Nisha Narayanan, COO, Red FM

Just a couple of months back, I was on one of the panels in a conference convened by the TRAI on the digitization of radio industry. As policymakers pondered over shifting from analog radio transmission to digital broadcast technology, I was thinking about how this has to be far more future-ready. Digitization is a welcome step for the radio industry; no doubt, but the moot point here is that digitization cannot be viewed from a skewed lens. Most definitely, we cannot be armed with a handful of digital audio broadcast tools that have emerged in the pre-Internet era viz. DRM, IBOC, HD Radio.

The digital age is surprisingly directed by a simple truth, which if evades us will keep us stuck in time. We are at a point in time, where both content and revenue will be driven by digital progress. Thus, technological progression – and not just transition – is the most significant driver for broadcast media. This also brings us to the point about making digitization for broadcast, far more comprehensive than it currently is. This can only be done if our definition of digitization actively takes into account the streaming platforms like web and mobile that are enjoying incremental preference.

The digital audio terrain is fast changing with the establishment of interactive, on-demand music services like Apple Music, Saavn, and Gaana. They desire to partake from radio, what the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix are taking away from television and cinema. We are already at a point in time where the Facebook page or the Instagram gallery of each individual is now his own news and feature feed. Likewise, listeners too are beginning to create their own a-la-carte audio and music frequency. Not to forget that unlike news or film, music is something far more personal to everybody.

Radio has been a resilient medium and has survived the advent of television. This time, however, the Internet era has entered the digital age and the name of the game is bandwidth. Clearly, the issue is far more serious than the Video Killed the Radio Star single. Like telly troopers made way for the cord cutters, frequency followers of radio would soon become wave wanderers, that is listeners who will curate and collect their own music matter and audio content. With speed increasing several notches (5G is just around the corner!) and music becoming universally consumed, we need to change The Shape of Us.

Any radio network essentially specializes in creating a variety of original content that needs to be distributed on multiple platforms for easy accessibility to the end users. Car stereo, that was once the bastion for radio tune-ins, too has changed with automotive technology providing interfaces like Apple Car Play and Android Auto, where consumers are getting a lot many options by syncing their mobile device. These advances are essentially turning the automobile into an intelligent and interactive, digital, mobile media space. This literally changes the way radio’s original captive audience tunes in.

The case with domestic and handheld devices is also similar. Mobile phones, until recently, used to have a tuner chip for analog FM radio. Modern handsets are doing away with it, since the forces have allied against the FM chip on smartphones. The foremost amongst them are the telcos, who rather have consumers pay for data than listen to free waves. Likewise, the penetration of Bluetooth devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home has created an opportunity for audio within homes. Unlike traditional airwave receivers, smart speakers directly access Wi-fi networks and do not even have an AM/FM antenna.

Radio, so far at least, has been able to withstand the digital disruption that has already impacted every other form of media. If it has to tide over the massive disruption of the digital age and to remain relevant, the category must learn from other media and take control of its path. Without a strong digital presence and a focus on digital audio streaming, traditional broadcasters would soon be vacating their unique position in this expanding market, where the writing on the wall is to innovate or perish. If one aims to be relevant, one must ascend rapidly evolving platforms, radio or otherwise.

Belonging to the medium of radio, we are uniquely positioned to build on our existing listener relationships. The challenge now is to out-innovate and out-compete digitized disruptors for hearts, minds, and, of course, the ears.