The Case for Radio
How do you define radio in this day and age of digital platforms? If you were in charge of a new music radio show, 24/7 stream, or podcast, what would you include?
“Is radio dying?” I’ve been hearing this ominous question for years, especially in the context of the plethora of digital music platforms—Spotify, Pandora, our personal music collections, YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and many more. Can good old-fashioned radio continue to thrive among the other options out there? I believe the answer is yes; radio is evolving, not dying, and there are foundational principles of radio that can’t compete with fancy new technologies.
On February 7 I hosted Musochat, a weekly new music Twitter conversation (Sundays at 6 p.m. PT) to discuss related topics with this passionate online community. You can read the entire summary here, but since I didn’t chime in with my own answers I’d like to share them here.
Do you still think of “radio” as on-the-dial only? If not, how do you define it in this day and age of digital platforms?
It’s definitely not on-the-dial only, but in order for it to be radio, it must be a unique channel of music curated by a human that cannot be paused, skipped, rewound, or altered in any other way. This includes terrestrial/HD radio, their online streaming simulcasts, and continuous streaming channels like KING FM’s Second Inversion, WQXR’s Q2 Music, and New Music USA’s Counterstream Radio. Some people mentioned Pandora in their responses, so I added the sub question, “Do you think Pandora is radio?” I say, “no,” as Pandora’s model is opposite to my definition of radio: the infinite channels are not unique, they are generated by a computer, and the listener can control the experience.
What is your #1 most used music platform and why?
Outside of my office, where it’s the endless wealth of new music new releases (roughly 70% on physical CDs and 30% digital files) for airplay consideration on Second Inversion, my go-to platform is radio. Since I spend so much of my work week choosing music for other people to listen to, I take immense pleasure in consuming playlists that other humans have curated when I’m on my own time. I listen terrestrially if I’m in my car or at home and stream the audio on my phone if I’m walking or bussing, and I rotate between Seattle’s public radio stations, including KPLU (jazz), KEXP (a little bit of everything), KBCS (folk & bluegrass), KING FM (classical), and KNHC (pop and dance remixes). I value that I can count on these stations to help me discover something new almost every time I tune in. I’d also define radio as a community of listeners hearing the same thing at the same time and the ethereal bond that I have with who-knows-how-many other people at any given moment is another fundamental reason why I love radio.
If you could change one thing about your #1 platform to make it better, what would it be?
I’m tempted to say nothing, because what I love about radio is its reliable unpredictability. Unrelated to the audio product, I would love to see a space where listeners can chat about what they’re hearing in real time to turn the aforementioned ethereal bond into a more tangible bond.
How much talk do you want to hear when you’re listening to music?
Not a lot but definitely some. Roughly 60-90 seconds of historical or anecdotal information is ideal for me. The human voice is something that radio uses in a meaningful way that other streaming tools such as Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube don’t offer. This furthers my case for radio being a reliable source for learning, discovery, and context.
Research shows that the #1 core value for classical radio is “to relax.” Does this apply to you? If not, what is yours?
And to clarify, this applies to audiences of major market classical radio stations which typically play mostly Baroque through early 20th-century repertoire from the Western canon. For me, classical music can be relaxing, but I don’t listen to it to relax. I listen with intent, focus, and an analytical ear and hope to feel something, whether it’s good or bad. If I don’t feel anything, I turn it off. From the peanut gallery on Musochat—most people firmly said, “no,” and offered some great answers: to engage, to get pumped, to discover, to think, to question existence, “to kick my brain into gear” (@EdWindels), “to ponder new sounds in a more solitary setting than a concert” (@ursulasahagian), to be thrilled, stimulated, excited. While I wasn’t surprised to hear the lack of agreement with relaxation amongst a group of adventurous listeners, I was thrilled to see such a wide variety of very strong values for radio.
How much does the actual video content matter in YouTube videos? Do you use it mostly for the audio?
I brought this question up because video has become a presence in the evolution of radio. As people are choosing to stream radio stations on devices with screens, creating a visual reflection of the station’s mission is a natural step. This is one way for radio stations to infuse their identity into additional content that can be spread across widely used platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo, and embedded into social media.
I think the video content does matter, tremendously so (“Like, if you’re gonna have a video you gotta make it worthwhile, even if it’s just a great performance video” @sammelnicomposer chimed in), but YouTube has become very saturated with content that doesn’t actually have any video, e.g. a still image of a CD cover, a headshot of the composer, or a nature shot. This does not constitute a proper video experience for me, so I tend to use YouTube as an audio search tool. If there is a well-produced video attached, I’ll save it to watch again later, tweet it, or e-mail to a friend. Good videos should be shared actively and put on a pedestal and at KING FM and Second Inversion, we’re trying to set the standard for what classical music videos can and should be.
If you were in charge of a new music radio show, 24/7 stream, or podcast, what would you include? List 1-3 things—general or specific.
Since I am in charge of such a thing, I’ll say that with Second Inversion, I’m most excited to present a wide variety of musical flavors, brief spoken introductions from passionate voices (composers, performers, advocates), and on-demand content (videos and live concert recordings). Common answers included current performances from cities all over the world, diversity (music from non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender composers), strong opinions, humor, interaction, and emerging composers who don’t already have national recognition. I’m proud that all of those are already integral parts of Second Inversion’s programming, and we’ll continue to include them as time goes on.
To recap this interview with myself, there’s no doubt in my mind that radio will continue to be one of the many valuable media consumption options. The human-curated element and innate community of radio is unique to the medium and something that you simply cannot get with an algorithm-based streaming aid (Pandora), nor a searchable music database (Spotify). In this day and age, radio has evolved with digital technology such that you can stream a radio station in your city, seek out another station that offers content you prefer, or maintain the connection to your hometown station if you move to a different city. At KING FM, we’re proactively thinking about what the “21st-century radio announcer” is, and it’s not just someone behind a microphone in a booth. That’s still part of it, but producing creative audio content, having active voices on social media, and engaging with the community are important pieces of the puzzle, too. I’m even more assured about radio’s ability to keep reinventing itself and adapt to changing trends, with research to be conducted by Station Resource Group (SRG) in the coming years.
If you don’t share my optimistic outlook or feel like you’ve lost touch with your local radio stations, I encourage you to visit one of them today online and check out what they’re doing. Are you surprised? Positively or negatively? Either way, I’d love to know your take on the state of radio and its future.