New ways of listening will redefine radio's community role

The last days of June provided an opportunity for radio stations to come into their own as the best place to celebrate and to mourn the death of the King of Pop.  On the Friday morning Smooth FM excelled itself by abandoning all playlists and simply running back to back Michael Jackson hits interspersed with personal tributes from celebrities and listeners.

And not only is radio brilliant at catching that kind of mood, it has been very inventive commercially too recently.  On that Sunday’s Big Top 40 chart show on Capital :[italic] “The Chart You Can Change” we were encouraged to download our favourite Michael Jackson track as the new format of the show allows listeners to influence the result right up until the last hour.  Thus downloading (ie shopping) has become interchangeable with voting.   What a fantastic commercialisation of the chart.  I resisted the temptation to download Man in the Mirror (a track that we own in every single possible format at least once), but was thrilled anyway at its triumph in the chart.

There’s not much out there that can deliver the sense of community you can get via a great radio station. Capital’s recent Summer Time Ball was another example of commercialising that feeling.  Rather than feeling like the huge gig that it was the Ball felt like an intimate party for London that happened to consist mainly of people you didn’t know.

Of course radio revenues are struggling along with everyone else’s.  Group M’s latest report predicts radio revenues for this year to be down 15% (slightly more than TV and Outdoor, but half of the predicted revenue decline of regional newspapers).  But for 2010 when the report sees a recovery of sorts for TV (down 3%) and outdoor (up 2%) radio continues to decline 9 points.

The Digital Britain report has now set a date for the switch over to DAB at 2015, to be mostly funded by the radio industry.  The benefits for the listener and advertiser are still unclear.  The signal strengths are still very flaky, and the fact that there will be more choice of channels is meaningless on two counts.  First we already have around 250 commercial radio stations in the UK most of which play the same kind of thing.  And secondly for real choice the listener and advertiser can already turn to internet radio – via their pc, their i-phone or a specialist radio set.  The new Roberts Stream 202 promises 10,000 radio stations from around the world.

Radio is set for significant change.  It is a medium that has built a good place for itself on a media schedule by being very clear about its unique place as the voice of community.  In the future this clarity may be challenged by new ways of listening, requiring a redefinition of radio’s role in listeners’ lives.

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