Radio’s Future

Dan Gillmor writes:

Technology and creative thinking have come to our rescue. Producers of audio programming have an array of inexpensive and easy-to-use tools, and much more flexibility in delivering what they create. Listeners are huge winners. From satellites in outer space to neighborhood broadcasting to our portable MP3 players and even our phones, we can get what we want, when we want it.

There will still be room, when the transition is finished, for traditional radio stations and networks — assuming they don’t successfully conspire with politicians and their entertainment-industry buddies to stifle the innovators, as they’ve pretty much done with Internet radio. The old guard will have to provide higher quality if it wants to survive.

Satellite radio isn’t just a mass-audience medium. It enables niche programming to succeed, when the niche can attract a national audience that would not be sufficient in a given community to support the program.

The niche a neighborhood can support is truly local programming, something that most commercial stations do half-heartedly at best. Despite the traditional broadcasters’ best efforts to erect roadblocks, we’re making slow progress toward small-scale service. Low-powered radio stations, serving neighborhoods as opposed to large geographical areas, are showing signs of emerging from the regulatory morass where they’ve been bogged down.

The broadcasters have insisted that low-powered radio would interfere with their signals. The evidence is otherwise.

One real value of traditional local radio for many of us is traffic reports and other truly local news. Even here, niche players will erode the franchise of the big broadcasters.

We can already get traffic reports on mobile phones, using services like TellMe and emerging competitors. As mobile networks get more sophisticated and start feeding data to in-car map displays and other gear, we’ll get real-time suggestions on the best personal routing to our destinations. Today’s radio stations should realize that mobile networks could also become the delivery systems for other kinds of news.

Meanwhile, down in the trenches of the technology world, some clever folks are creating something they’re calling “podcasting,” delivering audio programming to MP3 players like Apple’s iPod. The genre is at the distant periphery of radio today, but it has major potential.

Its significance is the flexibility it adds to the ecosystem. It helps us collect radio-like programming, some of which is being created by people using low-cost yet adequate audio tools, that we can put on our MP3 players and then listen to at our leisure. More intriguing, this is going to be a delivery system for gifted amateurs and, if they’re smart, professional programmers as well.

We can already save Internet radio broadcasts to our PCs and MP3 players. Now, devices designed to record radio straight off the air at designated times are starting to appear. Just as TiVo and other hard disk recorders are changing the way we watch TV, we can adapt radio to our own purposes, too.

It is interesting to see how a medium that was once written off is making a comeback aided by technology and creativity.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.