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14 February 2016

Independence Day - Radio's Wakeup Call?

This week has seen the announcement that The Independent is to cease print publication in the UK, and will become just one of a gazillion news sources on the infinet.

It's the first high-profile national title to fold in recent years. Time will tell if the brand built up enough of a reputation for its writing to survive on the web of world wide whim, but the decision has prompted a new round of "death of print", and by extension "death of analogue media" articles from commentators.

I believe this has important lessons for broadcast radio. Here's why.

I was particularly struck by Andrew Marr's piece in The Guardian, and in particular this insight I'd not seen expressed so clearly before. "Free news" online isn't really "free" to the consumer at all:
"Under the old model, large industrial corporations used capital-heavy technology to make and then distribute information to individuals. In the new model we – you and me – purchase the computers, Wi-Fi accounts, apps, mobile phones and sometimes subscriptions, which allow corporations to pass the information to us more cheaply. For media companies, it’s a great gig. If you are poor, don’t have the connections or the gear or the bank accounts, perhaps less so."
This also explains why, as a consumer, I'm so reluctant to pay for news online. I've made a heavy investment in the smartphone, in the mobile data contract, in the WiFi connection and in the always-on router. No wonder I'm reluctant to buy a news subscription, having spent all that just to bring the news to my handset.

Before all those upfront costs kicked in I was quite happy to spend £1 or so for a Sunday newspaper (quite a bargain bundle, even if I threw away the Sport, Style and Motoring sections untouched). I'd buy a local paper for pennies if I didn't read them free at work, from a man yelling "Eenin Po" or "T'naaay" on a street corner. Their dress and manner suggested I wasn't paying that much for the means of news distribution.

I now pay close to £60 a month - every month - for my home broadband. That's 720 notes a year.

I pay another £13 a month (or over 150 quid a year) for a mobile contract allowing half a gig of mobile data every month. I'd pay around four times that if I wanted the latest smartphone, rather than my ancient Blackberry. As a family we own a couple of tablets and a PC which need replacing from time to time. So I'm shelling out upwards of a grand and a half every year just to be connected to the "free" news on the infinet.

This money goes to the tech-toy companies and the communication utilities. There's very little in it for the "content providers", which includes the whole of the news industry. Something has become very out of balance in the dynamic.

Then I see students at my place of work queueing in line to buy crap coffee-flavoured milk drinks from a branded outlet in the foyer at £2 and £3 a cup, and I begin to understand. Like the £60/month iPhone contract, this is normal to them.

I can't do much about the newspaper industry. Or Starbucks. But I'd like to think there is still time to wake up the Zombie generation to the facts of life about radio before it's too late.

First - radio is very, very cheap to consume. So cheap that when I took my kids to Disneyland Paris, they got a functioning FM radio given away free with a burger. Headphones, button for auto tuning up and down the band, volume control, integral battery - it still works a decade later. You don't need shiny kit. I'll be waiting a while before they get an iPhone with a Quarterpounder. Otherwise a perfectly good FM radio from Argos or Curry's comes in at less than a tenner.

Radio's programme content is effectively free to the listener. You can argue the BBC licence fee as a marginal cost in the UK, and pennies on a supermarket shop everywhere, but as an overall share of the Beeb's multimedia offering or Walmart's total advertising spend radio's take is infinitesimally small.

The lesson from all this is that we need to educate the smartphone generation to use free radio, or lose it.

Just about every smartphone has an FM radio chip in it, and these are activated by default in less affluent markets around the world. You don't need a data plan, or WiFi. You just need to be in the radio station's transmission area.

Only in rich markets are the chips muted, with consumers forced to listen to streaming services over (paid for) mobile data plans or (paid for) WiFi. This deliberate choice by the handset manufacturers forces free broadcast radio onto the same expensive playing field as infinet streaming-service music providers. If we can persuade the Cappuccino consumers to only buy handsets with FM or DAB functionality, then supply will follow the market.

These are consumers who are obsessed with novelty. They are attracted to the new and the shiny like moths to a flame. To reach them, radio needs to reinvent itself by diversifying its offering.

I was very taken with Steve Penk's blog this week on RadioToday calling for greater choice of services on UK DAB radio, rather than simulcasts of FM national services and unadventurous "brand extensions".

We need choice to excite the listener to rediscover the potential of radio:
"Surely the only thing that is going to grow sales of DAB radio in the UK, is to offer the listening public something different on DAB, something they currently can’t get on FM radio. Make it interesting, make it different, make it compelling, offer variety and choice, make people feel like they’re missing out if they don’t own a DAB radio. Simply extending existing brands or relaying already national radio stations on DAB is stupid."
It happens elsewhere. In Leeds, my home city, the independent coffee houses like Bottega Milanese and Layne's Espresso are able to take on the likes of Starbucks and Costa, and win a share of the market through distinctive, high quality offerings that, perhaps surprisingly, don't cost any more than the dull mass market alternative. Real ale pubs are also thriving - it's not Wetherspoons's or nothing.

It's time for radio to go on the offensive, shout about its attributes and sell its distinctiveness to an audience that needs reminding it can listen for free - but needs a reason to do so.


  1. I want a radio station that is a combination of Radio 4 and Planet Rock. When might I get it? ;-)

  2. I use radio when out backpacking as it's the lightest, lowest power way of getting to sleep on a noisy campsite. Radio 4 at 11pm - works every time. :-)

    Useful for weather forecasts too.

    Once upon a time you could pick up world service in Europe on analogue. Nowadays, streaming digital is the only option (where free wifi is to be had).