Radio isn’t just radio anymore. These days, audiences can listen to radio stations over the internet, on streaming devices like Squeezebox, through iTunes or on their mobile phones. We don’t necessarily even “listen” to radio anymore as popular audio-native programs are adapted to TV, video or blogs.
“It’s a more fractured marketplace,” says Patrick Reynolds, EVP of Marketing at Triton Digital, a company that provides streaming and ad services to radio stations. “People can pick and choose how they consume this particular kind of content.” And with the proliferation of services like Pandora, Spotify and Slacker, which let people customize audio content to their whims, it seems as though this century-old medium is more popular than ever.
When podcasting took off in the mid-2000s, the idea was to provide downloadable audio content online so that listeners didn’t have to tune into a radio station at a specific time.
This American Life (TAL), the popular public radio program hosted by Ira Glass, came to the streaming and podcasting party earlier than most (its first stream dates back to 1998), and it’s now one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world.
Eventually, TAL was adapted for TV on the premium cable network Showtime. Though the televised series was short-lived, it can still be purchased on DVD or via iTunes. TAL’s website also offers CDs, web streams, mobile apps and mp3 downloads. What TAL does especially well is make its program available in as many formats as possible.
Another example of an audio program crossing over to multiple platforms is The Ricky Gervais Show. Originally a free podcast on The Guardian’s website, it featured hilarious banter on science and religion between Gervais, co-creator Stephen Merchant and seemingly simple-minded producer Karl Pilkington, who became the show’s star.
Using the existing audio, HBO developed an animated version of the podcasts in 2010, illustrating some of the absurd scenarios the three men discussed. The same year, Gervais developed the Sky1 TV series An Idiot Abroad, with Pilkington making off-kilter observations during his world travels. Essentially, it’s a riff on the original podcast’s running joke: Pilkington himself.
Over in Canada, it took host Jian Ghomeshi’s on-air showdown with actor Billy Bob Thornton to make CBC Radio One’s daily variety show Q an international sensation. It helped that the video made it on Perez Hilton – but that wouldn’t have happened without Q’s YouTube channel.
Like many non-Canadians, Reynolds hadn’t heard of Q until the infamous video surfaced. Q exemplifies Reynolds’ assertion that radio content should be “agnostic to delivery mechanism.”
Whether the radio experience is delivered on-air, online, via YouTube, a blog or a podcast, what matters is the strength of the idea, the passion of the people powering it, and its relevance to an engaged community.
Choose your own radio
Music services like Pandora, Spotify or Slacker are a big part of radio’s enduring appeal. While some critics are quick to dismiss such services as “not radio,” saying they’re the “audio equivalent of solitary confinement” or glorified “playlists,” media consultant and author Mark Ramsey is less cynical.
“Pandora’s not a perfect match to what a radio station does,” Ramsey says, “but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fulfilling of the need that people go to radio for.”
What people go to these music services for is the ability to tailor the content to their tastes. With Pandora, you create a “channel” by entering a song or artist to generate a stream of similar music. On Spotify, you can create playlists from an exhaustive selection of music, then share those playlists with other users or your Facebook friends.
Slacker allows you to listen to pre-programmed stations or create your own based on your musical preferences. It also includes song lyrics, news and sports content.
All three services operate on the “freemium” model; that is, users can upgrade to an ad-free version by paying a small subscription fee. Though Pandora hasn’t revealed how many of its 100 million users pay for its service, Spotify counted 2.5 million paying subscribers in November 2011, prompted in part by its Facebook integration.
It proves that, unlike print content – the jury’s still out on the newspaper paywall experiment – people are happy to pay for a customized radio experience.
Branded and satellite radio
The three big music services point to a trend towards commercial-free radio, but Custom Channels is in the business of creating radio stations for brands. When you walk into a Whole Foods grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, for example, you won’t hear elevator music. Instead, you’ll discover alternative mixes that reflect the brand’s progressive image. At Floyd’s Barbershop, you’ll hear a selection of oldies and classic rock, with a stream available on the company’s website.
Then there’s satellite radio, which once seemed poised to be another victim of the internet. Sirius XM radio (originally two competing companies) once faced skepticism because of its subscription-based, ad-free model. But the brand has consistently delivered exclusive high-quality content, which has secured it a relatively small, but committed listenership.
From the beginning, Sirius’ programming has been helmed by talented, celebrity DJs like Howard Stern. Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour was something of an enfant terrible during its three-year run, with listeners relishing Dylan’s deadpan delivery and encyclopedic knowledge of music, while Willie Nelson’s Willie’s Roadhouse had a similar impact on the country music scene.
Sirius’ recently revamped mobile app is getting great reviews for its enhanced user experience, as well as its live and on-demand functions.
That sort of adaptability has allowed Sirius to stay relevant in an increasingly fragmented radio world. Indeed, all the “death of radio” prophets of the last decade may have simply confused fragmentation with weakness.
But all these examples suggest that, on the contrary, radio is in the midst of an exciting renaissance – and all renaissance movements are marked by versatility and big ideas. There’s no shortage of either in radio land.