Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Live radio. It's not just the past, it's the future.

So, James Cridland, a self-described radio-futurologist (is that even really a word?), recently released an audio column on You Tube.  Now I have a lot of time for James as he talk a lot of sense.  In particular, his commentary on treating audiences with respect was pretty good.

But this column on whether radio needs to be live, is one where I think he came to the wrong conclusion, for the wrong reason.

Okay, so the motivation here was a response to someone else's blog post about the idea that if radio isn't live, it isn't really radio.  Well, I'm sorry but that's patently nonsense, and I agree with James on that.  Some of the best radio material ever broadcast was pre-recorded in advance.  But equally, some of the best radio material isn't pre-recorded at all, but went out live and untouched by any razor blade or piece of audio editing software.

But when he says that the people who say that live radio is the essence of great radio are wrong, I start to get concerned about this.  His first argument is the technical one, the one that says that FM is a slight delay behind the actual broadcast, DAB is a little bit further behind and radio over an Internet Protocol, can be a lot slower.  Sometimes the delay is only 10-15 seconds, sometimes it can be as much as a few minutes.

But actually, as I've found with various different listen again services, the delay between the actual broadcast, and the reception of it, isn't actually relevant.  Whether something was actually happening as you were listening, or had in fact happened up to 30 days previously, didn't matter.  What I was listening to had been transmitted live, and I was experiencing it, as though it was live, even if it had happened 4 weeks earlier.

And that I think is the key to this 'myth' that keeps cropping up, that radio doesn't need to be live or isn't better live.  The evidence that keeps coming up for this idea, is that podcasts like Serial are some of the best produced and most talked about and you can listen to it when you want and not on someone else's schedule.

Yet, that is the very reason, and the overriding one at that, that supports the idea that radio stations will stay live or mostly live, if they want to survive.

Live radio has a few benefits that pre-produced radio doesn't.  Yes, pre-produced radio does have it's own benefits too, but in my view, these are outweighed by the disadvantages and the advantages of live radio.

Here's what I mean.

Here's what I think are the advantages of live radio.

1.  Live radio is raw.  What that means is that live radio is not that it's untrained, or cruel or brutal, but that it is a natural state, like unrefined sugar, and like uncooked food like carrots or lettuce.  That rawness gives live radio a distinct advantage.  Yes, there might be mistakes or problems, but on the other hand, that's part of the fun.  We're human beings, we're not perfect, however much we like to think we are.

2.  Live radio is responsive.  There's a programme on US public radio that I really enjoy listening to.  It's called The World, and it's presented by Marco Warman from Boston.  They do some wonderful reporting and have some very interesting, but it's not live, and it's marketed as a news programme.  The only actual live elements in the programme, are the news bulletins, for 5 minutes at 1 minute past the hour, and 2 minutes at half past the hour.  Everything else is pre-recorded, no more than about 90 minutes in advance of first broadcast at 3pm EST, but it's mostly pre-recorded.  Which means that major news stories breaking during the programme, often don't get covered until the next day, if then.

With live radio though, you have the ability to cover that major breaking news, even if it's only a quick 10 to 30 second update in a music radio format.  That 30 seconds or less will be more appreciated by your listeners, than if you hadn't done it.

3.  Live radio is unpredictable.  You can format and prepare as much as possible, but just occasionally, something will happen that will be unplanned for.  Now, in my view, a true professional is not the person who sounds slick and polished.  It's the person who can handle the unplanned as though they'd planned it.  If something goes wrong, they have the ability to recover the situation quickly, and with a minimum of disruption.

4.  Live radio is a unique art form.  This one might seem pretentious but hear me out here.  In all forms of media and culture, live radio is a unique form.  It can have elements of theatre about it, it can elements within it that are polished and produced beautifully, but it also has an energy to it that cannot be captured in a pre-recorded format, such as cinema or pre-recorded TV and radio.  Live broadcasting is a unique art form, and with radio's ability to be heard whilst doing something else, that gives live radio a distinct advantage over pre-produced material.

So what are the disadvantages.

1.  Live radio is raw.  Yes, I know I said that it was an advantage, but it is also a disadvantage.  It's unrefined, not polished, not made the best that it can possibly be.  Sometimes that rawness can let people say things that they might not either truly mean or haven't really thought about.  Or, it can lead to serious mistakes in judgment, like when Rush Limbaugh called a woman who had testified to the US Congress a "slut".  That rawness isn't always a good thing, but more often than not, it is.

2.  Live radio can be misinforming.  It can happen from time to time, especially during breaking news scenarios.  At times information can come in, and be contradicted within hours, sometimes minutes, and it can be very difficult sorting out the actual facts from the well-intentioned and unintentional fiction.  Very few broadcasters have that ability to sort out fact from fantasy on the fly, so often they will just avoid breaking news situations entirely.

3.  Pre-recorded radio is often better produced.  There's no doubt that US public radio is filled with great shows that have a lot of great content on them.  However, a lot of these programmes are not heard live by every listener.  Because of the way public radio works in the USA, a lot of material is often produced and recorded in advance of actual transmission.

NPR's shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered, actually air internally for a lot longer than you hear on public radio stations, but most of those hours are actually repeats of the live broadcast hours.  Morning Edition for example is often only live between 5am and 7am EST, with material sometimes being updated through the morning until the show finishes at 12noon EST, that's 9am PST.  Similarly. All Things Considered is only actually live between 4pm EST and 6pm EST.  Again, material can get updated, but it's mostly each hour individually repeated until 10pm EST, 7pm PST.  Most local public radio stations only air a few hours at most of their own live programmes every day.  WNYC has live local programmes between 10am and 2pm, as well as adding local content to Morning Edition between 6am and 9am, and adding local content to All Things Considered between 4pm and 6pm.  KCRW has local content from 9am to 1pm, plus they have local DJs doing programmes between 8pm and 3am.  They too, like WNYC and most other public radio stations add local content to Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

WGBH produces a lot of content for NPR and PRI, their own local content is contained within the programme Boston Public Radio, which airs between 11am and 2pm on weekdays, as well as selected late night slots on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  They also air local content during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  KQED's local programming is even more limited, with only the KQED Forum between 9am and 11am.  Most local KQED programming like Perspectives and The California Report, air during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

So much content in shows like The California Report, and many other public radio shows is produced in advance and it shows in just how well the material is produced.  Live radio is rarely as well produced as these pre-recorded items and shows are.

There is a growing delineation between on-demand content, both on radio and TV, and live content.  Anything that is produced in advance is going to become primarily on-demand content in the near future.  They may get released on a certain day, at a certain time, but they are going to be heard and seen at a time of the listener's choosing.  You already see this with podcasts, whether hourly, daily or weekly.  Weekly shows like WNYC's On The Media, and KCRW's Left, Right & Center, tend to be produced on a Thursday, released on a Friday as a download, and you'll often hear these shows and others like them air on radio stations over the course of a weekend, at various times dependent on the station.  And these shows can be heard on your schedule, after you download it.

But live broadcasting at the weekend is often more about sports or a late breakfast, providing news, weather and travel info.  Music radio at the weekend, outside of breakfast, is often voice tracked, usually on the Friday before.  But with the likes of Spotify and Pandora, and your own MP3 players and iPods growing in popularity, these are slowly replacing music radio as the preferred means of listening to music.  Commercial radio is going to have to adapt to that reality, and it will have to do it at some point, sooner or later.  Content is going to become the most important thing and it'll be all the better for commercial radio if they can get used to the idea of having sponsored content, not like teleshopping, but like sponsored sports coverage, and programming like Radio Plymouth's Sunday Supplement, which includes long form news features (for commercial radio, anything over a minute is long form, and some of these news packages are up to 5 minutes in length), interview segments and  showbiz packages.  Other ideas such as local music hours and even some forms of talk programming, are probably going to be better at attracting listeners to a live radio station, either broadcast or streaming, than more hours of music, interrupted by ads and news.

On balance, here's how I would answer the basic premise of the question.  Does radio need to be live?  Not always, but being live, doesn't mean you can't benefit from the best of pre-recorded radio, where as being pre-recorded the whole time, does preclude you from utilising the benefits of live radio.

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