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Popular Music and Radio in the twenty-first century November 10, 2011

Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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When Last.fm was founded in 2002, as an online radio-like service and music fan website, its very name set it up in contest with over-the-air radio. It rhetorically signalled its claim to be the ultimate radio station, both as the end point of music radio’s evolution, and as the only radio station listeners would need. The .fm suffix suggested music radio’s origins in over-the-air radio and a future on the internet. Of course music radio stations have continued to broadcast on FM frequencies, and more over-the-air stations have joined them on the digital systems introduced in most countries. Over-the-air services continue to capture over 85% of radio listening hours in a country like the UK. However, as the young entrepreneurs who established Last.fm understood very clearly, the global reach and interactive nature of the internet could enable a different relationship between listener and music than the one on which the century-old broadcast model was based.

When I first researched internet music radio between 2000 and 2003, I had neglected the fledgling music service, and instead focused my analysis on Live365.com ‘crowd-sourced’ radio and AOL’s portal radio service, then called AOL Radio@Network. Nevertheless, I interpreted the development and dominance of these ‘networks’ as evidence of an emerging model within online-only radio services (Wall 2004). On the basis of a comparison of internet radio’s lower fixed and higher variable costs relative to over-the-air radio, I revealed a number of important developments: more new entrants in ‘broadcasting’; a move to niche, streamed programming, often bundled and heavily branded; greater emphasis on automation and ‘amateur programming’ (p. 37-39). I also suggested that the technology enabled even more opportunities around bespoke radio services, built upon mining data about listeners, and an integration of streamed sound with what we would now call social media content (p. 39-40).

While both Live365 and AOL services continue today in modified form, the most notable innovations have been in the development of the radio-like music services, of which Last.fm has been the most successful. However, this emphasis on innovation can disguise how important over-the-air radio remains. Statistics for the UK, to take one example, are instructive here. Throughout 2011 radio listening continued to grow, both in terms of reach and listening hours. Although there have been significant increases in listening through digital platforms like DAB, digital television, computers and mobile devices, FM and AM listening still accounts for over 60% of radio consumption. And notably, 85% of consumption is of over-the-air services (both analogue and digital) (RAJAR 2011).

My purpose in the following posts, then, is to unpick some of the continuities and innovations that have characterised music radio over the last decade. In particular, I am interested in exploring how specialist music provision has prospered since 2002. The health of specialist music is one index of diversity in music programming, which is in itself an aspect of radio’s claim to contribute to the public good. To perform this exploration, I will cover three broad areas. Initially I want to develop the argument that specialist music programming is an important function of radio in promoting the public good. Here I examine the contributions of the public, commercial, unlicensed and community sectors over the last ten years, as well as the way that changing regulation has helped or hindered diversity. Secondly, I examine how the expansion of channels for audio distribution has extended the wide range of music radio available, and what implications this has for the future of musical diversity. Finally, I explore the relationship between music services and traditional music radio in some more detail, examining what impact activities like music recommendation and personalisation have had on the tradition of the specialist DJ and the promotion of musical diversity. It is worth noting that I have drawn my examples and case studies almost exclusively from UK and US radio. This will, by necessity, place a qualification on the usefulness of my analysis at a more general level. While the global reach of internet radio has offered an alternative, radio remains structured primarily at the level of the nation state, and each country has developed distinct systems. Nevertheless, the historic monopoly the BBC and its public service model in the UK, and the dominance of commercial network radio in the US, make these national systems excellent poles of broadcasting for a comparative analysis.

RAJAR (2011) RAJAR data release Quarter 1 2011
Wall, T. (2004) “The political economy of internet music radio.” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 2(1): 27-44

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