I have been flown half way round the World for a conference in a resort town of Sinaia in Romania – where I have been asked to share my views on the future of radio in the age and world of social media. The session I was placed was titled: Social Media – Destructive or Constructive? Here is what I shared there.
Firstly, to provide some background, the traditional mass media, such as radio, television and newspapers have seen dwindling revenues and audience with the rise of the social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The situation has worsened to the that even big names in the newspaper and broadcasting are either closing or struggling financially. Not a day passes without a conference being held somewhere around the globe – where the future of the mass media is being discussed. At no point in the history of modern media that such an existential crisis has hit the sector.
Back to the future?
I don’t know about the newspapers but as far as radio and television are concerned they will survive. Among the two, interestingly, radio is the stronger medium and the most resilient among all forms of media that mankind has invented. While television is powerful, glamourous, captivating and bring the world in front of our eyes, in terms of resilience, I would put my bet on the radio. There is one consumption pattern of radio that no other forms can compete with – passive listening. In other words, radio can be played in the background while one drives or works. It does not take, or need, our full attention nor is it so intrusive like the new forms of media.
The imminent death of radio is a familiar narrative that has been heard before.
It was foretold many times in the past. When television was invented in the forties, the catchphrase was that the ‘video killed the radio star’, which also became a pop song. But radio survived. When Walkman was developed in the seventies there was another round of dooms-day prediction for radio. It survived again. The third time was a quite recent – when IPod came into being. In sociology parlance, radio has been the Bobo doll among the media technologies. Every time it was punched, it fell but bounced back – smiling and fully reinvigorated. Radio will be there and will, before we realise, reinvent itself again.
There is one strength of radio that no other news medium can boast of: passive consumption. In other words, while TV and other social media require your eyes and your ears, radio just requires your auditory senses. So, one can go about with one’s work and listen to the radio. You could also blast it as you drive. This makes radio a very popular medium and perhaps the strength that has saved it from the foretold death in the past. There is no doubt that with the onslaught of the social media, radio will survive because of this strength.
How the radio should respond and how it is responding have been extensively covered in the works of several practitioners and professionals in the field. What I would like to suggest is what radio should avoid – over-reacting. Every time the radio is given for dead, the radio responds. Understandably. However, one of the most bizarre ways goes to some years back when the radio felt it should become ‘trendy’. So besides the RDS data services there was a great deal of talks on what they called visual radio, where pictures could be added to ‘enhance’ the services. Many seminars and conferences later, someone asked a simple question: isn’t radio with pictures known as television?
One tag line at the conference in Romania was that “the only certainty was uncertainty”. Agreed. And as in life, the best way for the radio to face the uncertain future is to be itself – and not to lose its essence as a powerful aural medium.
(In my next article, I will elaborate the strengths of the TV and radio, which the social media has yet to prove: accuracy, depth and credibility.)