Live and local? Try being real and relevant. (GUEST BLOG)


I have a confession. I was, once, a radio presenter. I fact, I held this job down for over ten years. I was doing this alongside other things I was doing. One of those “other” jobs was as a trainer for the company’s computer playout system.

So, when doing the live Sunday breakfast show for a large top 40 commercial radio station in the UK, I decided to put my knowledge of the playout system to the test. Instead of presenting the programme live, I did everything via the computer playout system. I’d record my witty repartee, and assemble them into the programme. Instead of doing live segues, I’d edit them together on the system. Nothing was live; everything was recorded – but only recorded about fifteen minutes ahead of time.

So, when it was 8.15am, I was recording what I’d say into the news at 8.30am. The computer would happily play the programme out; and I knew that my programme was the best it possibly could be – from a technical standpoint, at least. I had all the benefits of producing a pre-recorded programme – if I fluffed up a link, I could always go again; I could always hit the vocals flawlessly; but I could still talk about last night’s television and this morning’s weather.

So, it comes as a surprise, in 2015, to hear radio companies still going on about the benefits of “live and local”.

While radio is still as popular as it’s ever been – much to many peoples’ surprise – the dirty secret is that live radio consumption on connected devices like mobile phones and tablets isn’t actually increasing. It hasn’t done so for at least a couple of years, and – depending where you look – considerably longer.

It’s probably no surprise that live radio consumption isn’t growing on mobile devices. We’ve taken the most interactive device we have – one that is always within arm’s reach, and one that we glance at over 120 times a day – and tried to put one of the least interactive experiences, a live simulcast radio stream, on it. I liken it to the idea of putting a PDF of your favourite newspaper on a website, and just expecting people to deal with it. It doesn’t work as well. We need something new to take advantage of connected devices and interactivity.

My experiments with doing a radio programme slightly ahead of time showed that there is no material benefit to being “live”. Being fifteen-minute delayed, as I essentially was, gave me time to produce a great-sounding, of-the-moment, radio programme, which sounded smoother and better than something done live, but retained all the benefits of real radio. Yet, some in radio wish to put the “live”ness of radio above all else. I think it’s time to rethink the primacy of live.

Just like ‘live’ isn’t actually important, so I also believe that ‘local’ isn’t as important as people seem to think it is. Regularly on the radio you can hear a presenter broadcasting from two miles away, yet never once mentioning anything about the local area or local people. While that’s technically ‘local’, in reality we know that it isn’t really.
Where proper, real, radio scores is when it’s relevant to the audience – entertaining or informing them, talking about what’s going on in their lives, their interests, their points of reference. The human connection and shared experience that proper radio offers is the unique selling point of the medium. Live and local might help get there. But that’s not the most important thing.

As more services like Rivet appear, which produce real, relevant radio to audiences, I predict we’ll see less empty platitudes about being “live and local”, and more concerted efforts to make content that is real and relevant.

James Cridland is a radio futurologist: a writer, speaker and consultant about radio’s future, helping implement change in media companies worldwide. In 2005 he launched the world’s first mobile phone app for a radio station. He has a weekly newsletter available at his personal website: http://james.cridland.net/

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