20 July 02004

Maybe iPods are the end of radio after all?

So there I was, saying that random-play iPods do not a personalised radio station make, and just a few days later someone publishes expensive research saying the opposite (Media Guardian article, requires free registration): "One of radio's main perceived strengths is its spontaneity... iPod can even emulate that with shuffle technology," the research company says.

According to the article, their report goes on to identify two trends "both [of which] present the radio industry with a knock-on effect. The first is the shift towards personalisation. The second trend is a growing demand from younger consumers to have greater control over their media. As a result, The Knowledge Agency claims, 18 to 30 year-old radio listeners now want content that is more personalised and more directly relevant to their own tastes and needs."

Here are two and a half reasons why those two trends (which sound to me a little like different ways of saying the same thing) do not spell the end of radio.

First, how are all these 18 to 30 year-old listeners going to expand the pool of music to which they listen? Yes, they can create and share their own iMixes, but someone has to bring new material to the party to keep it fresh. Young people love the kudos of being the person who gets to the great new bands first and tells their friends, rather than waiting to be told. (I can't quote research to back this up: contest it if you must.) They won't achieve that by hitting the shuffle button — better to listen to the radio, and to read magazines, web zines and all the supporting material that comes with media that are mediated by real personality.

If researchers think there's nothing more to radio programming than defining a playlist and then randomising the order you play it in, then they are listening to different radio from me. Because, as well as selecting and providing new material, good radio provides a whole host of supporting context, as covered at length in yesterday's posting on learning resources. I wouldn't argue that interactive web services could not also provide valuable supporting context — but as these services evolve, I predict that they will converge towards what digital radio stations are offering, not away from it.

Which brings me to my second reason (the last paragraph was the 'half' I promised). When the research author says "The digital radio industry lacks a single piece of hardware with the sex appeal of an iPod," he falls into the trap of hardware fetishism. Not that hardware fetishism is bad, or even unimportant. I write as someone who keeps an unplugged Mac Classic and first generation iMac — bought before noon on the day of its launch in September 1998 — on display in his living room. See also my imported and personalised iMac cuddly toy. So I know about that kind of fetishism, but I also know from following Apple and its history that part of the glamour of this great design is that it did not become the mainstream. Consider Psion too: there isn't a single PDA on the market that combines the attractiveness and usability of their Series 3 and Series 5 products, but where are Psion PDAs now? So the lesson of sexy technology is: enjoy it, but don't be daft enough to project major market trends on the basis of one successful product.

Meanwhile the end of last week saw the first digital radio that can pause, rewind, record and convert to MP3. I'd trade in my iPod for that now, and when the digital radio's integration with PC, hi-fi and web browsing to pick up supporting information and on-demand programmes is complete, it will be an essential purchase. It will give the 18 to 30 year-olds both the control and personalisation that the research says they want, plus a means to keep ahead of their friends' tastes.

Thanks to the excellent Five Eight news service for some of the links in this posting.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Radio on 20 July 02004 | TrackBack
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