I always need silence when I write, but when I’m doing research, which is most of the time, I like to have music in the background. Often I’ll fire up my shortwave receiver and find something exotic, though these days it’s much easier to use the internet. A favorite is Matariki Radio in the Cook Islands, which blends Polynesian rhythms with updates of shipping news to the outer islands and local ads for trading companies and burger joints that stretch the imagination.
Everything else is on the internet, so why not radio? Many stations offer streaming options on their websites, but if you want to consolidate your listening, you can always use an aggregator site like Tunein.com, which offers a handy search engine. Pick your continent and country and you can find not just the major broadcasters but the fascinating local outlets that give you a feel for how life is lived in the kind of places you’re hoping to travel to one day.
But listening to distant stations doesn’t keep local stations alive, and it’s conventional AM/FM radio – what we all grew up with – that is threatened, according to a new report out of New York University. Is traditional radio – the stations that broadcast a signal over an antenna and fill up drive-time hours for so many drivers – headed for an inevitable decline?
People have always used radio as a way of finding new music, but today, we’re seeing most new cars coming off the lot already connected to digital services. The New York University survey, conducted by its Steinhart Music Business Program, points out that radio has fallen way behind digital services like Pandora, YouTube and Spotify when it comes to exploring music.
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The future is tricky indeed for traditional broadcasters, because it turns out that the average age of a car in the United States is 11.6 years. That means the digital revolution in autos hasn’t fully arrived, but we’re in its headlights as people gradually upgrade to newer vehicles. Streaming data is now used by Billboard to produce its popularity charts – these, in turn, are becoming more of a factor in determining what radio stations play than traditional airplay.
I’m thinking of friends who summon up the artist of choice on their Amazon Echo or Google Home devices. Just a few spoken words can produce a playlist for whatever musical genre you want, with surprisingly good sound, all curated by software in the cloud and delivered effortlessly. Home devices are game-changers, and as they infiltrate our lives, we’ll see more disruption of the services we take for granted. Think Netflix, or Hulu, compared to local TV.
Each industry that the internet disrupts has to come up with a strategy for absorbing the best digital tools while retaining its identity, and I think traditional radio still holds many cards. It’s what I turn to when I need something fast, a news flash on what North Korea is up to, or the movement of a hurricane. That’s because most of us spend a lot of time in the car, often in short trips, and a moving vehicle is not a place where drivers need to be looking at screens.
The venue, then, is stable enough. There should always be a place for local radio, with its mix of relevant commercials and updates on traffic and banter among people we might run into in nearby venues. That sense of being among neighbors is something streaming services don’t convey, just as national websites don’t put across an adequate picture of our home towns.
Music is what commercial radio thrives on, but the digital train is approaching the intersection. Going forward, traditional radio will have to supplement its offerings with streaming and other digital options, while moving away from the music-discovery model that the internet has so thoroughly disrupted. A digital model focusing on local talk and connection to personalized services is evolving that redefines the DJ and should be fertile ground for start-ups to explore.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org