Radio's Trouble With The Internet

Why aren't there digital products built on radio's successes?

Radio has always had a bit of trouble with the internet. Or more accurately, the people behind radio stations have some difficulty in getting their online editorial right.

The birth of the web saw radio jump into this medium at the turn of the century. At that point local stations, the predominant form of the wireless, tried to replicate their local credentials by booting up a local portal. I spent most of 2001 sitting in the head office of koko.com, GWR’s attempt to create a hybrid national/local site. It was a good idea, though ahead of its time - in both the tech that ran it didn’t really work, and the audience probably wasn’t quite ready either (a crap name didn’t help). It also had a lot of trouble replicating the content feel of the successful local radio stations. The teams were good at creating compelling audio but no one had taught them how to create compelling text.

As was the way of the dotcom boom and bust, all the Koko people were laid off, and all that was left in my office were the classicfm.com people - Rob and Russell and Pete who kept it all running (and still keeps it all going). We decided to bunch up together away from the empty desks.

The other internet venture GWR had was quite an interesting one. They’d take equity positions in dotcoms in exchange for some free ads (and sometimes content too). I think ten were ‘invested in’ and all were clunkers!

Over at Capital they went for showbiz around capitalfm.com with a mixture of station and three internet-only stations, whilst Chrysalis had probably the most interesting effort - a startup called Pure Mix - that launched 40 internet radio stations using their music and presenter talent. It preceded the broadband and mobile revolution and ran out of money pretty fast.

Commercial radio’s early attempts were followed with more goes at roughly the same thing - with similar mixed success.

The BBC’s sites, particularly the national radio stations, had pretty robust teams (as you’d expect) and enhanced the radio output with lots of photos, catch-up and eventually video.

Nowadays, web content has gone one of two ways - either predominantly data driven sites - see Bauer’s Planet Radio that concentrates on schedule/playlist info (with some written article content) and BBC Sounds’ slim home pages for their radio output, or the SEO-driven output for Global’s Heart and Capital. A constant stream of, albeit on-brand articles, designed to do well in Google search.

For Bauer, a lot of their written material is shared amongst station brands and then pushed in the station’s social channels. So the sad news of Sarah Harding’s death is reported in articles duplicated across Magic, Kiss, Hits and Greatest Hits and promoted on Facebook and Twitter.

On the commercial radio side the web’s moved away from providing deep brand connections to focusing on generating clicks for ad impressions. There is - to the brand - some value in SEO-driven clicks, but I’d be surprised if there was much attribution from the audience. If much of the content is suitable for multiple outlets, it probably suggests that there isn’t that much of a deep connection with the host stations.

For the BBC, their stations are now so far away from being able to publish content that Radio 1 had to pop up a microsite for the latest Greg James stunt, because it looked like there was no real way to integrate it into what’s left of its website - and just linked to it from social media.

The net result is that the audio products and the digital content products are pretty separate endeavours. Social media channels have the most cross-over welding radio clips with SEO links - but looking at the like counts on material, I’m not sure that audience is particularly engaged. At the time of writing this Love Island tweet has three likes:

In fact there’s probably another post on how many brands’ seemingly high social media follower counts are old historic accounts who no longer see this material anyway...

So all this digital content is a means to an end, it generates pageviews and thus some cash, but it does seem an awful lot of trouble for something that I’m not entirely sure is the core business.

That’s not to say that meaningful digital content couldn’t be very valuable. For a business that bangs on about the importance of the one to one connection, radio doesn’t really do a lot of that online. In fact that digital relationship’s been sold off for nothing to the presenters. They now control that one on one connection through their own social accounts. Usually with much more interesting content than the corporate station profiles.

Just thinking about breakfast, I’m amazed at how little effort there is to create a digital product around a station’s biggest stars?

A daily email newsletter from the Radio 4 Today team with as much care as the radio show would surely be a winner? Though I shouldn’t probably hold my breath for that - at the moment the Today homepage leads on some audio content from December last year.

In a world where the structure and timbre of a YouTuber’s video content is a pretty understandable format, why aren’t there ‘breakfast show never stops’ feeds that look to that world, rather than the producer just dumping studio clips online?

I’m also amazed that radio stations continue to proceed with poorly rating ‘best of the show’ podcasts. Why aren’t stations getting core talent to create new concepts and series?

When radio stations are embarking on subscription radio efforts, like Bauer are doing, enhancing that subscription offering with deeper connections to the brands is surely essential to stop churn? With tech companies concentrating on creating digital subscription content platforms like Substack and Twitter’s Super Follows - isn’t now the time to work out how to create valuable, sticky, digital content?

We know that radio’s facing more challenges - younger audiences are listening less, and more competition is making it harder to cut through and keep hours up. This isn’t something that’s likely to change.

Quality digital content provides a way to tie listeners closer to their favourite shows as well as creating new revenue when the audience shift would surely suggest the core product is likely to face revenue challenges.

If all of this is the case, why is most of the time and effort spent on digital content focused on the ephemeral, generic and replaceable? Why do there seem to be no digital products that are connected to radio’s core successes?

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