Video fails to kill the radio star

David Grossman examines why radio has an enduring appeal

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When MTV launched in 1981, the first music video it played was "Video killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. The intent was clear; the channel was going to kill off old-fashioned radio.

Down the years plenty of technologies have looked set to kill off radio: talking pictures, TV, the cassette tape, the CD, the iPod. Today it's streaming music services like Spotify. All have so far failed.

Radio listening figures are holding up remarkably well given all the other sources of entertainment and information available.

What may surprise you is that there are plenty of venture capitalists betting big that good old, steam-age radio cannot just survive but thrive.

'Paste in adverts'

In the heart of Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, I went to see Tune In. It started in 2002 as an online catalogue of radio audio streams. Now its apps mean anyone with a smartphone can tune in to 100,000 radio stations from all over the world.

"It's the last mass market medium moving online," says Tune In's CEO John Donham. "Now a single radio station can reach everyone digitally, rather than just through the terrestrial analogue signal."

But taking a local medium global creates its own problems. Eighty percent of the radio ads that pay the bills are sold locally. A shop or restaurant buying a radio slot probably isn't very interested in reaching listeners on the other side of the world.

Screen shot of Next Radio app Next Radio says its services give audiences a chance to interact

The solution that Tune In is working on is to slice out the original ads from the audio stream and paste in ads that are more relevant to the listener.

"That's one of the problems Tune In's trying to solve in the future," Mr Donham says. "How do we pair up advertising with a local user even though it might be non-local content?"

Another problem that Tune In has is that using the mobile phone network to listen to the radio is expensive in terms of bandwidth and battery life. Another smartphone app could be the answer.

Paul Brenner, is the chief technology officer of Emmis Communications, which has launched Next Radio.

'Ad transformation'

Start Quote

People want to be connected with other people, they want to be part of a tribe, they want to be accepted and that's what radio brings”

End Quote Michael Martin CBS radio

He tells me that inside almost every smartphone is a chip that could receive an FM radio signal, but most mobile phone networks don't choose to activate them. The US network Sprint is now supporting the app, which Mr Brenner says is more than just a radio.

"Where we step off and make it more innovative and compelling is to use the FM to trigger events that make it more interactive, so, as the song is playing, we might display artist and title or album information.

"We are giving the audience a chance to feedback: do you like it? Do you dislike it? Would you like to share this with your friends?"

Next Radio thinks advertising will be transformed.

Imagine a radio ad for a tyre shop is playing, says Mr Brenner. "We add a button that says route me to the nearest tyre shop or give me the coupon to show when I get to the tyre shop. That's a service that Next Radio thinks advertisers will pay for."

Woman listening to radio on tablet Radio audience figures have been holding up well, aided by internet streaming

FM is also more robust than data streaming. That's a big factor in cities like San Francisco, says Doug Harvill, senior vice-president of CBS Radio.

"If there was a real emergency, for example an earthquake, most likely we're going to be able to be on the air and deliver the news and information that people are going to want."

'Audience connection'

An FM-based platform may be less useful in the UK, where the government is committed to digital switchover. However, recently ministers have suggested the FM signal may not be switched off until at least the end of the decade.

In the end radio survives and thrives because its audiences value it.

"People will always want to connect with local radio personalities," says Michael Martin, vice-president of programming for CBS Radio.

"You can get music anywhere, but it's in between the records where radio has a connection with the audience.

"People want to be connected with other people, they want to be part of a tribe, they want to be accepted and that's what radio brings."

You can watch David Grossman's film on Newsnight on Friday at 22:30 GMT on BBC Two or later on the BBC iPlayer or via the Newsnight website.

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