Saturday, December 01, 2007

Radio Without a Future?

Today I had to manage a minor crisis from afar...part of it involved checking to see if a given program was playing on the air or not, and I couldn't do that because I wasn't near a computer and I was physically outside of our broadcast range.

My very-capable student PD was helping me manage it and she was on-campus, so I asked her to check it. She said she couldn't yet because her laptop was still booting. I said just turn on a radio.

Awkward pause.

"I don't have a radio." came the sheepish reply.

A minute or two later her computer finished booting and she confirmed, via webcast, that the show was on. But this certainly was a glaring, if anecdotal, example of something I and several others have noticed lately: college kids are so not into radio, they don't even OWN a radio. Not even a clock radio; they use their cellphones for an alarm clock. Most still have a radio in their car, of course, but of the ones I've asked, none of them listen to it...every one said they listen to CD's or their iPod.

Part of me suspects that, to paraphrase a bit, Mohamed will eventually come to the Mountain. That is, as these college kids get older and reach a "magic age", they will eventually seek radio out because it will provide content that they find more useful and relevant, and provide it in a way more relevant than a CD or iPod will.

FWIW, I think public radio is better-stationed than commercial radio to welcome these kinds of listeners, too...although that's like saying a swimming pool is better than a bucket at holding a thimble of water; both will do it...but both are still pretty much bone-dry.

I fear that it's more likely that people in the 18-25 demographic...ESPECIALLY those that are at or have gone to college...will reach that beforementioned "magic age" without ever considering radio to be a serious medium for receiving content. And in the 10 or 20 years between now and that "magic age", it's entirely possible that another technology will emerge to provide that content in a way as relevant as radio...or even moreso.

For example, right now I can use my web-enabled cellphone (a sweet Samsung i760...oh how I love this new toy!) to listen to webcasts in my car. However, it depends on the EVDO network from Verizon Wireless (which is not nearly as widespread in coverage as radio is) and I have to use an adapter to hook it up to my car's aux input (a hassle to put it mildly...and it risks damaging the phone's jack) and I have to go through a complicated series of taps on the screen (that cannot be done by touch alone - I must look at the screen) just to start audio playback...never mind try to change webcasts or even pause it. In other words, it's such a hassle to do compared to the inherent simplicity of radio that I usually just stick with radio, even when the content isn't quite what I want.

But this will change. Voice-recognition technology is already here thanks to Microsoft Sync, and the concept will no doubt become common within 5 years, and ubiquitous within 10. Wireless data networks are growing in reach and reliability every day...not to mention bandwidth. Within a few years virtually every cellphone will have the capabilities the i760 has...and a few years after that probably someone will be smart enough to make the user interface as simple yet powerful as the iPod's.

In the more immediate sense, do we have to give radios with our station's logo on it to all incoming freshmen to make sure they've got a radio and a reminder of what station to listen to? Certainly we can't expect them to come to school with one anymore...

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