Radio has been on its death bed for years, or so many would have us believe. In truth, the advent of TV was a legitimate reason to hold a death vigil for the big box without a picture. But think about this: Radio solved that crisis by changing its content and not its delivery method. More on that later.
The latest prediction of doom came from an unlikely source, the leader of a radio company. Vivian Schiller, CEO of NPR, predicted listening will move online, with mobile playing a key role. Internet radio will be in all cars and will replace terrestrial radio within 10 years, she said. Ms. Schiller's comment prompted a predictable backlash from many of her company's affiliated stations.
I have been hearing similar forecasts for the past decade, and they've recently picked up steam. Yet so far, radio's demise hasn't come anywhere close to happening. As radio people, we get caught up in the decline of terrestrial programming and the growing prevalence of voice tracking, national syndication, corporate direction and the like. As consumers, we forget about the enormous strengths of terrestrial radio.
Internet radio is coming and will likely be available in all cars within 10-15 years, probably not in 5 as some are predicting. But, being available is not the same thing as being purchased and used. Internet in cars will cost money, and, as with satellite radio now, not everyone will take it. The fee of course will be for Internet access and not specifically for radio. Wireless Internet customers will have an assortment of reasons for subscribing, radio being just one.
Terrestrial radio, meanwhile, is free, and free is a huge advantage. Most people most of the time do not feel they need an alternative. For this reason alone, terrestrial radio is not going away any time soon.
Those of us close to radio can think of numerous reasons why the product should be better. When Internet radio offers alternatives, we jump aboard the bandwagon and expect it to take over. What we don't recognize is the rest of the world doesn't think like us; most people do not place much of a premium on more radio choices.
Internet stations will have a difficult time building an audience and generating revenue. Over 6,000 stations are available; anyone can launch one. "Narrowcasting" became the term to describe the radio dial in the 1980's and 1990's as formats became more niche and audiences more splintered. "Microcasting" aptly characterizes Internet radio.
Terrestrial radio also has the advantage of delivering massive audiences simultaneously; one signal can reach millions. Internet radio, on the other hand, sends out an individual stream to each person.
In this age of high technology, we are inclined to get excited about each new device unveiled. If we had Internet radio for 90 years and terrestrial radio were just introduced, we would say, "Wow, one signal reaching millions of people; what a concept. It's going to take off and replace Internet radio."
Gary Lewis, Senior VP at Cumulus, said it well: "The hand-wringing over Internet radio is just one more premature obit for our medium that inevitably comes with every advent of entertainment technology. In-car 8-tracks, cassettes, CD's, mp3 players and satellite all were supposed to spell the end. The combination of free, local, quality "push" content that is radio has and will continue to withstand all comers for the length of our professional lifetimes."
Internet radio will grow and, along with iPods, mp3 players and the like, give increased competition to terrestrial radio. Radio's problem is its content, and so far radio's audience erosion has not grown to the point where the content needs fixing. If that day comes, radio will improve its content and stay on top. The reasons are its superior delivery system and free access.
With an apology to the late Mark Twain for this week's title, thanks for reading. I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/atlantaairwaves, and we'll follow you back.
Link to Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV Blog: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/