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19 August 2014

Defining Radio

OK, I'm going to have another go at an old chestnut. Is radio on the internet 'radio'?

On one level, it obviously is. The listener's experience is, or certainly should be, platform blind. I don't care how utilities are delivered to my home, so long as they arrive when I need them. BT once ran a witty commercial showing the scale of technical effort that went into maintaining a copper-wire connection to an unappreciative elderly customer in the Scottish highlands. Listeners treat radio as a utility.

I don't care if the product gets to me via AM, FM, DAB, 3G, IP or any other system the geeks can devise so long as I can hear it when I want to at the click of a switch.

But there's more to it than that.

On another level, internet 'radio' clearly isn't radio at all.

One great joy of radio, certainly since the transistor era, has been its portability. My trusty bright red Tandy £3.99 job has a permanent place in the bathroom. It's probably been dunked without damage a couple of times. I would never consider bathing with my BlackBerry. And of course listening to the radio whilst tethered to a PC is a joyless experience.

I've fought long and hard to ensure my students get to work with 'proper' radio stations as part of their University modules at Leeds Trinity. That means we work cooperatively with our partners at BCB 106.6FM and ELFM to get students and their work on air in different ways appropriate to their differing courses and experience.

Other Universities prefer to have what they call their own 'radio station' ... an internet stream.

I've rejected that path as not being special enough.

Bluntly, anyone can set up such a system from their back bedroom and it lacks the sense of occasion of 'going on the radio'. My students know their words are going out on a transmitter, being picked up and heard in cars, curry-house kitchens, garage workshops ...

OK, they know it won't be a huge audience, but broadcasting on BCB is easily the equivalent of standing on the stage in front of a packed St George's Hall and is a daunting enough prospect to challenge any student.

It makes their preparation, their effort, their nerves something to remember, and they internalise professional practice from the pain of their mistakes.

An internet stream, by contrast, will be heard by a few dozen PAPs ... parents and partners. If it all dissolves into giggles it doesn't matter, it's not really radio. It's not a public medium in any meaningful sense.

And there's the rub.

Even if technology evolves to a point where the transitions between off-air broadcast signal, wifi and 4G are seamless, even if the kit becomes so cheap and disposable a dunking doesn't matter ... in a world of limitless choice, where choosing a 'station' is like choosing to read a blog, with millions upon millions to choose from ... that won't be 'radio' any more than kids singing into their hairbrushes is rock music.

Radio must have a human connection to the listener. A Pandora-bot is not radio. Every individual listener is simultaneously aware of being in a personal relationship with the broadcaster and of being part of a community sharing the experience.

Radio is a shared experience, with an opportunity for interaction. Once that interaction was written on a postcard (or the back of a sealed-down envelope). Or on 'Oh-one, two seven four, three nine two one, two one". Now it's on text and Twitter. The principle's the same.

Radio must usually be live. It's not a shared experience if it's on a catchup service. There's a good reason why Radio 5 is called '5 Live' and it's all in that sense of the shared moment. There are of course exceptions at the production end, but the most compelling radio is almost invariably live radio.

Radio should be creative - not driven by Selector (other programming software is available). Whilst such tools can do a lot to enhance the listener experience by facilitating better and more informed music choices such systems are best used as a guide, not a straitjacket.

Radio needs (modest) resources. Human resources. Creative people bouncing ideas off each other so the product the listener hears is greater than the sum of its parts.

The adoption of technology in radio has overlapped so completely with the accountant-led stripping out of human resources that the implications of one are often seen as a consequence of the other.

A breakfast show (for example) made up on the hoof by two people, however committed and dedicated, can never be sustained over any period of time without becoming trite, vacuous and boring. News bulletins hacked together by exhausted journos tethered to the internet will become formulaic and dull.

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