Real radio ain’t no jukebox

Opinion from Peter Saxon

Every day some radio blogger will tell you that radio is doomed while another will say just the opposite. One thing, though, that everyone seems to agree on is that if “real” radio is under threat from music streaming then it’s best hope for survival is compelling content.

It’s not about technology – though it helps to keep up with it – it’s about engaging the listener through quality content. All the major network Content gurus from Craig Bruce and Paul Jackson to Duncan Campbell as well as triple j’s Chris Scaddan have made it clear to radioinfo readers that Content is King.

When they talk about ‘content’ they mean the on air talent and the material they create. Sure, the music is important. If, as a station, you play it, it has to be brilliantly curated – the best it can be. In the end though, no matter how well it’s mixed every station gets to fish from exactly the same music pond as every other.

The thing that has always separated Radio from your record player, cassette tape, CD stacker or iPod – or indeed, one station from another, has been the bits in between the music.

Although the perception in the marketplace may be that KISS106.5 is a music station, the fact is Kyle and Jackie O are flat out squeezing in two or three songs in an hour. Music is an important ingredient but it’s hardly what their listeners are listening for.

When you think about it, plenty of stations thrive on all talk with little or no music. But no stand alone station I know of survives on all music and no talk.

For the music streaming services to survive they need to attract an enormous global user base by offering millions of songs covering every genre through scores of channels. By contrast, radio draws its listeners from a tiny local territory through a defined format and limited playlist. It’s chalk and cheese. 

Actually, no. It’s more like red wine and white. You will likely have a preference, but to most people, both are great drops depending on your mood at the time and the food you’re eating.

As I have written here on many previous occasions, ever since the emergence of the one piece radiogram – a lump of furniture with speakers where you could choose to listen to your favourite station or drop a needle on your favourite record – people always found time to listen to their own music and time to listen to radio.

Frankly, I don’t see that paradigm changing any time soon. 

The pendulum may have swung away from radio lately but there is no great exodus from the medium as some bloggers would like to suggest. 

They point to the spectacular rise in time spent listening (TSL) to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora and assume that it has come at the expense of radio. 

In reality the spectacular rise in streaming TSL has mostly resulted in an equally spectacular fall in people listening to iPods. BTW, Apple has quietly ceased manufacturing iPods some months ago. 

In other words, streaming hasn’t so much changed the way people listen to radio as the way they listen to their own music.

While it is tempting to dismiss streaming services as just the latest technological advance in personal music management and playback, the real difference between it and an iPod – and here’s the real threat to radio – is that no one could buy advertising on my iPod.

Having said that, radio revenue, at least here in Australia and in the UK, has remained buoyant and tipped by WWP to grow by another 3.8 per cent or so next year.

Yet, the music streamers, especially in the US, seem to have the radio industry spooked.They keep promoting the line that radio is no longer the place where people discover new music. And many respected radio bloggers are happy to amplify those claims.

Well, guess what, radio hasn’t been the place to discover new music for decades. Of course, that’s not to say that some stations, like triple j, pride themselves on unearthing new artists and their music. But radio as a whole is not new music driven.

in 1981 as it launched to the strains of The Buggles Video Killed the Radio Star, MTV’s belief that it had driven a stake through the heart of radio has proven to be wishful thinking. 

Even before MTV, when radio was the only mass medium through which to discover new music, the top music stations weren’t the ones playing it. The top stations then, as now, would wait till a song became a hit, usually via airplay by a lower rating station before they’d add it to their own playlist. It used to drive the record company reps crazy.

As real radio is proving to be more resilient than most people expected, cracks are appearing within the major streaming companies. While some artists are embracing them as the future of music distribution others like Pink Floyd and David Byrne (Talking Heads) are denouncing them for the pittance artists are paid for millions of spins. 

Thom Yorke of Radiohead said of the music streaming industry, “To me this isn’t the mainstream, this is is like the last fart, the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.”

And, of course, last month Taylor Swift, in a blaze of publicity, pulled all her music from Spotify saying, “I think it’s really still up for debate whether this is actual progress, or whether this is taking the word music out of the music industry.”

While it’s true that record companies have constantly carped about royalties that radio stations pay for the right to broadcast music, I have never known artists to be less than desperate for airplay on those same stations.

So, why would an artist pull their songs from music streamers and not radio if radio doesn’t pay them any more than the streamers do?
The answer is that radio sells records. Streaming doesn’t.

Artists appreciate that radio’s random plays of songs has always worked as an inducement for fans to purchase ones that grab their ear so that they can play them when and as often as they want – without having to listen to a lot of other stuff they don’t necessarily like.

Streaming does the opposite because it replaces the music library that consumers collected over many years, and paid thousands for, with an instant library that offers millions of songs at a fraction of what they may have spent per month on CDs or iTunes downloads.

In  other words, why buy a handful of books when you can join a public library for a fraction of the cost?

To demonstrate that streaming is counterproductive to sales, even those artists like Ed Sheeran who’ve embraced streaming do so by giving their latest albums a window of several weeks or months to notch up sales using methods that work like publicity, radio airplay and social media before releasing them to be streamed. Not the other way around.

 Peter Saxon




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