Gratified by the response to After Zane Lowe: Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast, I figured it was about time I did a Frankee and wrote my own answer song. Literally several people wondered about my thoughts on the reverse scenario – what broadcast radio should steal from webcast – with some offering useful additional feedback along the lines of “Shorter please.” So here are three bites that broadcast radio might take at the proverbial Apple.
I’ll preface all this by saying that the debate isn’t nearly as binary as the who-stole-what-from-whom headlines (admittedly my own) make it sound. The modern listener isn’t faced with a choice between broadcast radio and streaming any more than they are between radio and TV. Except that in the case of ‘old’ and ‘new’ radio, true convergence is possible – probable even. But we’ll come to that.
Ultimately, all the noise created this week by Beats 1 and Apple Music is noise about radio, and that’s incontrovertibly A Good Thing. So if you’re a member of the broadcast bellyache brigade still moaning that Pandora isn’t ‘real’ radio, or a new-world pioneer lamenting the limitations of broadcast, you’d be well advised to get over it, quickly. Your medium just became the most exciting medium on the planet, and pretty soon the end user won’t see the difference anyway:
1. Hosting music
The internet ‘stole’ music radio’s hosts. Now broadcast radio should steal music hosting from the internet.
This might seem obvious. I might just have easily have used the words ‘streaming’, ‘personalisation’ or ‘interactivity’ here, but most radio stations already stream, albeit just a ones-and-zeroes encode of an FM signal, and radio was interactive before the net was so much as a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s work stack. Hosting music – and the metadata that goes along with it – is what makes all the ‘smart’ stuff possible in the first place.
For too long broadcast radio has been shy about offering a personalised or interactive version of its programmed music output on its own platforms. That could be down to the technical limitations – obvious and undeniable – of playout systems and transmitters, or simply an unwillingness to admit that allowing people to skip songs might suggest some of them weren’t that great in the first place.
Either way, Apple has beaten ‘old’ radio into linear programming before an equivalent broadcast player (including iHeartRadio) has achieved anything resembling meaningful personalisation over – or to the side of – the airwaves.
Yes, the BBC did a fabulous job with Playlister, harnessing its unparalleled editorial clout and offering audiences a powerful jumping off point for deeper discovery on Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and iTunes. But as these latter partners begin to look more and more like traditional radio in terms of editorial and functionality, the Beeb is increasingly sending listeners away to the competition.
The BBC – in fact all broadcast radio – needs to find a way into hosting; hold the listener within the walls of its beautifully cultivated (curated) garden a little longer, all the better to cross-pollinate licensed music with originated content such as sessions, Live Lounges and – why not? – interviews, podcasts and documentaries. The case for a publicly funded streaming service, especially (and ironically) in the US, where there’s no licence fee to worry about, is stronger than you might think. Should Playlister become a streaming service?
As they start to resemble radio, streaming services like Spotify and Apple are becoming distribution platforms in their own right and, as they do so, broadcast radio must wake up to the possibilities of personalising the music it licenses, just as it does the content it originates. I can see a time – and quite soon – when not offering a personalised version of BBC Radio 1 or KCRW will be as unthinkable as not having a YouTube channel or Twitter presence.
And there’s one important respect in which broadcast has the edge over streamed radio. Don’t forget that both ‘sides’ of the broadcast/webcast divide (inverted commas because there really are no sides anymore, and the divide is narrowing quickly) are playing catch up here. But broadcast radio’s problem is one of infrastructure, which can be outsourced, whereas Apple’s is one of culture, and that takes time.
Beats 1 might have poached the greatest music broadcaster on the planet, but that’s a far cry from commanding the kind of trusted music discovery cred that the BBC (who seem largely to have replaced Pandora in Apple’s crosshairs) has built up over decades. Put another way, Radio 1 could – with the help of a white-label streaming provider – switch on hosting and personalisation tomorrow if it wanted. Apple can’t simply switch on a fifty-year history of taste making from DJ’s in the league of John Peel, Pete Tong, Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson, Annie Nightingale and Jo Whiley overnight.
2. Going mobile
Much has been made lately of Radio 1’s struggle to engage young listeners, and despite incredible strides in visual – such as the station’s YouTube channel hitting a million views per day – one thing it hasn’t done in a meaningful way is capture young people’s share of ear in the place where most of that attention is directed: on mobile. In this respect it has perhaps been hampered by its duty to the wider BBC.
Granted, all BBC radio is available on the iPlayer Radio app, but burying Radio 1 inside a generic BBC offering that serves up only originated, mostly longform content has always seemed a little perverse for a service aimed so squarely at young ears. When Apple Music lands on the next update of iOS – and arrives on Android in the autumn – it will be a revealing test of how engaged young people really are with radio when you put it right under their noses.
3. Atomising non-music content
My biggest question, watching Apple’s WWDC presentations on Monday, is whether Beats 1 – the live, linear, Zane Lowe-fronted global radio station ‘broadcasting’ 24/7 from three cities – will fully integrate with the Apple Music streaming service. Can I, for example, favourite or ban a track I hear on Beats 1 to inform the recommendations I receive in Apple Music/iTunes?
One has to assume that’s an ambition, and when it happens we can start talking about true convergence of linear and personalised radio, but until then Beats 1 and Radio 1 look much the same: large music brands streaming linear radio globally from multiple locations.
Atomising non-music content like presenter links, news and sport is what makes the interactive radio experience truly personalised, local and – importantly – shareable. Which brings us onto Slacker Radio, whose welcome note can lay claim to being the most genuine and justified of all those issued yesterday. Human curation has been part of the Slacker DNA since day one, and until Beats 1 and Apple Music fully integrate, Slacker is arguably the only service to have successfully married curation with personalisation and presenters.
Today I can listen to a hosted countdown of the 55 Greatest Rock Songs of the Century on Slacker, skip the ones I don’t care for, favourite the ones I do (with the option to turn hosts, news and sport on or off) and, with a premium subscription, dive on-demand into the catalogue of the artists I like. It’s not perfect (or linear), but if Slacker has one advantage it’s that they’ve been quietly working on the solutions to these imperfections for longer than most.
This is a vision that broadcast radio can – and should – be working towards. Breaking down the division between licensed and originated content opens up possibilities that broadcast radio, with its ready-made portfolio of presenters, can take advantage of. Broadcast radio has already solved curation; its next challenge is to be mobile, personalised and global.