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The future of radio (part III)

In part II of this three-part series on the current state and future challenges of an old medium, I covered audience targeting; marketing; music; talk; live internet radio; existing FM stations with web streaming; listener-driven radio; social media; the cloud; and positioning (or the lack of need). Here, in part III, I take a look at South African radio's initial overreaction to the web; how radio stations can make use of the opportunities of online and social media; and whether stations can survive without web, audio-visual and text departments.
To recap, Wits Radio Academy, under Prof Franz Kruger, recently held its third Joburg Radio Days conference, looking at the future of radio. This series is adapted from my conference presentation.

SA radio's initial overreaction to the web

I like to say things without avoiding elephants. Well over a decade ago, radio's initial response to the internet was dismal. At first, it denied its existence by not allocating funds and then, when the threat became obvious, everything had to be "on the web". Advertising agencies soon caught on and costs went up as you had to have a web presence.

The consequence of this overreaction was to ignore the core sound - a station's on air content. Programme managers, long-time stooges of the sales department, suddenly had to take on a second job. With the new-found excitement of the executives over this new toy and potential money-maker, intelligent radio started taking its last breath.

Radio - can it adapt or will it die?

Radio's survival will depend on to what extent it has influence. It's my belief that its relevance will be decided by the product manufacturer - you, mostly.

However, I have to question whether the term 'radio' is not part of the perception problem. Isn't it outdated? The very description and history we are all so dedicated to doesn't really ring bells to the new consumer.

Non-traditional radio (NTR)

With internet streaming, it would appear that we have entered another chapter in what has commonly been called NTR."It's radio, Jim, but not as we know it..."- Captain Kremmen

For many years, advertisers of all sizes have nourished and extended close marketing relationships with a station. From a creative side, stations were rightfully expected to do more. Going above the line (ATL), below the line (BTL) and, of course, through the line (TTL), sponsors wanted more saturation and proof of recall. Classic, generic spot advertising was out of fashion and considered insufficient and ineffective.

Traditional radio

Before we get animated about the future, it's important to look at the past. I am disappointed that radio itself has been in denial for some time now. I have noted some points here that could feed into the debate:

Although we have all heard good radio, we've never heard the perfect radio programme. How would we know?

But we do know what bad radio is! Right? Is it the monotone? Is it the voice? Is it the subject matter? Or no subject matter? Is it ego? Personality or lack of it? Probably all - and more. Whatever it is, tune out is the consequence.

Every show must be better than the one before (that is what we used to strive for).

A presenter does 95% of the same thing every day: push buttons for mics, music, ads and other sources. He or she will talk, tell the time, what was played or listened to, who we are talking to, who we have just spoken to, run a competition, a live read, PSA (public service announcement), station ID or a host of similar things.

It's to what degree of dedication to sounding fresh, adjustable and perceptive every day which will determine whether we will hold listeners' attention, endear or irritate them. Predictability will turn listeners off. The unexpected doesn't. Continuity is vital but repetition is a killer.

The plain truth is that traditional radio as we know it has become the follower and not the leader.
  • With every new audio invention, radio has been put on a death notice. But in the past it has fought back, not least of all because it was inclusive, readily available and random.

  • It has now become predictable, which is near-fatal at this stage of media development, diversity and the eclectic mix.

  • The net is wide-ranging, heterogeneous and offers far more information in a short space of time than radio can.

  • Radio is once again under threat but we could have influenced a much smoother synergy and advancement.

  • About a decade ago, radio in SA was startled by the increasing importance of the web. Although it had watched the elephant set up camp in the room, as the recording industry became the first major casualty, years before.

  • One warning sign that still hasn't been addressed in full was realising that, for years, radio had made the hits but now listeners could hear the music before stations did.

  • Radio is now a part of the entertainment experience and not the 'beginning and end all' as it once was. There are those who haven't fully grasped this.

  • On internet or radio, the medium is common, one way or the other: live sound:
    • How it reaches your ears isn't the issue.
    • What reaches your ears is.
  • Almost everything else available in modern media has been recorded and placed in a schedule for you to download and listen at your pleasure. But radio can be right there for you, anytime, anywhere and in real time. Now. Even if you do have to find a mouse, USB port, tablet or mobile.

  • There is still one big selling point 'radio' will always have - immediacy.

  • It used to be called one-to-one radio and it worked.
Unfortunately, radio has reacted to new media by using and abusing it ad nauseam, the main reason being to prop up the despairing lack of originality heard today.
  • 'Theatre of the mind' is preached but not practised.

  • Original thought dumped for 'cut-and-paste' radio.

  • Imagination lost among the glamour, celeb gossip, internet, TV, People and Heat magazines.

  • Stations and consumers get info from the net simultaneously.


When there wasn't an alternative onslaught or threat, radio presenters were imaginative as they brought life to sound, with a mental picture to the listener whatever their environment.

Listener-driven radio (LDR) has become a popular but fake buzz word (even on air now), but didn't old school radio also take requests?!

Ambitions of the young DJ: doesn't want to be a 'streaming DJ' but a 'radio DJ' or 'radio jock'.

How can radio stations make use of the opportunities of online and social media?

  • Don't be a slave to it.
  • Don't let it drive your programming - not at all.
  • Don't give it so much airtime.
Use it to make good one-to-one communication.
  • Use it as live airtime (as terrestrial).
  • Emphasise the unique selling point (USP) of radio on its own.
  • Emphasise USP of radio in the mix.
  • Make every second count, entertaining and easy to listen to so that people don't struggle to feel it in the larger mix.
  • Terrestrial radio has its own internet radio by default.
  • Create a "culture junction" where as many platforms as possible meet.
  • Cross-promote on all shared platforms.
  • Specific look at Past Seven Days (P7D) and quarter hours.
  • Push SAARF to get innovative.
  • Paint a broader environmental picture for on-air presentation exposure on different platforms.
  • The world has entered a whole new level of niche. There are thousands of niche stations out there.

Can radio stations survive without web, audio-visual and text departments?

No, surely not. What worries me, though, is that according to the American Ron Rodrigues (Arbitron programming services team), any kind of internet radio needs a helluva lot of backup to stay competitive in reach and sales.

As a station, how good are we at the following?
Email marketingInternet advertising standards
Subscription-based data gatheringOnline payment systems
Online surveysPodcasting
Domain and visitor securityWeb site analytics
Variations in web browsersAd insertion technology
Online marketing of individual itemsRadio streaming
Online marketing using bulk uploadsVideo streaming
Search enginesOnline ad networks
Domain name system relative to search enginesInternet radio networks
Search engine optimisingInternet radio advertising sales
Search engine keyword ad buyingInternet radio advertising auctions
Search engine content advertising networksAudio advertising into streams
Local search marketingSynchronized audio/video ad insertion
Text advertisingCustomer relationship management programs
Banner advertisingOnline meetings
Pop up advertisingVideo webcasting
Pop under advertisingPeer-2-peer networks
Flash advertisingSocial networks
Behavioural targetingWikis

This is what Rodrigues feels a good radio station's online needs are in order to compete effectively. Someone tell me...

Like you, I have a thousand questions myself because, despite looking at the environment for months, I still have a muddled image.

And there is still a question which bothers me. There is a cost to consumer by way of data charges in internet radio; terrestrial is free. Let's conjure up an internet radio station as good as, if not better than 5FM. How much do I have to pay to listen when I don't have to at present?

Martin Luther King moment

I often 'dream' what it would have been like if science had not discovered radio waves first. Picture a world where we are all communicating by the World Wide Web while browsing and searching for your favourite music is the norm. And somebody walked in and said:

"You won't believe it! You don't have to browse or search anymore. You can just walk or drive anywhere, with just this little box, and it follows you everywhere you go. It's called FM radio and it's free..."

"No! Never!"

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About Anthony Duke

Anthony Duke co-founded Capital Radio in 1979, managed 5FM, Good Hope FM and did strategies for all SABC Radio stations as manager of radio training at the corporation. Today he is retired but still consults. Email him at and connect on LinkedIn.