Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Rebuffering: What is Radio?

The Internet Age has hurled two challenges at broadcast radio. The first is obvious: adapting to a new technical paradigm wherein digital streams replace radio waves. Listeners to the new delivery system will probably continue to grow in number until they overtake those using the Marconi method, which in turn will in all likelihood go the way of the telegraph.

I'm not happy about that, but it may be inevitable, and it does bring certain advantages. Greatest for my money is the ability to enjoy domestic radio from all over the planet without leaving home, a feat we couldn't have dreamt of twenty years ago.

The second, however, is much more serious: surviving an attempt to redefine "radio" as music alone, without any of the earmarks of the real deal. Jango and Pandora are the most-subscribed offenders, but there are others; iTunes "Radio", to name one, is coming up fast.

These are services that deliver music and nothing else. Worse (and yes, this is a drawback), they're customisable; users can programme a personal "radio station", nominating acts they already like and banning ones they don't, until the playlist is tightly tailored to their (existing) tastes.

So what's wrong with that? Well, nothing, as far as it goes. But since the 1920s, radio's anchor product has been the intimate connexion it has with its listeners. It provides information on topics of interest, widens our world, and enriches our lives with fresh images and possibilities. Music-wise, it proposes new groups and genres, some of which go on to become favourites. The new cyber-jukeboxes are fine per se, but we've had jukeboxes almost as long as radio, and they've never replaced it. They aren't better; just different. Pandora and Jango confer control only at the expense of the friendship we used to enjoy with broadcast stations.

Which might be an acceptable trade for some. But not me. I've tried both Pandora and Jango, and enjoyed them for an evening or two. But in the end it was like having cotton candy for dinner. I got sick of it fast, and yearned for something more substantial. I like the give-and-take of real radio: the rhythmic pauses for newsbreaks, and even (terminable) adverts; new songs and sounds; and most of all presenters, whose extemporaneous presence accompanies me on a far deeper level than just music.

It's true that many of our net-only stations amount to little more than auto-programmed Muzak services, at the moment. I get tired of them too, and rarely dial one up expressly. But I keep many in my scan list, and surf in regularly; I may even stay for an hour, if the music suits my mood. And if it's true that they offer little of the human touch, they do at least pitch tracks I didn't choose. And my music library is richer because of it.

I'm hoping that format is just an evolutionary stage in the transition to this new medium, sort of like the first broadcast stations only transmitted for two hours on Sunday afternoon. You gotta start somewhere. But I do worry that the migrating audience will get siphoned off to jukebox-land, seduced by the overrated thrill of choice.

We've been building the Empire of the Air for a hundred years now; I hope its Internet phase, like the FM phase before it, turns out to be a bridge to the same but better.


(Photo courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, the National Archives and Records Administration, and Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Customization is why the services you mentioned are popular.

  2. As I explained in the article, they don't replace radio. The danger is that they claim to _be_ radio, which leads the public to think this is the "new thing" that makes radio obsolete.

    We saw this before with television. That too wiped out an entire radio culture that was almost certainly still viable, if it had been updated to complement the new medium. TV isn't radio, and it doesn't replace radio.

    Music streaming services are juke boxes, not radio stations. They don't, and can't, fill the same need.


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