When I bought a new radio last week, I wondered whether it was the last one I would buy.
No, I’m not planning to part this mortal coil any time soon, but I did wonder whether the wireless was headed for the scrapheap.
After all, smartphones are the new Swiss Army Knife and podcasts are a growth market. Conversely, the daily reach of radio among New Zealand audiences has dropped by 30 per cent since 2014 and it is a straight-line rate of decline.
So here I was, splurging $27.00 on a portable pocket AM FM transistor radio (with emergency flashlight, I might add) and hoping that radio wasn’t dead before Amazon managed to deliver it across Covid-tossed seas.
My wife, who is infinitely more sensible than me, told me not to be stupid. She was gracious enough not to mention reports of Mark Twain’s death were also premature. She did, however, advise me to tell you that we do, in fact, possess another radio that is switched on for much of the day. The purchase is my insomnia soother, a replacement for an infuriatingly complex button-activated job that fortuitously died before I could kill it in a nocturnal rage. It has joined five others in a drawer that I would label “May come in useful some time” were it not for the certainty of attracting derision from the sensible member of the household.
This aversion to discarding useless objects containing transistors may be a sign of my continuing – often literal – attachment to radio. I put it down to the rewiring of my brain as a result of far too many hours listening through, first, the headphones of a crystal set I built as a child, followed by the earpiece of my first “transistor” that was the size and weight of house brick, and then a succession of models capable of dragging in the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Moscow.
However, that doesn’t get away from the fact that some are talking of radio running out of steam. New Zealand on Air’s periodic Where the Audiences Are surveys do attest to the sort of picture we saw with newspapers. And the trend is similar elsewhere.
WBUR, the innovative National Public Radio operator in Boston, acknowledges that radio is “edging toward an existential crisis” but it is significant that it is not writing off radio. At least, not in the short to medium term and certainly not for news-driven public radio.
Since 2019 WBUR has been running Project Citrus, a programme to chart its way into a digital future. It is funded, perhaps paradoxically, by a Google grant. “Citrus’ was chosen because it symbolises the segmented nature of the future of public radio and perhaps the medium in general. It says the future is digital but digital-first doesn’t mean digital-only.
It has examined where it can and should move to digital services and has embraced podcasting and streaming services and the use of smart phones and smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Much of its thinking is directed toward on-demand services from streaming and podcasts to microcasts. The latter is a sort of short-form podcast with a duration of, typically, no more than five minutes. The subject matter is usually ephemeral – such as news bulletins – and seldom has a shelf life of more than a day. WBUR says that “if a podcast is audio for a road trip, microcasts are audio for a short commute – or even brushing your teeth.” However, it is even considering the place of ‘old’ technology such as CDs as a means of storing much-repeated content such as children’s stories. In every case, however, it is looking at how to repurpose that content for radio, and vice versa.
That is because it has no intention of abandoning its radio audience. There are several reasons for that stance, and they are as relevant to New Zealand as they are to Massachusetts.
The first is a digital divide that is too often overlooked. In the US, millions of households still do not have broadband internet and that rules out asking Alexa to play something on Echo. In this country there are significant regional variations in the uptake of ultra-fast broadband. In many regions more than 40 per cent with access to UFB have not connected and only Auckland has more than 70 per on the network.
Smartphone penetration is over 90 per cent here and in the US but, as in America, many cannot afford the data programmes that are required for prolonged streaming. About half the cell phones in this country are on prepay plans, many of which effectively limit their use to voice and text services. It is questionable just how smart our smartphone inventory really is.
For some – particularly the elderly and the poor – there is no more a digital future than there is a digital present. They lack either skill or the money to participate.
Radio, on the other hand, is free over-the-air. And it is ubiquitous. Most households have a radio and most cars have them pre-installed. I can buy a radio for as little as $19.90 (from Jaycar) with plenty of choice at $29.90 (Noel Leeming, Harvey Norman or JB HiFi). This economic imperative isn’t lost on WBUR and it should not be lost on us. Radio is cheapest way to receive information.
The second reason is the role of radio in civil emergencies. Climate change events in the US have highlighted the vulnerability of Internet-dependent services. Both power and cell phone outages have severely disrupted the ability of authorities to communicate with communities. Similar disruption can be caused by cyber-attacks. Last month internet infrastructure provider Vocus was hit by a distributed denial-of-service attack that affected Spark, Vodafone, Slingshot and Orcon. FM radio networks, however, have continued to operate during such emergencies and most households had access to battery-powered radios.
Most smartphones have an FM chip built into them that can be made to operate even when the internet is inoperable. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to get all cell phone manufacturers to enable this function. Some have done so but the notable exception is Apple. Hence, my (almost) state-of-the-art iPhone will only behave like a radio if I have the appropriate app and an active network. On the other hand, my wife (yes, the sensible one) has a Swedish Doro flip-top phone designed specifically for the technically challenged (pictured above) and it has an easily accessed FM radio.
However, it may be better to encourage people to keep at least one old-fashioned radio on hand, even if the family’s multiple smartphones have the combined oomph of a supercomputer. As smartphones get smarter and new devices emerge – along with new apps and programmes to take advantage of the improvements – they require more bandwidth and often put heavier demands on devices’ batteries. During civil disasters in the US, they have placed added burdens on vulnerable data infrastructure and make it challenging to conserve battery power during outages. In an emergency, sophistication can be a decided disadvantage.
There is a clear message, if governments want to be able to address and direct the population in civil emergencies where chaos reigns, they must have access to the cheapest, more readily available and easiest-to-operate devices. That means a radio.
There is, however, an equally clear message: Radio is changing. The symbolism of WBUR’s Project Citrus is on the button. The offering will be segmented in ways that best suit a particular delivery method, but the same pips will be spread through it. There will be innovative purposing and repurposing, but I would put money on the result being a juicy orange and not a lemon.