Take a moment and think back to 1994. What was the life of a radio
engineer like in 1994? Most radio stations still used cart machines.
Operator permits were still required by the FCC. Now, think about the
next 10 years of radio. What will the radio industry be like in 2014?
Will machines be so intelligent that they can fix themselves when they
break? Will digital radio be the standard way of broadcasting and
analog radio will be a vague memory for engineers to reminisce about?
Will satellite radio take over the world?
To gain some insight, I consulted several radio industry
professionals. Our discussions about technological advances in the next
10 years provided some interesting ideas and plans for the future.
“I think by the time we get 10 years out there, digital radio
will be solidly established, and I might even make the prediction that
the majority of listening will be done digitally by that time,”
said Milford Smith, vice president of engineering at Greater Media in
East Brunswick, NJ. “Most of the issues have been ironed out with
digital radio and we're actually seeing a fair amount of stations going
on the air — more all the time.”
“But I also think along with that is an opportunity that we're
really just starting to recognize and starting to pursue, and that is
the opportunity for data services, either associated with the main
program material, or perhaps not associated with it at all. The ability
of a broadcaster to offer sort of a multimedia experience really hasn't
been possible up until the advent of digital radio, so I think there is
going to be tremendous growth in that area over the next 10
years,” Smith said.
When asked about technological advances in the next 10 years, Dave
Maxson, who is a managing partner of Broadcast Signal Lab in Boston,
believes that every new radio will be digital. “Even if it's only
picking up an analog signal — that is, the technology for
extracting the most out of analog signals are improving with
digitally-based chip sets,” Maxson said.
Maxson agrees with Smith that the technical kinks of IBOC operation
have mostly been resolved, and that the overall listener experience of
radio will be greatly improved with digital radio. Maxson said he would
tell IBOC skeptics that technical compromises have been made that the
NRSC sees as offering a substantial improvement in service.
“We're all used to fiddling with our antennas in order to get
rid of the multipath in FM reception. We're used to having cheap $10
radios that pick up six stations when there are 30 or 40 available.
We're used to AM interference and AM fades under bridges and
structures. IBOC makes that pretty much go away. So, there are
advantages to digital radios that pick up IBOC over digital radios that
will make the best of analog they possibly can,” Maxson said.
Maxson also pointed out an important advantage to IBOC: the
opportunity to enhance the listener experience with multimedia and
interactive features. “It's not TV for radio,” Maxson said.
“It's the ability to provide text and images that can be stored
and manipulated along with the audio, and that will create a richer
experience for the radio listener. And, the nay-sayers will say
‘You can't mess with that in your car, you're busy
driving.’ To a degree that's true. On the other hand, with a
couple of simple feature buttons on a digital radio with these new
capabilities, the radio will even be able to provide people driving a
car with a more useful service.”
“There's discussion about location-based technology so that
your car knows where it is and digital radio is receiving information
all the time. For example, you can find the location of the nearest
fast food joint at the touch of a button. Or perhaps the nearest fast
food joint that is carrying a promotion that the radio station that
you're tuned to is offering. Another example would be the ability to
pull up a location-based traffic report in the voice of your favorite
radio host or things like that, that will enhance your driving
experience while keeping you in tune with your favorite radio station.
You don't have to wait for traffic on the 3s or 9s or whatever it is
that the local traffic station does. You would be able to get it much
more immediately, in a familiar voice and for your location,”
“These are just simplistic examples from the point of view of
what possibilities an interactive radio can offer. The reality is that
we don't know which one of these applications is going to stick and be
useful to consumers and be cost efficient for broadcasters until we try
When asked for his thoughts on digital radio, Chief Engineer Gordon
Carter of WFMT in Chicago didn't completely agree with Smith and
Maxson. “I think in 10 years they will figure out how to make it
work right, but getting it right may be very painful,” said
Carter. “I think that the current system, while it has a lot of
potential, still has a lot of bugs that need to be worked out. But I
think they will get there.”
“On the other hand, between now and then, who knows what will
come along that will be newer and better,” Carter said.
“From what I've seen, most of the technologies we're working with
are less than 10 years old now. I think that's something that we have
to be alert to. Technology does change and there is very likely
something, or some way that nobody has figured out yet that will make
everything we're doing with IBOC right now obsolete.”
John Marino, vice-president of science and technology for the
National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC, believes the
digital broadcasting technologies will offer new flexibility for
broadcasters. “Data services will usher in a new wave of
multimedia radios complete with graphic displays. These new digital
radios will offer broadcasters an opportunity to send a variety of
information directly to listeners. Such information may include song
title and artist, traffic information, emergency warnings, news,
weather and other customized data and graphics,” said Marino.
“The often joked-about radio station in a suitcase may be right
around the corner.”
According to these professionals, IBOC will become the standard in
radio eventually. However, I got the impression that the industry needs
to be on the lookout for new technologies that will surpass IBOC in
usefulness and clarity in the next 10 years.
My next question for the group dealt with consolidation. Is it over?
Is there more to come? If so, where will it happen?
“Radio in the larger and even medium markets is largely
consolidated now,” Smith said. “I think that consolidation
is already seeping down to the very smallest markets. I think that's
probably going to continue. It seems like most of the shouting is over.
There will probably be some of the smaller groups that ultimately get
swallowed up by some of the larger groups, but I think the majority of
the activity in that area, other than in the smallest markets, has
Contrary to some radio industry professional's opinion, Maxson
doesn't agree that consolidation of ownership has reduced the number of
radio choices. “Ownership isn't ruining radio. My experience is
from being here in Boston, and Boston really never had a country
station until there was consolidation. Boston has seen some experiments
with different kinds of formats. For example, when the fourth or fifth
station of a group that has always had moribund ratings and is looking
for a new way to do things. A group owner can take more of a risk with
that station and try a new format.”
“Radio attempts to appeal to a large enough audience to make
it economically viable. Radio is about reaching a target audience with
what they want to hear. And that has implications into how you program
a station and how you energize your audience. Those basic precepts of
radio are not going to change.”
“While there is consolidation in the major radio stations,
there is also this tremendous clamoring that's been going on for a
couple of decades for specialized, local outlets for programming. I
think we will see further loosening of the spectrum for these small
bands of radio freedom fighters who want to broadcast something that,
in their perception, is in the community interest. There will be ways
for these low-power stations to proliferate without affecting the
economic base of the industry,” said Maxson.
While Smith believes most of the consolidation activities have
already taken place in the large markets and is now seeping into the
smaller markets, Carter believes that the radio industry will see its
continuation and that it will remain mostly in the larger markets.
“It becomes a matter of money,” Carter said. “They're
going where the money is, or where they perceive the money is. I think
we're going to see the consolidation being played at a slightly lower
level, where the medium-market groups are going to start making a move
for a bigger share of the pie.”
“I also think we're going to see a resurgence of the ma and pa
stations, especially in the small markets,” Carter said.
“Where the big groups just don't have the incentive to put the
money in because they can't take the money out. I hope it happens
because I think that's what makes radio exciting — the localism
of it. That's something that even our friends at Clear Channel will say
they can't provide that well.”
After listening to these opinions, it's clear that consolidation has
several potential paths to take. One person thinks it's almost over,
while another thinks there there's still a lot of consolidation to be
done. One person thinks local radio is dying because of consolidation
and another thinks consolidation makes radio more diverse. My head was
Personally, I believe consolidation will continue throughout the
next 10 years, however it won't happen with such fervor. I also believe
that local radio stations will never go away. There may be fewer of
them in time, but in the end, if that's what people want, that's what
they will get.
Radio vs. ?
My final question for the group was about competition. Do they think
radio will be able to not only compete with other media, but also
continue to be the leader in audio entertainment in the next 10
“I think satellite is starting to get its pace a little
bit,” said Carter. “I don't know if economically the
companies can hold out long enough to really get established in their
niche the way they need to be. But, for instance, I just saw an ad on
TV for XM radio that is modular so it can be plugged into your car or
taken into your house and plugged into a receiver there or an
appliance. I think that's the sort of thing it needs.”
“I think it would really make a lot of sense, though I realize
there are several issues involved, if terrestrial [and satellite]
digital radio could all use the same decoder. And I think we need to
see better cooperation with the various proponents. It would make sense
to me to see that sort of convergence.”
Carter continued, “You see it happening now with TV where
you're using the same box to look at TV and your computer and all kinds
of other things. Whether it will happen or not, I don't know. It's hard
to tell because there are so many special interests groups involved. I
think consumers are going to say — wait a minute, we just bought
our satellite digital receiver, now you want me to buy another digital
receiver for my radio? I don't think so.”
Smith agrees with Carter that satellite radio does not appear to be
going away. “Even though the listenership is still miniscule
compared to commercial over-the-air radio, it's not zero. It's growing
and that's something we need to be cognizant of. I think the ability of
broadcasters to transfer to a digital platform is going to be a big
help there,” said Smith.
“However, the largest threat is not satellite radio and it's
not Internet radio. The competition lies in the ubiquitous roll out of
wideband wireless 3G and beyond, where is it possible for any mobile
individual or vehicle to have access to a big pipe, in terms of data.
And because of the existence of that big pipe, that data can be
anything, including audio entertainment. So I've always thought that
the real threat to radio broadcasting is wireless broadband. I think
that has a likelihood of being out there in less than 10 years, but
definitely in 10 years it will be well established. It's obviously
going to take whatever form based on what its consumers are looking
for, but as I say, one of those forms could look a lot like radio. And
that does give me some cause for concern,” Smith said.
After talking with Smith, I was concerned too. I had considered the
obvious competition, such as Internet radio and satellite radio, but I
hadn't thought about wideband wireless applications being a formidable
competitor for radio listeners. 3G is about connectivity to end users,
which could definitely impact radio.
All in all, from these professional's responses, it sounds as though
there will be some big changes happening within the radio industry
during the next 10 years. But no matter what technological advances are
made, or how many radio stations a particular company owns, they all
believe that radio will still be the dominant audio entertainment
“Radio is still a wonderful medium and it's a unique
medium,” said Smith. “It's still the only truly portable
medium. The satellite people are trying to get their product to that
extent, but there are 900 million consumer radios in the country at
this point. It can be as small as a walkman and its ubiquitous in
virtually every car and every home.”
“There's no other medium that enjoys that kind of penetration,
nor is there any other medium that enjoys the kind of listenership that
radio has in an average week,” said Smith. Something like 95
percent or 96 percent of all Americans sten to radio every week. That
is pretty impressive stuff. I think the consumer very much wants and
needs a portable audio entertainment and information medium, and from
what I am seeing so far, radio really is the medium that best fills
“I think there will be some minimal inroads from satellite,
and some from wireless broadband depending on what form it takes, but I
see radio as still the core primary audio entertainment medium for most
Americans through at least the next 10 years.”
I couldn't have said it better.