For a young person learning to drive, the radio is almost as critical to operating the car as the steering wheel. Many of us “experienced” drivers keep that strong connection to radio stations in the car for our entire lives with our favorite news anchors, insightful sportscasters, and entertaining DJs available at the touch of a button or dial. It’s not just a personal connection either; the magic of radio has long been an undeniable part of our society, referenced in movies, songs, and other cultural touchstones.
Now try to imagine getting into a car without a radio. For many, this is unthinkable. Yet there is nothing guaranteeing radio a place in today’s dashboard. In fact, terrestrial radio is under pressure from many digital offerings, all vying to steal audience and customers. Do modern, connected vehicles with their in-vehicle apps and streaming services offer us a radio-less future?
To gain some insight, let’s look at the newspaper industry which, like radio, long served regional interests with a pre-digital design. Newspapers once reigned supreme as people’s primary source of local, national, and global information, but their glory days didn’t last forever. While television landed the first punch on newspapers’ supremacy in the 1950s, the Internet dealt it a killing blow in the 2000s. The rise of search engines, on-demand news, targeted advertising, and free online classifieds changed people’s news consuming habits. While newspapers tried to adapt by speeding up their news cycles, moving assets online into digital form, and finding new sources of income, it was too little too late. US newspaper revenue fell from a high of $49.4 billion in 2005 to $9.6 billion in 2020. This precipitous decline in revenue and customers forced many long-established papers to merge with competitors or declare bankruptcy.
Is radio on this same unavoidable track?
It doesn’t have to be. To avoid similar displacement, radio needs to pivot to a fully digital form – and do it fast.
This means not only moving broadcast assets into the online realm but fully embracing digital paradigms like global reach, on-demand availability, superior discovery, and targeted advertising. Using the digital and online presence to its advantage will make broadcast radio fully competitive with other modern information and entertainment services.
So, what will the digitization of radio look like?
It will be ubiquitous.
Instead of being tethered to the car and home stereo, digital radio will be available on any consumer device that has connectivity, making it accessible from everywhere. This includes cars, laptops, exercise bikes, watches, smart home speakers, and mobile phones.
It will be data based.
Radio today broadcasts into the ether without understanding who, where, or when anyone is listening. Internet-based radio will understand listeners, knowing the precise demographics of who is listening, when they prefer to listen, what shows they listen to, and where their listening takes place. In essence, digital radio will be a personalized experience.
It will be monetizable.
With this new data-driven knowledge, digital radio will be a better money-maker with advertising that is better suited to listeners and highly tailored to each individual. Like streaming services, Internet-powered radio will also offer packages for those who don’t wish to hear advertising at all. Radio will thus avoid the hollowing-out of revenue streams that decimated newspapers.
It will be expansive.
Radio broadcasts already fit in perfectly with the trend away from physical ownership of media to the transient and streamed model of consumption that has become more common. Digital radio will retain the vitality of conversational audio that makes it unique but will augment this with on-demand audio such as music, podcasts, and audio books.
It will be global.
the magic of radio has long been an undeniable part of our society, referenced in movies, songs, and other cultural touchstones
Content will no longer be restricted by geography. Through the openness of the Internet, users will be able to listen to live radio broadcasts from across the globe.
So, what does this digitally revitalized radio look like in the car?
New touch-based interfaces. Personalized and diverse content. The ability to discover new, interesting, and individually desirable content. Local experiences from around the globe.
All in all, the new in-car radio experience will be significantly better in practically every way. Radio will still deliver on its original promise – live news, music, sports, and talk – but will expand in many ways that entertain, educate, and enlighten drivers and passengers while keeping the medium thriving.