How should radio adapt in order to survive?

If radio wants to compete in the splintering media marketplace, it needs to adapt to change says Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis. 

According to my sources, i.e. the internet, Charles Darwin never wrote these words: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Shame, because it’s an outstanding philosophy and one that is increasingly relevant to the splintering media marketplace.

TV news competes with the instantaneous nature of online reporting with live satellite crosses for everything from court verdicts to overturned trucks to patient condition updates outside hospitals.

Newspapers and magazines are turning into tablets – hello SMH and this publication. So what of our old friend – the humble radio?

I’ve said it before, programmers are increasingly turning to online platforms to deliver revenue and retain audiences easily distracted by the unlimited offerings of music and opinions on the world wide web.

Gimmicks such as in-studio webcams and online chat rooms have faded from view. While they were an extension of radio shows they were never a true innovation in terms of broadcasting.

Similarly the use of social media within a radio context is a clunky add-on to what is in some respects an extremely limited medium. With radio, what you hear is what you get.

I’d much rather browse a Twitter feed for myself than have someone read tweets out on air.

According to industry body Commercial Radio Australia: “Radio has done well to retain its revenue share in what is an increasingly competitive and volatile media market.”

Business doesn’t work like that though; it’s not adequate to merely retain a foothold in the landscape. Unless it’s expanding, then a business is failing.

With radio revenue down 0.5 per cent for the financial year just ended, what new offerings can radio networks conjure up to not just retain, but grow audience share, involvement and interest?

Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis is a media personality with more than 15 years experience in radio and TV.


  1. Al
    30 Aug 12
    1:31 pm

  2. I read this article looking for an answer to the titular question and never got one. Boo.

  3. BD
    30 Aug 12
    2:10 pm

  4. Jabba, the biggest problem is that the people in management are in denial. At least in public, they are saying there is no problem — which is exactly what newspaper bosses were saying until they had to concede there was a problem, by which time it was very late in the day, and lots of other players had established online presences. The Huffington Post, TMZ, The Daily Beast etc. would arguably not be as big as they are today if the newspapers had moved quicker and with more agility.
    With radio, the competition is coming from everywhere, from the personal playlist on an iPod to streaming stations from America, the US and everywhere else, to slick-sounding podcasts with quirky content recorded in nerds’ bedrooms.
    Yet, the radio stations are persisting with the belief that their only competition is what’s available on the Australian broadcast spectrum. The networks jointly invest in flawed market research then all sing from the same songbook, thinking they can fool the advertising industry into believing that they are the only audio show in town.
    Maybe I’m wrong and there are people who are aware of the real challenges, but are keeping it secret while they work on a killer strategy to slay all competition. I certainly hope so, because I’d hate to see broadcasters disappear.

  5. Peter Rush
    30 Aug 12
    2:12 pm

  6. A good old fashioned creative resurgence wouldn’t hurt. Man the radio ads are crook at the moment. Good radio writing is essentially comedy writing. Ironically , some of the worst spots are from the industry body itself.

  7. Chappy
    30 Aug 12
    2:54 pm

  8. Talk about a whole lot of jibba, Jabba. You posed a really good question, but then offered us nothing.

    It would be unfair for me to be so critical and not offer any insights myself. So here are a few:

    — Radio may not be growing, but it is maintaining its share which means in a media landscape that is slowly shifting towards digitally-centric platforms, traditional radio still remains a relevant in terms of localness (content), immediacy (information) and entertainment (personalities and music). How it embraces these strengths in a digital environment has a critical impact on its long term success

    — Evidence suggests that most people still find new music and music artists via radio. In a world where being the first to know and first to share amounts to social status, radio is well positioned to embrace social media to drive awareness and content distribution. For the first time in decades, radio is in a prime position to influence cultural memes and empower consumers who seek to be early adopters

    — Radio remains predominantly personality driven. From AM to FM and digital channels, radio owns and/or shares many of the biggest names and influencers in entertainment, political commentary and cultural affairs. These personalities all have followers, whether on-air, online or on the phone who amount to valuable databases for advertisers and promoters. These followers can be whitewashed by the likes of AJ, or can be manipulated by the likes of KS, but they can also be crowdsourced for ideas and tapped into for insights and opinion.

    — There is a growing concern in social media (particularly) about the ‘disinhibition’ effect. This refers to the way in which people use their digital anonymity to say things they would normally not say in traditional social environments – like at the pub. This anonymity results in cyber bullying, defamatory and racist slurs and other poisonous commentary that is becoming a real cultural issue. Such anonymity exists in radio too, particularly talk-back, but there are ways to protect the public from such puerile commentary with censorship, time delays and so on. I’m drawing a low bow here but I believe radio’s curated editorial and content approach is a key strength to its longevity and something that will potentially draw many people back in because it is self-regulated and devoid of such crap.

    Anyway, just wanted to add a bit of substance to your good question.

  9. BD
    30 Aug 12
    3:19 pm

  10. Of course, I meant UK, not US in my previous comment.

  11. foraggio
    30 Aug 12
    3:37 pm

  12. An article that poses a question and ends with another one? I don’t get it. Where is the answer??

  13. jean cave
    30 Aug 12
    4:05 pm

  14. Radio is my preferred entertainment medium, because I am at home a fair proportion of the time. My ideal radio station doesn’t exist . . but It would be an unpredictable mish-mash of diverse bitlets. Not the same bloody thing day in day out like school dinner in the fifties.

  15. Listener
    30 Aug 12
    4:30 pm

  16. Radio can revive itself by removing the ridiculous quota that a radio station needs to play a minimum number of Australian songs. Let a radio station play what it wants to play. Quotas impinge on free trade and free speech.

  17. Darren
    31 Aug 12
    1:00 pm

  18. If FM DJs weren’t so nauseating, they might (might) attract an audience with an IQ over 75. If they weren’t so offensive (you know who you are) then they might not disenfranchise so many parents who care about their young and impressionable offspring were being subjected to by shock jock tactics. If the music playlists were not as goddam repetitive… If the music playlists were not as goddam repetitive… If the music playlists were not as goddam repetitive… If the music playlists were not as goddam repetitive… If the music playlists were not as goddam repetitive… If the music playlists were not as goddam repetitive… (if I copy this two more times the research would say you will begin to like whatever you started off hating).
    Australian radio = Hobson’s choice. You finally converted me to ABC News Radio (and I said I never would)

  19. Brentwallac
    31 Aug 12
    1:43 pm

  20. Listener – that quota is often made up by a lot of stations between the hours of 11pm and 4am. I’d say that the quota should be made higher, and feature more local talent – thus fostering a better local industry.

    Speaking as someone with experience in relation to this industry, it’d be great to see local Australian acts, who are just as talented as anything overseas, get the same amount of attention as Chris Brown.

    Not only is it beneficial to our local arts faculty, it boost venue sales and helps strength our own national identity.

    I also fail to see how ‘free speech’ comes into play??

  21. Aussie Moore
    31 Aug 12
    6:48 pm

  22. @ Peter Rush: it’s not the creative that’s lacking Peter, it’s clients willing to get creative.

  23. Richard S. Kazimer
    31 Aug 12
    10:27 pm

  24. Simple really. Give the audience programming it wants to hear, thus, a service advertisers want to buy. Has worked for years.

  25. Billy C
    1 Sep 12
    3:22 pm

  26. If they were able to give good comedians the opportunity to do radio they would see the results. I know the media landscape was different in the days of Martin Molloy but if you can get funny people and leave them alone and they are good people will listen even if they don’t like the music. Get This was one of the best radio shows made in this country in recent years. Good ratings and it got axed. That’s your problem right there.
    What they usually do is hire stand-ups and put them with presenters who aren’t particularly funny. Austereo continually hire comics when they don’t actually wont comics. They want people who can talk about themselves in a light hearted funny way.
    The comedians don’t understand why they’ve been hired when they aren’t allowed to talk about the things they want to talk about and then they sack them or they get bland. I’ve seen a lot of pretty good stand-ups get dumbed down on radio.

    The desire for ‘relatable’ (sic) material is homogenising radio. Let people talk about whatever they want as long as it’s entertaining. We can get out weather and traffic info on our phones. Radio needs to provide something we can’t get anywhere else. And don’t get me started on the format. Constant resetting of topics, lame teasers over commercial breaks. All the things that alienate people who are actually listening in an attempt to draw people in who are flicking stations. The should work at getting people to listen longer not cater to the people who are listening for a minute. But you know what for consumers it doesn’t matter, we can listen to podcasts. All you advertising folks should go sponsor a podcast for 500 bucks. Put trackable links on the podcast websites. Actually support the alternative media for a tiny pittance of what you’d pay for a commercial and see how that goes.

  27. BD
    1 Sep 12
    3:29 pm

  28. For years, Australian radio has stolen its formats, styling and everything else from OS (usually America). They’ve taken the distinctive quality out of Australian radio and now they risk losing their audience to OS netcasters and podcasters. Irony?

  29. BD
    2 Sep 12
    5:08 pm

  30. Maybe we’re about to get an answer to this question. Lachlan Murdoch has just picked up the rest of DMG and, if the Australian’s figures are to be believed, it’s cost him $210 million since 2009 to own the whole network. That’s less than DMG paid for the Sydney licences alone two decades ago. It means DMG has taken a bath, but it also means it’s glad to get out. It also begs the question: What can LM, whose trakc record it must be said is not brilliant, do to turn things around? Given the profile of some of its announcers, and the sheer number of staff, the wages bill alone must be enormous. Will revenue cover that alone in what we are constantly told is a very soft advertising market, or will there be an immediate “restructuring’ (ie lay-offs)? Will online ventures be the saviour? Will there be synergies with Channel 10, of which LM owns 9 per cent? Stay tuned …

  31. Kat Karvess
    4 Sep 12
    11:29 am

  32. Radio will never die and has already done a pretty good job of keeping up with the tech revolution.

    Online streaming means listeners from anywhere in the world can listen to RRR’s The Breakfasters and OnDemand-type services means you can hear The Breakfasters at dinner time if you wish!

    In-studio webcams was always a bad idea.. ever heard of the phrase “they have a good face for radio”?

    Radio (especially community radio) is crucial to the survival of the many many live bands that inhabit Melbourne. It would be a tragic, crying shame if radio didn’t survive.

  33. Richard Moss
    4 Sep 12
    2:16 pm

  34. Radio has survived in spite of attack from within its own forces.
    The newspaper, television, film and the internet, all have a common weakness when compared with radio; they are all visual media, you have to stop what you are doing and look at the blighters.

    Radio has a further strength in that it speaks directly to one person, to each person , no matter how many millions are listening, and it allows your brain to form its own images and its own opinions.

    It is for this reason that radio needs honesty and excellence, in writing , voicing and good journalism. It is impossible to glitz up sound beyond a certain very shallow point, and still maintain credibility.

    Radio has changed very little since its introduction, and this is as it should be. How do we communicate with spoken words? We need the spoken words and ears to receive the sounds and a brain to process the information, it is a more directly intellectual medium than any other outside reading, but unlike reading, it leaves us free to work or to play or to relax with our eyes closed.

    Radio advertising has become an abomination, and most of the problem is in the fact that too many people have undervalued its potential and too many technologically inspired enthusiasts have tried to bring a change without understanding the basic rules of radio transmission and reception.

    Feel free to contact me with questions etc, I am radio expert, and one of the few in a rapidly diminishing group.


  35. Ralph
    6 Sep 12
    10:40 am

  36. 1. The Medium
    Nothing else provides something you can do while you’re doing something else.

    2. The future
    As the pace of life increases, the more relevant radio becomes.

    3. The Quality of Advertising
    You get what you pay for.

  37. Richard Moss
    6 Sep 12
    11:09 pm

  38. @ Ralph

    I Almost agree with your 3 point review.

    Except that:

    1. You can knit or eat dinner and watch TV.

    2. It certainly becomes no less relevant

    3. Basically this is true, however one may, and some do (alas) pay an awful
    lot for very poor radio production these days. Radio requires specialist
    production and writing.

  39. MC
    7 Sep 12
    10:30 am

  40. It’s interesting reading all these comments. I’d have to say that Radio won’t die, as was predicted in the early 2000’s when iPods exploded on the scene. To your point BD, all these other media devices are fragmenting the landscape, but people are creatures of habit, and don’t seem to give up one device or medium for the other, they just listen or watch a little less and use the new device when they can. After all, there are still only 24 hours in a day.

    And when it comes to these devices, how many of these can you access whilst in your car, especially for traffic and news and weather? last I looked, it was illegal to text, talk and use your phone whilst driving. and I can only listen to all the songs on my iPod so many times. Radio is local, it keeps people in touch with their local community. Whilst many radio shows need to be overhauled in my opinion, there are still a few good ones out there.

    People also say that radio is holding steady with listeners, which to me isn’t a bad thing. When you look at the audience, listenership is not declining like TV audiences are, or like Magazine and Newspaper readership is. The Australian population is growing around 2-3% per year, so if radio can hold it’s audience and grow inline with this, then like a company, if you can hold business share in a growing market, then you’ll increase profits. Not the best analogy, but you get my point.

    And I agree with Chappy – Radio is the one medium where people look to and find new songs. How else can artists get mass awareness for their music if it weren’t for radio, and where would the general public find new songs without radio? I’m not massively interconnected with music aficionado’s on FB or twitter, so if I don’t hear a new song on radio, I probably won’t be exposed to it at all! Not to mention that my music taste is different to others, just like everyone else out there. Radio is able to transcend this.

  41. BD
    7 Sep 12
    3:04 pm

  42. Hi, MC. I don’t think “radio” will die, I just think broadcast radio with a fixed number of players in a market will die. New devices will allow improved access to internet radio in homes and cars and on the go, and there will be a convergence of mediums to the point where the “channels” will become irrelevant. People will move seemlessly from what we now know as radio to video and social-media platforms. Certainly radio now plays a big role in introducing new music, but so do Facebook and YouTube, and the ITunes store and its clones, which recommend new material.
    Yes there will always be a need for local news, weather and traffic, and other geography-specific content, but it may not be supplied by the radio stations we are now familiar with. In same way that the Australian Traffic Network provides a service across all radio networks, so may news, weather and entertainment-content providers, and the next generation of smart devices will sort it out for the listener — or they can take control themselves.
    I really don’t think the big media companies can grasp how radical the change will be. They really need to sort themselves out as providers of premium, and flexible content, and I don’t think they are currently doing that.

  43. Richard Moss
    10 Sep 12
    9:24 am

  44. According to sooth sayers and forward thinking crystal ball gazers of the 1960s and 70s, Live theatre, Libraries, Shop Keepers, especially Grocery and Delicatessen type Shopkeepers would, along with the Wireless, very soon be only memories.

    The office would be paperless and all cars would be manufactured to travel at a set speed which would clear up the road toll which was caused, we were always being told, by people driving too fast. There were various other predictions including travel agencies selling shuttle trips to the moon.

    Agencies were and have been as much to blame as the corporations for the down selling of radio, and radio stations themselves sounded the death knell for quality radio by insisting that they were the best qualified to produce it, after all they could discount and they had “on air personalities” who would read the copy.

    Sports personalities, Hollywood actors and great professors of the airwaves could be used to endorse product, and were used on both radio and television at a cost. I do not believe that any power on earth can, or likely ever will, be any more effective than the disembodied voice of authority and or approval on radio.

    Shelly Burman once said “Television advertising is a graphic business, It shows it to you, and then it shows it to you, and shows it to you, and shows it to you.

    It might be said that radio tells you about it, and then tells you and tells you etc, but I don’t believe that it is the same. We listen to what we wish to listen to on average, where we are interrupted in a much more confronting way when the programme we are watching on television is broken into by advertising images and music and voices louder than the programme we were previously tuned in to.

    Radio has proven itself to be a survivor, I believe it will continue to survive as the visual and audio visual media around it, kicks away at the same old ball, and desperately tries to hold the upper hand.

    Radio says this is real, this is happening. As you drive home, there is a real live person here talking just to you about this and that, and as soon as anything worth knowing about happens, this person will hear about it first and immediately hand it on to you. This real person is the next best thing to a friend, and he/she will not cost you a cent.

  45. Dan
    10 Sep 12
    4:46 pm

  46. Radio is dead.

  47. paul
    13 Sep 12
    6:44 pm

  48. @ Richard Moss et al ALL INTERESTING STUFF, to which I add:

    Movies + TV + the graphic internet = apparent dominance of the visual.
    It was after all, the arrival of pix that finally made the internet interesting.
    But take the sound (music and dialogue) out of movies, and there’s not a lot left.

    If radio’s dead it’s because no-one has the sense to do interesting things there.
    Talk radio can be compelling, and some stuff on community radio is a total treat.

    Music will always be hugely potent, and people love talking on mobile phones.

    Radio is a community conversation.
    It’s voices we trust from people we feel like we know.

    At its best, radio creates really strong emotions that people enjoy and remember.

    Lots of TV would work just as well without pictures.
    Mostly, the pictures distract: they limit meaning rather than inform or enhance it
    Try it:
    Close your eyes for a couple minutes while you’re watching TV tonight, and see what happens.
    It’s a very different experience.

    The challenge is simple: make good things that people want to listen to.
    And rein in the commercial crap that mostly destroys any intimacy that night be happening.

    Viz: John Laws’ vacuuous response to the Cash-For-Comment scandals:
    “I’m just a hired voice, always was, always will be. Roll up, roll up.”

    Auditory space will remain a zone for marvelous experiences.
    But most of Australia’s commercial Whoreradio has no soul.
    It may not be dead yet, but gee, it’s dying.

  49. J. Davis
    20 Sep 12
    1:21 pm

  50. Why on earth would I answer the question I posed when there are so many great ideas coming through on this thread?! How to trigger a shift in the way radio bosses see the audience and what they want to hear is my biggest conundrum. J.