How Traditional Radio Can Thrive In A Digital Age

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, October 24, 2017

Despite its historical resilience, some researchers say if radio doesn’t adapt to the rise of digital, its days are numbered. According to Larry S. Miller, director of NYU’s Steinhardt Music Business Program, in a white paper titled “Paradigm Shift,” the digital disruption that has shifted all media has finally hit radio hard. (Miller’s research here.)

Radio survived the introduction of television, as well as satellite networks and music streaming services — all were to have supplanted the medium. 

Today, radio is any audio-based source of news and entertainment. Podcasting, for example. Isn't that radio? Things like podcasts and streaming services still provide that intimate “theater of the mind” that had always separated radio from other media, but it does so in different packaging. It’s all content typically consumed while the listener is doing something else.



While these new formats are able to provide more personalized features, the one thing they can’t do as well is the flavoring of local-ness. That is, in terms of the spirit of the local radio station and its local, on-air personalities. For example, in Philadelphia, there are two sports talk radio stations. That’s tough to reproduce in the form of streaming or in longer, pre-recorded formats. 

Radio needs to work harder to add more relevance to stay competitive with newer platforms. How can radio maintain what it does so well, while offering a more personal (maybe interactive) experience? How can it return to the days when it served as the authority discovering new music?

When my kids (ages 23 – 31) recommend that I listen to a new band or song, they found it via digital means. YouTube, podcasts, etc. Why has radio become so formulaic? When an entire audience of “Gen Z-ers” are ignoring radio, its “edge” is waning.

In fact, Miller says “radio is being out-innovated.” There are fewer radio station owners now than decades ago. YouTube and Spotify and the others offer unlimited choices on demand. Radio does not. It may have an edge in familiarity and pervasiveness and localness, but it will lose that if doesn’t learn to utilize new technologies.

Smartly, digital radio is attacking traditional where it will make the biggest impact — in cars. In just three to four years, 75% of new cars will be digitally connected. Traditional radio has done nothing to compete with Amazon Alexa or Google Home. (According to Miller, 70% of the owners of these audio devices say they now listen to more audio, which seems like another opportunity lost.)

Radio is now audio delivered on smartphones, tablets, laptops and smart speakers. All content producers will continue to compete for share, but the ad business is afforded additional, new venues to advertise to subscribers. That represents opportunity.


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