Radio by its nature is a mobile medium. And most radio listening is done in our most familiar mobile environment: The car. Being that a radio is a standard device in any car (Can you even imagine buying a car without a radio?) makes it easy to make radio mobile. However, once we leave the car, radio almost completely loses its mobile standing.
There is no lack of portable radio receivers, but with the proliferation of media players, I see very few people carrying a device that is only a radio receiver. Several media players offer a built-in radio receiver, which helps radio, although most users are listening to their own selections and not a radio station.
What makes radio such a good delivery mechanism? The broadcast model is very efficient. One transmitter feeds an unlimited number of receivers (listeners). The cost per listener decreases as the number of listeners increases because the terrestrial transmission system has a fixed cost and can feed an unlimited number of receivers.
But radio is facing a new challenge from Internet streaming. While streaming is not a new idea, it continues to attract new users. Compared to terrestrial broadcasting, streaming is a less-efficient delivery method. There is a fixed cost for the system (like terrestrial), but there is usually a cost per listener as well. With this in mind, the current push to add radio receivers to cell phones makes sense, but it could be a short-term solution.
Some recent discussion has speculated that streaming will not spell the end for terrestrial transmissions. In general, I agree — given the current methods of streaming. We all know that technology is not static. Given time and consumer demand it can change quickly. Even with the current limitations of streaming, stations should not ignore streaming completely.
City-wide Wi-Fi or WiMAX doesn't exist everywhere yet, but that could change. We also don't know what other mass-use data paths may come. The FCC is currently trying to find ways to increase broadband access, and streaming could take advantage of that.
For radio stations, streaming should be viewed as yet another path to reach an audience. It may not be a large segment today, but it has potential for the future. It can be a way to distribute a main program channel. It can be used to send supplementary channels, like an HD Radio multicast. It can be used to send best-of programming from the main channel. It can be used to offer niche formats designed for a small audience. There are lots of potential uses of supplemental channels.
What's more important is to consider the future listener. While terrestrial radio seems ubiquitous today, I don't see the younger listeners rushing out to buy a new radio. They have cell phones and media players galore — and get new ones every few months. To this demographic, terrestrial radio is old school. If they have radio receivers in their devices, it's usually because it just happens to be there, not because it was a conscious decision to have one.
There are lots of existing streaming services available. Some carry a subscription fee, many are free. While streaming does not yet have the transmission efficiency, it has another advantage: It's a software-based player. Advances in codecs and players can be implemented with few challenges (or even interaction) for the listener. While a radio receiver could be software-based as well — especially if it is implemented in a mobile device — there are still hardware challenges involved.
Radio already knows how to create successful program streams. As consumer listening evolves and changes, so must radio. Streaming to mobile devices is just one consideration.
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