How podcasts and music streaming are helping radio thrive

For years, radio has been threatened with warnings of its own pending extinction.

First it was the rise of locally-focused newspapers, then it was the arrival of television. It was also the jukebox, the widening distribution of recorded music, and the Sony Walkman.

Radio blasted past all these challenges in a variety of ways: by focusing on local production, with the advent of Top 40 programming to capture the kids, and through the sheer luck of affordable portable transistor radios flooding the market in the 1960s.

Then the MP3 came along, and it was panic stations once more.

John Musgrove, the head of research for Commercial Radio & Audio, spent two decades as head of insights and research at Southern Cross Austereo. He recalls those early days where everyone, SCA included, was viewing the MP3 format as “an attack on music radio.”

“There were headlines out of the UK. There was this thing called MP3s coming out, the iRiver (an early MP3 player) was taking over, and then there was this thing called this Apple iPod coming to market.”

The iPod came with the seemingly impossible promise of storing one thousand songs in your pocket.

“The headlines in the UK said, ‘The radio killer’. The Apple iPod will kill radio. You know, 1,000 songs in your pocket. Why would you want a radio?”

Michael Anderson, then CEO of what was then called Austereo, decided they needed to look into this new threat, with the looming question: “should we be getting out of radio?”

Under Anderson’s directive, Musgrove waded into some behavioural economics, and discovered that, rather than being a radio killer, this sudden access to a swelling musical library simply reignited an iPod user’s love of music.

“Suddenly the 1,000 songs they’re playing in their pockets, that, at that stage were their 1,000 favourite songs, make them go: ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that song for a while now.’

“And so what we were seeing was more people wanting to listen to music in different formats.”

Radio was still the premium place for music discovery.

“And so radio didn’t die,” Musgrove reports. “At that stage in particular, it was still the place that [as a listener] I’m going to discover new music, and I’m going to stay in touch with my community, and hear the type of music that’s hot right here, right now.

“But this whole MP3 thing and iPod thing, that gives me another thing to play with. So, on the weekends when I’ll go and listen to all my favourite music and stuff like that, I’ve got that there.

“So, what happened is we just got more.”

A rising tide lifts all boats.

This is very instructive when looking at the radio landscape now. With the rise of music streaming services, the idea of a library of merely 1,000 songs seems positively quaint. Add this to the saturation of podcasting over the past 15 years, and there is certainly that familiar scrawl on the wall for radio.

But, according to Musgrove, the rise of other audio options doesn’t crowd out radio – it simply reinforces the idea that people are listening more across the board.

Radio networks are finding that a guaranteed success on the airwaves doesn’t neatly translate into a podcast hit, or vice versa.

“The two are not the same. It’s apples and oranges,” Musgrove says.

“My experience when I listen to a podcast is generally different to why I listen to a radio station.”

Musgrove notes the case of Marty Sheargold’s Triple M Breakfast show in Melbourne, which was launched in the midst of Covid. The radio audience stalled somewhat, while the show’s podcast listenership bloomed.

“The reason a person listens to Marty Sheargold’s podcast is it’s a forty-minute show, which is about my average commute time in a city,” he explains.

“It takes out all the music and all the ads – apart from the pre-roll, mid-roll – and so, at forty minutes, I get an entire show’s worth of value.

“Now, if I’m listening on radio, I’m not going to listen from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock, and so, I’m never going to get the whole show. I’m going to get a little bit of Marty, but I’m also going to get the news and all the other information. I don’t really want the news, I don’t want the ads in it.

“So the podcast is a very different listening experience, because I’m listening for something very specifically, wrapped up into a nice box, that equals my commute time.”

Musgrove found this at Austereo with the success of drivetime podcasts, especially the early popularity of Hamish and Andy. The duo benefited from their content being evergreen, and not tied to the news cycle. The tightly packaged nature of the podcast also helped.

“I couldn’t listen to the whole Hamish and Andy show because I was working,” Musgrove says.

“But I could jump in the car the next day and listen to yesterday’s show and there was nothing so timely – even with breakfast shows, outside of the actual news reports themselves – the events that are talked about tend to have used-by-dates that are much longer than a 24-hour news cycle.

“So you can listen to last week’s show and the relevancy is probably just as high. So, as in podcasting, you go to music streaming for a different reason.

Musgrove loves Apple Music, but says he listens to it “for a very specific reason that is different to why I listen to radio, which is about keeping me in touch, making it so I feel as though I’m hearing the music that the people around me are listening to – not the people in New York or L.A.”

Another massive point of difference between music streaming and radio is that the former relies on new musical recommendations, while the latter knows familiarity is key.

“One of the things we know in radio music programming is you’ve got a three song span for a listener – and you can play two songs they don’t like, or they’re not familiar with, but your third’s got to be one they’re familiar with. Cause that’s what keeps them in.”

“If you get through three songs and they don’t like three in a row, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to another station.’

“So if you think of recommendations on the streaming music system, if you’re just getting song after song after song that’s unfamiliar – it’s part of our human nature to feel, ‘I don’t mind that when I’m ready for that, but I’d also like to go and connect to a lot of familiar music.’”

As the head of research for Commercial Radio & Audio, Musgrove has obviously thought deeply and at length about this subject.

He cites Al Reis and Jack Trout’s landmark 1994 book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, and, in particular, the Law of Sacrifice.

“The Law of Sacrifice is a human behavioural thing. It says humans don’t like to give something up, to replace it,” he explains.

“We actually want to keep adding on. And it’s the same with everything. It’s why we’re so stressed today, we just want to do more and more and more. Consume more media.

“And, you know, once upon a time we watched one thing. Now we’re watching the TV and reading our social media, and we’re multitasking to buggery.

“And it’s causing our mind to be fried and stress us out. That’s the Law of Sacrifice: I don’t want to give up something.

“So, I think this idea, that people are going to give radio up, and just go and do music streaming is a myth.”

Another myth is that young people don’t listen to radio anymore.

“I do this all the time, if people say to me young people don’t listen to radio anymore, the first thing I’m going to say is, ‘just show me one data study, just one, anywhere globally, that validates that comment – because it’s absolutely not true.

“I can absolutely validate the opposite with studies in the US and UK and Australia here, that young people are listening to the radio.”

Musgrove also notes that DAB+ is “ growing rapidly in younger audiences”, which he takes as further validation that, even those younger rock fans who find the likes of Triple M too broad for their taste, are seeking the curation of a radio station.

“And if you’re a young person you can hear TikTok Radio [on DAB+] and it’s all curated for you. So you’re going to get a nice mixture of your own songs that you’re familiar with, and want to hear, and they’ll curate the 50, 000 new songs to find the five that are actually going to make hits around the world. They’re the songs that you know, your friends are going to be talking about.

“So again, it goes back to what is the strength of radio?

“As music stations, we’ve always been very good at curating music to suit the audience. We research it. Every single week, every one of those stations goes out and says, ‘What are you listening to? What do you like? What don’t you like? What are you sick of?’

“So you’re presenting a really good playlist of songs for people that suit an audience – a broader audience – but still, it’s a good curated experience.

“So even in the US, and out here, we’re anecdotally starting to hear that people are getting a bit tired of having to create playlists.

“I just push a button in my car and suddenly I’ve got all this curated music that suits me and I can move between a little bit of jazz or I can go to some smooth listening or a bit of rock or I’ve got like 30 stations with different music genres I can now choose.

“That’s pretty easy. I can move around those and get a really good experience.”

Exit mobile version