Radio broadcasting is a platform used to convey information among multiple generations. Radio listeners retrieve content that covers music, news, politics, and more. In the modern age, there has been an ever-increasing trend in consumer-run products, like online music streaming services. With a rise in these services, it begs the question: What is the current standing of traditional radio today? The state of the radio industry is arguable because of its dichotomous viewpoints. Point A: Radio is a dying industry and losing its existence. Plain and simple. Or Point B: it is expanding exponentially, but changing into a different platform and format. It is important to analyze this topic because it provides communication scholars with an idea of our consumer habits and our interactions with artists today.
With music streaming services modernizing and exponentially growing, younger generations are equipping themselves with subscriptions and their loyalties to music streaming services over traditional radio because of its digital accessibility, radio nationalization, and consumer/artist endorsement and interest.
Radio stations are made up of many departments that build the content to appeal to ideal consumers. Each station is limited to a particular format, whether it is solely news/talk, pop, indie rock and alternative, R&B/hip hop, etc. For radio stations, the content is built up by programmers, radio deejays and hosts, and salespersons. In 2016, the United States Department of Labor (USDL) revealed that there are 25,640 radio and television announcers that get an average hourly wage of $22.05. The employment pool for radio personalities is small; the ideal candidate for today’s deejay is boisterous and gathers a lot of attention. Candidates reflect the same expectations as today’s television personalities. Also, radio programmers determine music choices usually based on what songs have been the most listened to, purchased, or shared. The difference between radio and online streaming is not only formatting, but the limitations. Radio stations identify based on one genre, whereas the scope of music streaming remains vast, a considerable advantage when appealing to more listeners.
Online music streaming services, like Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal, require jobs in programming and audio engineering over talent. The USDL found that there are 2,740 software developers and programmers, many of which would be maintaining the upkeep of today’s online music outlets. They are paid $36.37 hourly (n.p., 2016). Unlike traditional radio, programmers for streaming services are paid more and have greater competition because of their large audiences. With digital content, there is greater organization and accessibility for modern consumers.
Data & Evidence: Digital Accessibility
Younger generations are being raised in a digitally active society. In 2016, Norman Medoff and Barbara Kaye co-wrote “Electronic Media”, a book that compares traditional platforms to modern ones, including the radio industry. Medoff and Kaye argue that students no longer have the patience of listening to broadcasted radio: “Today, students live in a nonlinear, digital world in which traditional broadcasting plays a greatly diminished role. For example, students no longer wait for over-the-air radio to play new music or favorite tunes. The Internet provides multiple streams of music, much of which can be shared and downloaded for future playback on computers or mobile devices.” (2016, n.p.). So not only are consumers losing musical interest in traditional radio, but they are gravitating toward using streaming services for that instant satisfaction. Accessibility to these platforms are not as actively sought out as radio stations, when at home, the office, or in a sit-down setting. Letting the music play has naturalized into modern society, and the ability to push play to any song is a luxury that cannot be made up with repetitive songs on the radio. Younger generations would much rather play their own songs online over turning on the radio because of this concept called “freeconomics”. “Freeconomics” is described as the generation of free music content at the disposal of the consumer. However, many free subscriptions to platforms like Spotify, Pandora, and Tidal, have ads that cannot be avoided. Such services still give consumers the benefit of listening to music of their choosing, unlike radio, where consumers go through unwanted ads and in some cases, unwanted songs.
Daniel Wiechmann’s 2012 article, “The Impact of Online Music Services on the Music Recording Industry”, describes the economic rates of music sales. Wiechmann mentioned that in 2008, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) found that 40 billion CD files were shared illegally. In more recent years, CD sales have been dropping, and therefore, the rate of illegal CD file exchanging are at a set decline. This has been a factor in radio broadcasting too. Many college radio stations prefer emailed electronic music submissions and MP3 files over sent physical copies of CDs. Because inputting music into radio software is time-consuming, emailed and downloadable links to songs are easier to manage and organize for radio personnel.
Wiechmann also notes that as of 2012, there are more than 230 million social networking users. With an expanding amount of music platforms online, like Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube Music, the accessibility in content is present now more than ever. A part of its accessibility is the fact that these platforms are “free” – many platforms require a subscription or email to get access. The musical discoveries are limitless, and because of the array of options, the process to stream music online is normalizing (Wiechmann, n.p., 2012).
Data & Evidence: Radio Nationalization
Community radio is on the decline; the emergence of online services and streaming music is one of the many reasons why localism in radio is disappearing. In David King Dunaway’s 2014 article “The Conglomeration of Public Radio”, he analyzes the state of localized radio in a world of monopolizing radio. Dunaway writes: “The days of mom-and-pop radio stations in small communities, serving their communities through direct participation and personal engagement, fairly much ended in the 1990s, in part because of the media deregulation movement of the 1980s (Dunaway, n.p., 2014). So not only are the mom-and-pop radio stations dying, but they are limited and regulated in owner rights. More and more consumers are listening to local radio, and are gravitating to branded, more nationalized stations.
Stations today are gaining listener attraction from its brand name recognizability (like iHeart Radio) or by its online presence. National Public Radio (NPR) is a prime example of this. Their original corroborations with local radio groups led to a nationalized enterprise, and their switch to an online format has made them one of the largest online radio organizations today. Because of NPR and their online presence, there is a paradigm shift in how the radio is being listened to. His study looks at three college radio stations: one in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Flagstaff.
In Los Angeles, KPCC-FM was owned by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The station was licensed to Pasadena Community College, featuring student production shows, local shows, and a diverse set of music formats. On January 1, 2000, the ownership was shifted to American Public Media – this meant that all programming, including student shows, were eradicated. The switch in leadership provided the station with 25 new positions and 15.7 million dollars given in a 15-year contract. Now, American Public Media (APM) stands as the second largest broadcast platform in the nation. Dunaway notes that “this brought its chain of 30 public stations to a national level, which commands higher underwriting rates and national sponsorships” (Dunaway, pp. 179, 2014).
APM today generates content the same way NPR does. Nielsen, one of top media research companies, says that APM has an estimated 900,000 listeners weekly, reaching consumers through network stations across the country and their online programming.
Digitalized consumers gravitate toward nationalized platforms because they are transferrable when talking about them – people use the brand name to identify with others and make associations with people. Local radio connects people within a community, but online, nationalized music services, is a topic that people can build from in conversation.
Data & Evidence: Consumer/Artist Endorsement and Interest
Services like Spotify, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud have given artists an elevated ability to showcase their tracks to a larger audience. In a 2013 Forbes article, Steve Savoca, Spotify’s Head of Content, explains that artists go viral because of listeners: “It translated into this social phenomenon. The users felt they discovered something really exciting and they wanted to express it. They shared tracks with friends on Spotify, Facebook and Twitter… it spread like wildfire” (Bertoni, n.p., 2013). Artist emergence, consumer interaction, and social media convergence enables the relationship between artists and consumers to grow in a way that is portable, personal, collaborative, and accessible. It has come to the point to where artists solely have their music on streaming websites. Artists like Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean, and Beyoncé feature their work on specific music websites, which requires fans to subscribe to these platforms. This way, the relationship is mutual for the artist and for the streaming service. Fans are buying into the platforms to retrieve the music, and the music is being secured within the platform, leaving the quality and value of the work in-tact.
Lorde, one of today’s top artists, has made a name for herself after her single “Royals” expanded from the “Shazam effect”. As described in the Forbes article, written by Steven Bertoni, the “Shazam effect” is the generation of a viral reaction by listening to a song, discovering the name of the artist, and spreading the word about them via social media. Other artists like Lukas Graham and Jon Bellion grew out of that same effect.
Phenomena like the “Shazam effect” have changed the way in which promoters and artists put out their music. Artists are always showcasing creativity and innovation, and sparking the interest of a blind listener is one of the best compliments given. In an analysis article from The Atlantic, promoters for radio now are strategizing their marketing and outreach tactics, to boost consumer interest at all music radio platforms: “Concert promoters study Spotify listens to route through towns with the most fans, and some artists look for patterns in Pandora streaming to figure out which songs to play at each stop on a tour.”
Radio stations choose their songs the same way promoters vouch for their artists: market research and data provide a glimpse of what listeners like and what products they sway toward. Radio stations use market research to determine what songs make the cut and what songs do not. Referring to The Atlantic article about the “Shazam effect”, Derek Thompson explains that “the reliance on data may be leading to a ‘clustering’ of styles and a dispirited sameness in pop music” (Thompson, n.p. 2014). Though the process of handling the same songs is easier to organize, the repetition of songs does not fully identify with the diversity of today’s music as a whole. Radio stations today are subjected to a limited set of songs, because each station is divided up by genre and format. Music platforms online generate a wider audience because of its conglomeration of all formats and all genres of music. Therefore, many people today prefer to just pick and choose songs they are interested in rather than regularly listen to the “Top 40” countdown and other radio shows.
Contradictory Data: Radio Still Provides Many Options
Arguably, radio may not be gone after all. The definition varies, which makes the controversy of its state noticeable. From where it originated in the 1930s, radio can be defined by the relay of information through radio soundwaves. Others suggest that radio is about the generation of information, whether it is news, music, or entertainment, using an auditory aid and any presented format. Radio is defined as a multitude of things, and spans across all nationalized and localized formats. The scale of radio platforms today is interpretive, and that is a part of the argument against the industry’s deterioration.
NPR, one of the top online services used for podcasting and music reviews, adjusted to a digital format to appeal to more users. Jennifer Dorroh, former director of the International Center for Journalists, wrote a piece on the evolution of NPR’s digitalized format. In “Transformation of NPR”, Dorroh notes that “about half of NPR’s mobile visitors (about 700,000 to 800,000 per month) use iPhones, the major driver of the site’s growth”. NPR utilized the growing numbers of iPhone users to assess the online attention of NPR users. Like many other platforms, NPR took their content and moved it into an area that has greater usage. From there, they can generate higher ratings and impressions from consumers.
Additionally, NPR argues that though the internet brings a broad range of music options for today’s consumers, it takes away from the personalized customer experience. “The Web can be very impersonal,” according to Dorroh. NPR’s outreach requires “looking for ways to bring the humanity back into that environment and for people to feel a personal connection and investment (Dorroh, n.p., 2008). NPR is taking on their nationalized platform and trying to personalize it into a localized setting, an asset that continues to sustain radio communities today.
Localism is a very important concept that radio broadcasters use in their platforms. From Medoff and Kaye’s book “Electronic Media”, they describe localism as an advantage that terrestrial radio has against any other platforms: “Radio station signals remain local because of the nature of how they are broadcast and received…A radio station serves its community with local-interest entertainment programming, news, weather, sports, and community affairs and information.” (Medoff, n.p., 2016).
Referring to Dunaway’s article, the analysis of three cities and the conglomeration of local to national radio causes distress for radio broadcasting students. Though the nationalization of terrestrial radio into APM gains higher ratings and a greater amount of listenership, the platform disregards the educational needs of students entering the field. Rather than looking to expand the reach and opportunities of students, the station is conglomerating their predispositions and talents, essentially favoring the audience over the rookies. Dunaway leads into that conversation by asking about the needs of the local college community: “But how, in dumping local student and community programs for national programming streams, does KPCC serve the educational needs of the college community to which it is licensed?” (Dunaway, pp. 179, 2014). Arguably, the newfound station does provide a prime and idealized example of a traditional, successful radio station. However, without putting production into practice, it will be a much more difficult process for students to learn about the industry.
The local communities are not fully gone, and neither are its constituents. According to data from Edison Research, the percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who have listened to online radio in the past month has once again continued to grow – rising from 53% in 2015 to 57%. That share is about double the percentage of Americans who had done so in 2010 (27%). Updated data for devices of choice for online radio listening in 2015 were not available, but during 2014, 73% listened on smartphones, while 61% listened on desktops and laptops (Vogt, n.p., 2016).
Contradictory Data: Music Streaming May Not Last Financially
Music streaming, unlike traditional radio, is controlled under copyright law and licensing contracts more so than station ownership rights. In Peter Tschmuck’s 2012 article “Creativity and Innovation in the Music Industry”, he argues that artists will have greater impressions on music streaming, but may be devalued. Peter explains the economic ramifications out of using streaming services: “Despite an increasing number in users, the streaming services operate at a loss, mainly because of the high license fees they have to pay to the copyright holders.” Further into the article, research shows that U.K. services Last.fm and we7 had losses of £2.84 to £3.66 million in 2009. Additionally, Spotify had losses of £26.5 million, with 70 percent of revenues going to subscription fees and 30 percent to advertising income (Tschmuck, pp. 195, 2012).
These statistics can target consumers in a negative light. Even though these platforms are generating millions of users, the businesses will deteriorate if they cannot make up for the fees. The progression of “freeconomics” and the perks of ad-supported platforms result in the entirety of the industry being a fad. Copyright law has remained stagnant amid the emerging services. Artists still have a say in where their music is played, and if that requires a price, then that is something that music streaming services need to accommodate to.
The way in which people listen to their music is changing and always expanding. Whether the scale of music will officially become independent, or whether radio personalities will continue their admirable efforts, one thing remains: the content is what attracts consumers, it is simply a matter of who or how it is presented. Years from now, music streaming services will become the new normal, and traditional radio signals will begin to rot. The Top 40 countdown will be saturated, and people will divulge into their own personal musical interests. The way people will listen to their chosen music will change all aspects of the music industry – music festivals and concert tours, promoters and advertisers, economists and programming, and consumers will generate the content into something greater and within reach. The platforms may diversify, but the content will always be there for our future reference.
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Dunaway, David K. “The conglomeration of public radio: A tale of three cities.” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 21(1), 2014. pp. 177-182.
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