You don’t have to be Marshall McLuhan, or even understand him, to know that every medium has its natural strengths. TV works differently from radio which fills a different set of needs than print.
And it’s no great leap to see that the physical platforms on which each medium lives also play a role in how that medium is consumed. Look at print for example. Readers use magazines differently than they use newspapers which are different again from books.
Yet, as content moves onto new digital platforms, the first instinct of those in legacy media is to take the traditional content model, plop it on a digital platform, and expect the same results. The first newspaper websites looked just like the newspapers that spawned them. Likewise, original programming produced for Netflix and Hulu is just now adapting itself to the binge-friendly on-demand video platform.
And a similar evolution has been taking place on the audio side. The first Internet radio stations sounded just like the linear radio stations they were hoping to displace: non-interactive music streams that sometimes even included DJs and ads. Enter personalized music streaming services such as Pandora, then Spotify, and suddenly Internet radio became more like flipping through the world’s largest personal music collection than listening to broadcast radio (with a corresponding decline in digital music sales proving the point).
Following the same pattern, in the early days of podcasting, most of the big podcasts were plucked straight off the airwaves of public radio. This made absolute sense, because podcasting solved a problem for public radio listeners. As tolerant as these listeners tend to be of the enormously wide range of programming the public broadcaster chooses to serve them, everyone has their favourites and they want to hear them on their own schedule. Commercial radio, on the other hand, is different—you can press that pre-set and pretty much count on getting the same type of programming 24/7. And it was largely for that reason that podcasts stripped off commercial radio have gotten little traction.
More and more podcasts are now being produced specifically for the podcast platform, and that’s helping to fuel growth. Podcast fans will tell you there’s an intimate, immersive quality to listening to a podcast that is totally unlike listening to broadcast radio. The most popular podcasts, from public radio and elsewhere, are the ones that deliver against that unique potential. Serial was a huge breakthrough on that very front. A more recent example is 2 Dope Queens from New York Public Radio—a very funny and popular, but ultra-raunchy, show that could never be aired on broadcast radio.
So, where does that leave broadcast radio? Radio has faced technological changes before and morphed itself into new shapes, and it will probably do so again. Broadcast radio’s strongest suit in the new competitive environment lies in its ability to reflect and connect to your world in real time. News and sports stations can easily do that, but so can music stations.
NOW! Radio in Edmonton stands as the ultimate example. NOW! plays music but, more important, it’s built around a masterfully managed in-the-moment conversation on the air and on social media. Since its launch in 2010, NOW! has been the perennial market leader, nearly doubling the 25-54 share of its nearest competitor every ratings period. (The strangest thing is that no one else seems to have tried to replicate that success in other markets.)
As the audio evolution continues, the strongest survivors will be those who steer away from either tried-and-true or one-size-fits-all approaches and build their content around the unique qualities of each platform.