Kenya: Curse Or Blessing? Radio Industry Chews Over Technological Changes

Technology & Convergence

At a recent conference in Johannesburg dubbed Joburg Radio Days hosted by the University of Witwatersrand's Wits Radio Academy, scholars, analysts and radio industry practitioners mulled over what the future holds for radio, and how the industry can make the best out of it.

Prof Franz Kruger, who heads the academy, told the forum that pondering if radio is headed for extinction is a legitimate question at the moment.

"Our biggest challenge is technological disruption. We need to compete with the disruption that technology brings to our business," says Clive Dickens, chief operating officer of Absolute Radio, London, adding that the current landscape is a very "digital economy".

Dickens said the rise of this "digital economy" caused a dip in revenue for radio even before recession set in and affected businesses. This is having far reaching consequences. Already, there has been a change in audience behaviour in recent years as a result of technological changes, says Terry Volkwyn, chief executive of Primedia Broadcasting, a South African media group.

Since they have more access to information, Ms Volkwyn argues, the audiences have become "more demanding and discerning", which is turning radio into a more fast-paced medium.

In addition to pressure from the audience, Tim Davie, who heads audio and radio at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), says radio is facing the challenge of a significant reduction in the hours people now spend listening to it.

This development, brought about by the many choices at the disposal of audiences, has heightened competition.

A report commissioned by the Centre for International Media Assistance (Cima) on the deployment of community radio in the developing world says with ongoing development of technology and the on-demand content, there is concern that conventional broadcasting on the FM wave-band will soon look outdated.

It is not all gloom, though. Apart from these looming threats and concerns over the future, developments in technology also bear good tidings for the future of radio.

Apart from opening up avenues for interaction with audiences by increasing the range of platforms available, industry players say, technology has revolutionised reporting and tremendously increased the value that the medium delivers to advertisers.

The report by the US-based Cima says that new technology presents great opportunities to radio broadcasters and their listeners.

"Arguably, mobile telephony represents the biggest revolution in radio since the invention of the transistor, while computers and the internet have transformed, or have the potential to transform, programming," it says.

Ms Volkwyn, whose firm runs four radio stations in South Africa, says that audiences can now contribute to conversations on talk shows through text messages, download programmes online and have news delivered to their cellphones.

On average, her firm handles 6,000 text messages from the stations' listeners in an hour.

According to her, current developments are not a threat to radio, since humans have the capacity to adapt to different technologies.

She considers censorship and absence of media freedom much more of a threat to the viability of radio today.

Mr Dickens agrees that consumers will adapt to whatever is there, adding that viewed the other way, technology is an enabler to the industry.

Despite the optimism though, there is consensus on the need for the industry to adapt to the rise of new media.

"Radio will continue to enjoy popularity if it keeps in touch with the needs of audiences," says Dr Mary Myers, a media consultant at the Radio, Convergence and Development in Africa (RCDA) research project.

She says that one of the ways this could do this is by embracing new technology and getting online to tap into the new alternative platforms. Dickens says so far, radio has stayed resilient to the ongoing changes in the digital space because it has co-opted new platforms.

Studies across the continent by the RCDA project indicate that most radio stations have embraced computers and digital editing, including small rural stations. "However, the convergence is slow and is still subject to the digital divide," it adds.

The report says urban and commercial radio stations are embracing the internet and other technologies much more than the poorer ones.

Though convergence between traditional radio broadcasting and new technologies is a reality, the report notes, "its benefits, in terms of development gains, are yet to be clearly and conclusively demonstrated".

Nonetheless, experts say radio has to conform if it is to survive.

The report by Cima, suggests that radio stations "look to the future" and embrace new technology creatively.

Among the strategies that have been suggested for adaptation by radio include doing much more than transmitting sound as it has traditionally done, which is already being put into use across the world.

Radio organisations like Absolute Radio in the UK and Jacaranda Afrikaner (Ja.fm) in South Africa are embracing novel strategies online.