Five clues to the future of radio | #mediadev | DW | 27.05.2015
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Five clues to the future of radio

The demise of radio has been predicted time and time again – always incorrectly. This low-cost and flexible medium continues to respond to new technologies and changing listening habits.

An man in Bangalore, India, listens to All India Radio.

Despite being often described as a 'dying' media, radio still attracts huge audiences around the world.

Radio has supposedly been on its deathbed pretty much since images began moving. Way back, TV was apparently going to deal the final blow. Then, there was the song on the fledgling MTV network that said video would kill the radio star. Later, the internet was really supposed put radio in its grave. More recently, doomsayers have predicted that smartphones would lead to radio's demise.

Despite being often described as a 'dying' media, radio still attracts huge audiences around the world. And in many regions, radio audiences are growing as more and more stations hit the airwaves.

Radio’s success has much to do with its ability to adapt to changing technologies, its portability and the continued popularity of music and the spoken word. Here are five developments we think could indicate the direction that radio is headed.

1. India to launch nearly 840 new FM stations next year

Eighty-five years after its first radio channel went on the air, India is set to auction off 839 FM frequencies in 250-odd cities. Until about 15 years ago, the country had no privately owned radio stations and this new round of licensing is part of the country's bid to play catch-up by deregulating the radio sector.

While most of India's large metropolitan areas are already served by commercial radio, the new frequencies will bring FM radio to millions of people in more rural parts of the country for the first time. The expansion will open up new employment opportunities in rural areas and could see more of India's lesser-known languages and dialects getting regular airtime. Public broadcaster All India Radio is also expanding its network to include FM for the first time in more cities and towns.

2. Norway prepares to switch off FM

Just as India prepares to switch on FM for much of its population, Norway has set a date to end broadcasts by traditional means. From 2017, digital terrestrial radio – which is already listened to by more than half of the population – will replace FM completely. It will be the first country to entirely do away with FM broadcasting. The Norwegian government says the time is right because new digital audio broadcasting technology (DAB) – which allows more stations to broadcast on the same frequency – can now be heard by 90 percent of the population. Its national radio channels will also save money, since DAB is cheaper than traditional FM transmission. Already 20 radio stations are available on digital in Norway and there's space for 20 more. In the UK, there are almost 100 digital stations, both local and national, and more are set to come.

However, some analysts are concerned that the rise of commercial music streaming services like Spotify could move in and fill the gap left by the shut-off of FM, especially if large portions of the population aren't persuaded to buy digital radio receivers within the next two years.

3. Radio ad sales strong while others in retreat

If worldwide advertising forecasts are anything to go by, radio is set for exceptional growth. Despite the fact that radio faces intense competition from TV, print, mobile and online for the attention of consumers, global spending on radio advertising is likely to grow 2.3 percent this year and 4.9 percent in 2016.

That means radio’s doing much better than newspapers and magazines, where advertising growth will still likely be negative, according to recent data from the media planning and buying agency, Carat. In fact, demand even for TV advertising is expected to be weaker in 2016 than for radio. Radio networks in Africa and Latin America are still seeing major growth spurts as countries license more stations and advertisers count on the power of audio.

4. Podcasting audiences grows to 75 million

Another way listeners are tuning into radio and audio content is through podcasts, which is (usually) a music or talk program made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet. Podcasts have been around for more than a decade and have been championed by the likes of iTunes, which offers them for free in its store. After a lot of initial interest, the growth in listenership rates became stagnant for a while. Some even wondered if podcasting was a flash in the pan. But today, around 75 million people listen to podcasts every month.

The recent uptick in interest in podcasting likely has to do with one particular American podcast that captured listeners' imaginations unlike ever before. A long-form radio investigative journalism show featuring acclaimed radio producer Sarah Koenig, “Serial” conducted a 10-week, detailed investigation into a murder case in which a young man was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend. It's already been downloaded more than five million times on iTunes. In fact, the case which “Serial” was following was reopened earlier this year, although it’s not clear whether that was a direct result of the series’ investigation. What is clear is that in the wake of “Serial,” podcasts are very much in vogue and several new podcasting networks have recently formed in the United States.

The new popularity has renewed hopes that demand for podcasts in many developing countries will rise as access to mobile internet access improves. The Philippines, India and several African countries are known for popular radio drama series that could reach new audiences through podcasting.

5. Will radios on new smartphones be enabled?

Until recently, radio has benefited from the FM radio functionality included on many mobile phones. But while once-dominant mobile phone manufacturers like Nokia regularly featured FM radios, the current big players like Apple and Samsung haven’t enabled the radio chip on their newest smartphone models. So while the hidden technology exists, hundreds of millions of people can only listen to streaming radio, which uses up their valuable data allowances.

At a recent conference of the National Association of Broadcasters, an American radio and TV trade group, radio executives demanded that the chips be switched on. As well as giving wider access to people’s favorite stations, FM radio will allow listeners to receive emergency alerts when mobile networks fail. But mobile companies insist that today's users want to stream, download and customize music playlists, things which traditional radio doesn't allow. Until that fight is resolved, listeners will remain the losers.