On that same plane ride I mentioned yesterday, I managed to ingest the latest Wired Magazine, which was chock full of some excellent writing, none more compelling than the article on the future of radio. For me, the medium of radio is one I view with extreme frustration, yet it holds a spot very much near and dear to my heart because it was radio (and my parents small vinyl collection of wide-ranging music styles) that gave me this disease called music snobbery.
I actually remember radio before there were digits, too. You rock’n’roll hounds from Massachusetts surely remember WCOZ and WCGY before they were 93.7 and 94.5, respectively, right? We never knew WBCN as 104.1. It was always just 104. Anyway, before and after school, I almost always found myself alone for a while, so it was an odd occasion when I didn’t have the stereo turned up incredibly loud, sucking in anything they had to offer. My tastes back then wasn’t so surprising – I’d pretty much love anything Tom Petty released. AC/DC could pretty much do no wrong and of course, there was my first true love, Led Zeppelin. It was all brought to me by radio, until I could afford to buy vinyl myself (first purchase: Back In Black).
Early in my high school years, I realized that radio wasn’t enough, though, and I started to really expand my tastes. The Replacements offered a sound that I found to be revolutionary. The Clash had songs on their albums that just crushed the ones I heard on the radio. Of course, there was always The Ramones, who were criminally underserved on the mass exposure side of things.
College only advanced my desire. I could go on for days about how college changed my music listening habits and turned this into a simple obsession, but I don’t have the space for that now. Let’s just fast forward to today. Radio, as we know it, is sitting right there with the Pope – on the way out. A couple of years from now, you won’t even recognize it, really. During most of the 1990’s, while in the music business, I absolutely detested radio and everything it stood for, which was basically consolidation and profit margins. Most stations were owned by a conglomerate, whose central office was doing most or all of the music programming and taking advanced forms of payola to play music. In some cases, these conglomerates were actually using one central DJ on several stations around the country. How’s that for warm and fuzzy? I wasn’t at all optimistic about the future of radio.
But then the internet came along and it took a while, but the IPod and satellite radio seem to have at least gotten the train back on the track. Conglomerates have realized that in order to survive, it’s the new order. They’ve cut back on the length of commercials and finally realized that what makes radio so compelling are two things: feeling the local love and, oh yeah, music.
Anyway, long story short, traditional radio is banking on the emergence of digital radio, or, as you’ll probably hear it called, “HD Radio.” The sexy-ness of HD Radio lies not in the dramatically improved sound quality – let’s face it, your average consumer really doesn’t care much about the sound quality. The real kicker here is that stations will be able to send multiple signals, which means if you miss the Red Sox game on WEEI, you can effectively “Tivo” it and store it for later use. Not bad, not bad.
Furthermore, your possession of this HD Radio will enable you with the ability to grab video, software, email and text messages. The article points out that “within a few years…..radios will have….a buffer – a TiVo-like device that stores broadcast signals at the listeners’ command. You program it to store All Things Considered for the drive home. Maybe on the show there’s an alert about a new virus. You punch a button and download an antivirus update into your buffer from NPR “B”, then take that into your house when you get home. Or perhaps you hear a review that makes you want to get a movie or an album, which you download as you drive. Meanwhile, your radio, which taps into the automobile’s GPS unit, is constantly scanning for local traffic reports, and when a pertinent one appears, interrupts and then resumes the stored All Things Considered.”
Now we’re talking! In the end, however, I’m still a little skeptical. When you step back and look at it from 10,000 feet, one simple fact emerges in my eyes: personal selection. Let me say it like this, peeps: If you were at a restuarant, would you want someone just bringing you what they think you’ll like to eat? Uh, no. So, today and tomorrow’s radio will still be setting the table and serving the dinner they want you to eat. For many people that’s all they need and that’s fine. To an extent, there will always be that market and there’s probably plenty of room for it, at least in the short term. Cool.
However, today’s world (hello, Ipod) allows us to pick what music we want to hear, when we want to hear it. On our terms. Anytime we want. That incredibly simple but powerful realization has not gone entirely mainstream yet and when it does, and it will, that’s when things will get real interesting, for the empowerment you feel when you realize it’s completely on your terms is very difficult for the traditional and satellite radio companies to combat.
All that said, after reading the article, I am far more optimistic about radio’s future (particularly talk radio) than I was yesterday and I really hope they maintain their niche – radio is what made me the music fan I am today and despite the fact that I gave up on it in the late 1980s, I owe a lot to how it shaped me. I just hope there’s room in some way, shape or form as we move onward in a fascinating time in our world. We also shouldn’t forget Podcasting – an early movement right now that could have a dramatic effect on the whole business.