What Does the Future of Radio Look Like?

In 2018, our Tech Editor is still optimistic
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LOS ANGELES — The advent of the new year is a natural time to reflect on what has happened recently and to look towards the future speculatively. I expect to work at least another ten years in this business; but I have to wonder, based on what I know, and learn anew every day, where broadcasting is going — and whether there will be adequate work for me that long.

I work in the Los Angeles market, and there are few (if any) signs that the business will be gone ten years hence. Is it slowly weakening? Yes, undoubtedly — but, the Southern California Broadcasters Association says that radio reaches 92.9% of the population of SoCal every week, and that average time spent with radio is 10.5 hours per week. Amongst other data from them is one indicating that radio in SoCal reaches 94% of millennials here. (They don't specify, but I'm assuming that includes listeners online and over-the-air.)

Naturally, when an organization reports on its own strength we need to consider the possibility of "spin." SCBA or any organization will usually downplay or avoid mentioning weaknesses at all. Still, taken at face value, those numbers look pretty encouraging.

We do know that, overall, the size of the slice of the pie of total advertising gotten by radio is, at best, remaining the same, and at least not shrinking very much over the last year or so. I work in commercial radio, so this data is important to my outlook.

I do see radio becoming more and more of a niche medium — away from its roots as a mass medium. More and more non-commercial, listener-supported stations are growing, likely on the strength of their unique content. I for one subscribe to KUSC and they have expanded their classical radio network all over the state of California. (It's not so much that the content "classical music" is unique; but, their on-air talent, and their overall approach, is.) Jefferson Public Radio is another good example, as is WSHU.

It's hard for me to see music-formats remaining strong in the future when the reality is that you can get music anywhere. Still, that's been true for a long time, and music formats still abound. Will the curation of music (such as is done by KUSC) remain a strength that will keep popular music formats going? I'd like to see that. However, in terms of unique content, it seems to me that news, local talk, and local sports stations have more going for them in to the future.

Where is the actual over-the-air aspect going? Right now it would be generous to say that 10% of listening in the US is done online. I do a lot of it myself — in fact, as I write this I'm listening to WCRB from Boston — and, I understand how important streaming is — don't get me wrong. It's just that it's a double-edged sword. As we move farther and farther away from the "franchise" aspect of OTA broadcast licenses, we continually devalue each outlet. This is even more the case, I think, with the "Fourth Estate" of print media. The only reason one would pay for access to say, the New York Times, is because of its unique content. I can get stories about news of the world anywhere — for free.

And the same goes for online radio/streaming. Now, classical music is available from hundreds (if not thousands) of sources, so each one has little, if any, value at all. Can you imagine if, say 20 years ago, each radio market suddenly had dozens of classical stations from which listeners could choose? Clearly, from a business standpoint, that's a failure from the get-go. This explains, I believe, why it's been so hard for companies to make money in streaming media. There's no "franchise" aspect that people are effectively "forced" to pay for. Consider the "middleman" factor — that online broadcasters have no control over the medium itself (what lays between the source and the end-user) and you can see that it will be an uphill battle for any organization to make money from streaming. During the California gold rush, it was the "big four" (Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker) who actually became rich, providing supplies to the 49ers. They didn't do any mining themselves. Today, the big four are AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-mobile, and they're making the money providing the means for the miners — the streamers of the world. Not many of those prospectors will succeed, if history repeats itself, which it does.

So, I'll conclude by expressing optimism that I'll continue to have work for ten years and beyond, most likely. As technology evolves the business that many of us know as broadcasting will continue so shrink, but it's not going away any time soon.