Kenny hearts radio but handset makers are less keen

Industry talks with smartphone giants may prove critical to the medium’s future

BBC director of radio Helen Boaden at the Radiodays Europe conference in Dublin on Monday. Photograph: Conor McCabe.

BBC director of radio Helen Boaden at the Radiodays Europe conference in Dublin on Monday. Photograph: Conor McCabe.

 

Video might not have quite killed the radio star, but unless the industry wakes up and hears its own death jingle, smartphones will. This was one of the more downbeat messages emanating from this week’s Radiodays Europe conference in Dublin, where Taoiseach Enda Kenny, proclaimed fan of the somnolent BBC shipping forecast, diplomatically assured delegates that the medium has “soul”.

On Monday morning, FM104 parked its “beast” of a truck outside the convention centre while, inside the building, piles of “I heart radio” T-shirts were laid out for volunteers as a headphone-clad Nicky Byrne and Jenny Greene broadcast their 2fm show from a transparent pod.

“In the white noise of social and other media, radio endures,” the Taoiseach said, a more flowery way of saying: “I heart radio.” His dichotomy contradicted BBC director of radio Helen Boaden’s characterisation of radio as “the most participative linear” medium, with a history (of phone-ins, song requests, birthday shout-outs) that has helped it adapt quickly to social media.

As a former BBC director of news, Boaden is well used to having to respond to the “digital” question. Now in charge of the medium that brought the BBC into being 92 years ago, she did not skirt, in her keynote address to Radiodays, what she terms the “iceberg challenges”, or problems of unknown depth that no shipping forecast can help the industry avoid.

Perhaps the largest iceberg is the fact that the product designers at Apple and Samsung are not part of the “I heart radio” club. They don’t typically put FM receivers in their flagship smartphones, and they haven’t put DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) chips in them yet either.

The BBC is now trying to “encourage” manufacturers to build radios into their handsets to “provide a strong broadcasting platform”, Boaden said.

There is the added complication that good old FM, strictly speaking an analogue technology of the kind the 21st century is supposed to be leaving behind, remains more popular than DAB. The latter means of transmission, meanwhile, seems destined to be overtaken by an upgrade to the standard known as DAB+, which has the potential for higher-quality sound and greater geographical coverage. Boaden revealed that the innovation- pioneering BBC would run a major technical trial on DAB+ later this year.

Unless you are one of those people who have bought a DAB radio – and sales of all radio sets are in decline – then you might not care about the arrival of DAB+. Indeed, you may simply think that when broadcasters talk about “digital radio” what they mean is their respective apps with those “listen live” buttons, conveniently itemised “listen back” menus and podcast subscription options.

But while radio broadcasters, just like television ones, are keen to paint digital consumption of their content as a bonus rather than a threat, there is a creeping fear that a newer generation of potential listeners is not being recruited to intimate, immediate, linear radio in the same way that previous generations were.

Streaming is not a substitute for proper radio platforms, Boaden insisted, for three rather prosaic reasons: batteries, buffering and “that hideous bill-shock”. All three are potential side-effects of connectivity: listening to audio apps fast diminishes smartphone battery life, the signal may cut in and out and – depending on how your mobile package pricing works – the habit can be expensive.

Online streaming has to date been rubbish in cars, where an estimated 20 per cent of radio listening takes place and where FM remains king. Some 90 per cent of vehicles still do not have DAB radio sets fitted as standard, according to Boaden. But given streaming services from “non-radio” technology-led companies are finding ways to nestle themselves into connected in-car systems, it would seem imperative that DAB, DAB+ or similar radio platforms do the same.

That radio is “just as potent today” as it was for people during the second World War, as Kenny finished his speech by claiming, is almost certainly not true. Other media are available, and for many it will be radio’s cousin, social media, that has inherited that potency.

Boaden, on the other hand, is obviously right when she says “high-quality, distinctive content” will become more important than ever to drown out the competition. But it is not much use airing brilliant content if it is too difficult for a distracted audience to discover it. Increasingly, radio stations are finding they must push their content out to listeners rather than wait for listeners to come to them like it’s still 1922.

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