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06 July 2015

Overlooking Something Important ...

I don't care where my radio comes from, at least in terms of the technology,

As a youngster I heard the early days of Radio Leeds, and later, with much excitement, the launch of Bradford's Pennine Radio on a little AM pocket transistor my parents had in the house.

Now radio in all its forms is delivered by a bewildering multiplicity of apps, devices and channels (radio on the TV anyone? yes, around 5% listen via digital TV according to OFCOM) I'm worried that it's being turned into something alien; an exclusive commodity to be bought rather than something free and universally available.

In that we're losing sight of one of its fundamental attributes.

That same black plastic transistor with the gold trim sat, precariously, on the edge of the bath as my teenage soundtrack unfolded, sometimes fading away to almost nothing and then coming back REALLY LOUD FOR a bit, on Radio Luxembourg. On 208. All on medium wave.

Around the same time my parents bought a posh hifi system (from Comet - not that posh) with a VHF radio receiver. I took pride in tuning the signal precisely, by hand, until the little red "stereo" light came on and the sound split magically into left and right speakers. Later, one of the first jobs I was trusted to do as a student hanger-on at Pennine was to press the button which took the station in and out of stereo mode at the start and end of speech programmes. What chuffed me most was that I was turning the little red light on and off at home each time I did so.

Much later, after my front line news career came to an end, I celebrated my appointment as a consultant to Real Radio in 2004 by blowing £100 on a Pure Evoke 1 DAB radio from the White Rose Centre next door. After all it was, like Real, the future of radio and would surely be around for the next 30 years.

So hearing of the launch of Apple's radio offering Beats 1 almost (but not quite) prompted me to get to grips with an iPhone. Accounts of the launch differ, from James Cridland's catalogue of technical cockups to Dawn Chmielewski's near-eulogy on re/code. But we're missing something important here.

Let's remind ourselves of Radio 101 - the first class I give each year to students who are increasingly duped into preceiving radio as a poor relation to pics'n'clicks. Until I put them right, and make them fall in love with it.

In the beginning.

Radio is intimate. Radio is communication direct from passionate presenter to enthralled listener, who is simultaneously aware of being addressed directly and also of being part of a wider, deeper shared experience.

I'm happy to acknowledge that Zane Lowe et al can deliver that, and flagging up the concept of multiple studios in different timezones helps build a clever theatre of the mind image evoking a global, switched on community.

Radio is also, crucially, free to the listener at the point of consumption.

Not only the signal - the kit can also be free. My intro lecture each year features the fully functional, auto turning FM radio with headphones that was given away with a burger to my kids during a visit to Disneyland Paris.

More conventional technology is also cheap as (Disney's) chips. When that old transistor finally fell into the water its replacement cost, if I recall correctly, £6-99 from Tandy; that would still be less than a tenner in today's money.

In other words, less than a month's subscription to a music streaming service.

For here's the rub. As corporations like Apple target radio they're not really interested in the medium as such. It's an extra feature for the next iPhone, or a come-on bonus for a Spotify clone. Note how the FM receiver chips in most smartphones are switched off in developed markets.

What telecoms providers and smartphone makers are actually interested in is owning and controlling the means of delivering something which requires expensive reception, ideally on expensive kit. It's no longer free to the listener at the point of consumption.

I had a lighthearted spat with James Cridland this week over the launch of Mi-Soul; what sounds like a fabulous radio station on DAB, but only in London.
(I've just checked that website, by the way, and as they're "igniting London's soul" they're clearly not even interested in me online. But I'm being facetious. Even though I am a bit annoyed).

The serious point in this is that the only way I could listen to Mi-Soul in the car on a run from (say) Leeds to Glasgow would be to listen using 3G wifi from my phone company (Vodafone). I would be paying for that data after the first 500MB. Just listening to radio would be costing me money. That may not be wrong in a moral sense, but it's certainly new. And not good.

With internet-delivered radio, if I don't want to be tethered to my PC, I would need to listen on my phone so I need to upgrade it. If I want a seamless, integrated service I need one of Apple's shiny iToys at £500 or so. That's a lot more than £6-99, and infinitely more than free. Do you see where we're going here?

Is radio on the internet radio? Yes, when it offers the same attributes as broadcast radio.

Until the Utopia of universal free wifi arrives, AND until Disneyland Paris give away smartphones free with their burgers, internet services do not meet those attributes.


  1. Mmm. For many of us, we're already paying for the internet. We're paying for it to blog, to check our email, and to watch iPlayer every so often. So the internet, for many of us, is already free.

    I'm on an unlimited internet tarrif on my phone; but even then, a 1.5GB contract would suit me - considerably lower than I was expecting. This morning I checked how much internet I use at home, since I'm contemplating changing provider. My family - which is glued to YouTube, iPlayer, Google Music and Skype - consumes 145GB a month, which is interestingly much lower than I felt it would be.

    Your blog post hinges on a definition of radio. I don't think people really care whether the thing they're listening to is 'radio'. I think they care whether they find it enjoyable, entertaining or educating. They don't care how they listen.

    For me, radio is defined as audio that is 'a shared experience with a human connection'. Crucially, that means that Beats1 or MiSoul *is* radio: whether it's on a TV, a phone or a digital radio. It also means that podcasts, too, fall into my definition of radio - Serial was both, clearly, a shared experience and a human connection. And it also means that Gold - a moronic commercial radio jukebox with no presenter - isn't. Someone else's iPod on shuffle isn't my idea of a shared experience with a human connection.

    Increasingly, platform is immaterial. Whether it's live or on-demand isn't important either. It all comes back to the content. And great radio - as I discovered listening to Radio Aire or Radio Tees late at night - is great radio.

  2. Thanks for that James and I'm delighted if your research results in you saving a few bob on your home Broadband bill.

    I was trying, evidently not hard enough, to say I'm happy to receive radio over the internet, off an old coathanger or, someday soon, to a chip in my spinal cord so long as has that shared experience with a human connection that you also value greatly.

    I'm sure many people do (as you did) forget how much they're paying for 'always on' connectivity. I pay a tenner a month on my mobile phone contract whereas students who plead poverty are on £45 or £50 contracts, and eager to upgrade and pay yet more every time a new i-model comes out; their radio consumption when away from home is far from 'free', but then value for money in these circumstances depends very much on personal perceptions.

    My intention with the post was to highlight what I see as a danger we could lose 'free' radio altogether when (being increasingly more likely than if) terrestrial radio broadcasting is switched off.

    On the hardware side it was also to suggest we don't need the latest Apple product to enjoy radio. But we might do if the only way to listen is online, or via the (highly profitable) telecoms provider networks, and that's what I was railing on about.