Forget What Ya Heard, Radio Isn't Dead Yet

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This morning I woke up and decided to do something different. I hopped in my car to catch the sunrise from atop a nearby hill, and on the way, the local college radio station greeted me with classical music, a lush arrangement by an unidentified composer. It fit the moment perfectly. I felt cliché, but in a way you enjoy, like head-banging at a Gwar concert.

It’s comforting to hear good-old-fashioned radio sometimes. Other times it’s just annoying. When—after 15 seconds of dead air—the amateur DJ on your community radio station breaks in to stutter his way through a track list, mispronouncing artist names, you just want to steer your car into the nearest fire hydrant and run. But when that surprise song by Moby you’ve never heard before drops in, seemingly choreographed to the drive, you’re exactly where you want to be.

Apparently, Americans still feel right at home with the radio dial. According to Nielsen, 91.3 percent of people over age twelve still listen in every week.

Seriously? What about all this big-time streaming radio? Spotify? Pandora? Satellite radio? MP3s?

Well, “on-demand” streaming radio is rocking it, with 54 percent of people streaming more music last year than in 2013. Altogether, 59 percent of people listen to both streams and traditional radio for their tunes. But streaming, satellite radio and MP3s have by no means knocked out AM/FM airwaves.

Of course there are a few caveats. The car is the primary place for radio, driving 25 percent of Americans’ listening time. It just feels right to listen to radio in the car, and no other listening format has the ubiquity of the car stereo. As far as new(er) music on a casual, on-the-fly-level, radio’s got it—for free. Fifty-one percent of people use radio to discover new stuff (but they don’t necessarily buy it).

And just because more than 90 percent of people listen each week doesn’t mean they’re listening that often. Sixty-seven percent listen to streams, which undoubtedly takes a chunk out of traditional listening time.

A final indictment of Nielsen’s stats: the wording is, “243 million U.S. consumers (aged 12 and over) tune in each week to radio. That’s 91.3% of the national population tuning in across more than 250 local markets.” This doesn’t specify what type of radio they’re tuning in to, whether it be news, talk, sports or music. So while the rest of Nielsen’s report is keyed on music and music-related programming, the 91.3% stat is more ambiguous. Is it misleading?

Really, here’s the thing: we’re listening to a ton of music. We’re consuming orchestrated sound-waves at a feverish pitch, with 75 percent of people prioritizing their listening time. We’re listening for the sake of listening. We music-heads outnumber the 73 percent who dedicate their time to TV.

Doubtless, social media, the internet, and smartphones have helped out a great deal, allowing people to get that much closer to constant with their music consumption, facilitating interaction between radio stations and consumers, artists and consumers and consumers with other consumers.

Traditional radio tries hard to engage people online, and almost any station I can think of has a stream. Radio used to be worried about the internet’s competition. But radio is succeeding through adaptation.

My question is one I’ve heard from a lot of thirty-somethings, who’ve watched the proliferation of music on the internet come of age. Does anyone really dig in and listen to an album more than a couple of times anymore?

There is more independent music available for us to hear than ever, thanks to sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Simultaneously, there are more options available for us to listen to everything and anything, a lot of times for free, thanks to streams and MP3s. And, DIY recording is easy—so is uploading your songs. Do you think the word glut applies here? Thanks to the internet, the sheer volume of music out there parallels the rise of Big Data. People’s music consumption stats are part of the Big Data picture.

Does that degrade music’s value? Does it place music in a category closer to craft than art? Oftentimes people gauge how ‘great’ a piece of art is by how much it fetches at auction. If the number behind the dollar sign is an accurate water-mark, then Radiohead’s In Rainbows, for example, is far from great. It brought in an average of only $2.26 per download. But the album ended up on a lot of top-ten lists, and say what you want about opinions and the whole business of the art critique in general, but many agree In Rainbows is a bona-fide great album—er, CD—er, download.

As long as you believe in the intangible value of art, a thing that makes us feel something, the glut of music doesn’t lessen a piece’s value at all. A great piece of music is invaluable. The ‘glut’ is democracy at its finest. There’s just a lot of more to filter through these days to find the great stuff, whatever you feel the great stuff is.

Here’s the good news: 93 percent of people are spending more than 25 hours each week applying their music-quality filters, searching for, and listening to, their next favorite song. And, with all the options available for consumption, maybe the song they’re listening to right now is the one you recorded last week.