The trend in radio around the world is going hybrid. Franz Kruger, director of Wits Radio Academy, explains what that means and how it works.
“We’re hybrid – let’s move on,” says the BBC’s head of audio, Tim Davie, with some exasperation to people still worrying about the impact of new media on that venerable legacy medium, radio.
New media offers radio stations huge opportunities, and should not be feared, Davie argued both at the recent Radio Days Europe in Barcelona and during his 2011 appearance at Jo’burg Radio Days. But, he says, stations need to go beyond just putting up a half-hearted website and forcing their DJs to blog.
It starts with audio, but doesn’t need to end there. Radio continues to dominate audiences’ consumption of pure audio, still having 80% “share of ear”, as Davie puts it. The question is how to use the growing number of available platforms to reach them.
Some see the future in audiostreaming, particularly to smartphones. South Africa has recently seen a number of online radio stations set up shop, drawn undoubtedly by the fact that no approval is needed from Icasa, South Africa’s communications regulator. There’s former Jacaranda DJ Darren Scott’s Ballz Visual Radio, worldtunes.net, the slightly older 2oceansvibe.com and others.
The cost and availability of bandwidth remains an obstacle in seriously competing with FM.
Digital radio broadcasting – the radio version of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), which is set to shake up the TV landscape in South Africa – is gradually gaining ground in Europe, the US and elsewhere.
People like Davie see this as a much bigger opportunity. “The most important thing you can do today is tell your mobile operator that you want phones to receive (digital) broadcast signals, as IP can’t deliver us the growth that we need,” he says. In South Africa, there are indications of significant growth in young audiences’ use of the FM receivers in some phones.
In Germany, the recent introduction of digital broadcasting has for the first time created a national market, since previously broadcast regulation was handled at State level. With different rules in different regions, there has been little space for national stations, even in public broadcasting.
German companies like Regiocast are making use of the opportunity to put nationwide stations on the digital airwaves. The firm’s CEO, Erwin Linnenbach, told the Barcelona conference of their new soccer service, 90elf, which was drawing weekend audiences of around two million.
In South Africa, however, digital radio broadcasting through DAB+ or other technologies is still years away. But there are many great examples of radio stations making creative use of other platforms.
Young Swedish audiences are making massive use of on-demand music services, particularly Spotify. In response, Swedish public radio has begun putting their own content on Spotify in order to reach those audiences.
In Switzerland, a station created a concept they called ‘8×15’ – a combination of live show, TV and radio broadcast as well as podcast that allowed eight promising new local bands to perform for exactly 15 minutes each. The concept drew huge enthusiastic audiences, and contributed to the growth of new local talent.
Similarly, the BBC – and commercial British stations – often link up with established festivals. And its groundbreaking collaboration with the British Museum, ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’, an exciting combination of visuals, audio and interactive media continues to draw big online audiences, even though the on-air broadcasts are long over.
One of the key opportunities for radio in using the online space is to offer 21st century audiences the opportunity to listen at a time of their choosing: in a word, podcasts. Of course, the content has to be worthwhile. It’s not very likely that listeners will seek out a breakfast DJ’s inane comment on the weather.
The more technology-based of these ideas are harder to see in terms of reaching mass audiences in South Africa, but two areas that offer great potential here are mobile and social media.
Kristen Purcell of Pew Internet Research in the US has described social media as the “thread”, as compared to mobile which she calls the “needle”. Information, she says, has become free, ambient and controlled by audiences.
For radio stations, this suggests that social media must be used to draw audiences into a conversation. Broadcasting is no longer about sending out finished products to audiences, it is about building communities that relate in various ways on various platforms.
Radio has some strong advantages over other media in using the newer media. It has always been nimble, fast and immediate – the most likely source of breaking news. It manages interactive formats much more easily than other media, with its talk-back shows and the like.
And perhaps most fundamentally, it has always relied on building relationships with audiences: nobody watches TV because they relate to the continuity presenter, while on radio the host’s personality is absolutely central.
All these characteristics make new media, particularly social media, a natural partner for radio stations.
This story was first published in the July 2012 issue of The Media magazine.