaker, writer and consultant. He runs the media information website and helps organise the yearly Next Radio conference. He also publishes, a daily briefing on podcasting and on-demand, and writes a weekly international radio trends newsletter, at

Contact James at [email protected] or @jamescridland