For many years, it was taken for granted that TV reigned supreme. Radio was the poor cousin, scrabbling for a few crumbs of budget from the media table. Media insiders who talked about 'the power of radio' were viewed rather like enthusiasts for old-style analogue hi-fi: worthy, but hopelessly out of touch.
But perhaps they were right. In the last two to three years radio has blossomed. The growth has been not just in music channels, but in what was once dismissed as 'talk radio'.
Why has this happened? There are several reasons, but underlying them all is technical change and its effect not just on media, but on the way we live.
Digital technology increased the number of channels available, from a handful to hundreds. The first effect was more TV, on cable and satellite. But recently the number of radio channels has exploded, exploiting free-to-air digital radio, and, especially, the Internet. Via the Internet, a local radio channel can now reach a worldwide audience, something that TV still cannot do. Radio has pipped TV at the post to become the first truly global broadcast medium. Experimental channels, doing new things with an old medium, are flourishing, while mainstream channels are gaining audience share.
Meanwhile, sales of the new generation of low cost DAB digital radios have boomed. DAB had a slow start, but once portable devices came on the market in the UK for less than £100, sales took off. Is this a temporary 'blip', or a long term trend? We think there are good reasons why the radio revival will not only continue, but accelerate.
Key to this is changing lifestyles. Once upon a time, people worked 9 to 5, and returned home in time for the 6 o'clock news on the TV, when the great events of the day were presented with due solemnity by newsreaders in formal attire. Then they settled in for an evening's entertainment, neatly packaged by one of the mainstream TV channels. No longer.
Fewer and fewer people work a conventional 9 to 5 day. Many now work from home (at least 2.2 million in Britain according to a recent survey, and probably many more). The working day has extended, commuter journeys are longer. Flexible working and shift patterns are common.
As a result, people are no longer in one place at the same time. The audience, let alone the entertainment, is much harder to package. People are even less likely to sit still and pay attention. The 'theatre style' presentation of TV, where the audience gives the magic screen in the corner half an hour or more of rapt attention, begins to look a little dated. In an attempt to keep audiences interested, television news has become simpler, more visually attractive, and more 'entertaining'. Presenters have become younger and sexier. But the result, in some eyes at least, has been simply a loss of authority.
TV demands attention, but radio does not. You can take it or leave it, and do other things at the same time. You can tune in and tune out, minute by minute. You can carry it with you. You choose how much attention you want to give it. For many, radio now fits better with the lifestyle they lead.
If radio now fits the lifestyle of its users better, it also suits its creators - and especially their budgets.
Lack of budget has always been a problem for radio. But in a fragmented, multi-channel world, radio's low budget approach now looks a virtue. With audiences spread across more and more choices, big budgets for any one programme are harder to justify. As budgets are squeezed, fewer risks are taken. TV programming tends towards the bland and the safe. All in all, radio seems a better fit for the economics of today's media world, especially for anything new or challenging.
Not only the low budget, but the spontaneity of radio now seems a virtue, especially for news and current affairs. Programmes can respond instantly to events; people can be interviewed by phone; reports can be produced at a moment's notice by a lone presenter, without sending a camera crew or trawling through the picture archives. Using digital communications, radio presenters can even work from home. A modern radio studio needs little more than a microphone and a telecommunications link. Even sophisticated effects can be generated using low cost PC-based equipment, while an entire day's output of music or recorded programmes can be played out from ordinary PC hard disks.
Radio is the only medium likely to draw a spontaneous or unguarded comment from a politician or a corporate official - or even from a journalist. TV interviews have become set pieces, orchestrated by the masters of spin. That is why so many of the dramatic media moments in recent months have occurred on radio: with radio, there is a chance of getting under the wire of media manipulation.
The programme that British politicians most respect and fear is not the television news, or (as was once the case) TV documentaries. It is BBC Radio 4's Today programme, transmitted every weekday before 9am. British politicians have chided Today for making the news, not just reporting it: a sure sign that radio is having an impact that few would have dreamt of five years ago. British news coverage in August 2003 was dominated by the row between Tony Blair and his press spokesman, Alistair Campbell on the one side, and the Today journalist Andrew Gillighan on the other.
Today is making waves not just politically, but for technical innovation. Its Web site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/today) is a model for what can be done to add interactive features to radio. Once seen as staid and old fashioned, Radio 4 is now attracting new listeners, including younger ones, just as mainstream TV audiences are declining. Another straw in the wind:15 year old Bromley, key witness in the Damilola Taylor murder trial, turned down substantial newspaper offers and chose not TV but Radio 4 to tell her story to the world.
While TV struggles to find new formats that will hold an audience, radio is going from strength to strength. Its economics, its audience reach and its take-it-or-leave-it convenience fit neatly into the new digital, multi-channel world. Add text messaging as a use-anywhere response channel, and you have a medium that is fully interactive too. Add a Web site and you have the best of all worlds: radio but with room for a few pictures too, not to mention on-demand repeats, interactive features and links to other material. 'Steam' radio, with a new lick of paint and novel interactive features, is becoming the unlikely poster child for new media. Remarkably, the oldest and apparently the most conventional of 'talk radio' channels is leading the way.
In future, new portable devices will provide all of this - in channels by the thousand - anytime and anywhere. We predict that 'sexed up' radio (to adapt a phrase from Today's Andrew Gillighan) will be a key feature of the emerging world of personal media. In years to come, personal media channels delivering 'radio plus' may turn out to be a more important use of the new 3G mobile networks than making video calls.
The effects of digital technology can be unpredictable. One of them has been the revival of a medium that many thought had had its day. New media was supposed to be about visual pyrotechnics. But in fact, digits can carry anything,from a few words of text to high definition video with surround sound. Often economy of communication is what counts, as the astonishing growth of text messaging clearly show.
For many purposes radio delivers more 'bang per buck', by communicating information and holding audience attention, at minimum cost and maximum convenience to both broadcasters and listeners. Radio - with a few extra interactive bells and whistles - clearly has a bright future in the digital world.
©2003 Mediation Technology