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Liverpool Sound City: Radio will only get stronger

By | Published on Saturday 22 May 2010

New technology will make radio stronger – providing new opportunities for both existing players and newcomers. That was the upbeat conclusion of CMU’s radio panel at Liverpool Sound City this week.

“Internet radio has been around for over a decade now”, CMU Publisher Chris Cooke observed, kicking off the proceedings. “But it’s only now that we are starting to see the kind of technology emerging that could result in the net revolutionising radio. In the next few years we’ll have radio sets that receive FM, DAB and internet-based services, and present those services in a way that means listeners won’t need to know where their station of choice originates. As mobile internet technologies improve, that kind of radio set will become the norm in your car. Only then will internet radio, and net-based services like Pandora and Spotify go truly mainstream”.

Won’t that pose a big threat to traditional FM radio stations, which have previously been protected from new competitors because the small number of FM licences available pose a big barrier to market for start ups? Yes and no. Xfm music chief Mike Walsh argued that with an ever increasing amount of music and content available, listeners will rely more than ever on trusted brands to help them navigate what’s on offer. And that’s a great opportunity for traditional radio brands like Capital, Heart and Galaxy, other radio franchises owned by Xfm’s parent company Global Radio.

“Yes, there will be lots of new rival music services”, Mike admitted. “But for many radio listeners – most radio listeners – music is only one part of the equation. They are looking for personalities, for people and brands they can trust. And that’s where the Xfms and Capitals of this world have the advantage”.

But, for those who are primarily seeking music services, who may be increasingly frustrated with what’s on offer on the FM dial, the new age of radio could be an opportunity to shun those traditional radio brands. Jeff Cooper, who set up his own online radio station Radio2XS back in 2002 after becoming frustrated with the homogenisation of the conventional radio sector, definitely thinks so.

“At the moment there is very little choice in radio” he explained. “Because there’s a very limited number of stations on FM in any one area, and what stations any one region gets is decided on a pretty random basis by OfCom. So, a guy in a government department decides that Manchester should have an indie music station in the form of Xfm, but that the people of Liverpool don’t want that kind of service. And then the stations you do get are controlled by one or two people in London, with very little local individuality or input”.

But, Jeff hopes, the growth of internet radio will fix that, letting entrepreneurs launch nationwide niche services wherever they see the opportunity, and letting radio listeners in any one area pick from a much bigger range of stations. “It’s important to remember this is all still in its infancy”, A&R Worldwide’s Sat Bisla, whose US radio show goes out on both FM and the net, reminded the panel, “FM radio still dominates. You see that when you run a promotion for a gig or artist. You get a much bigger response when you’re working with an FM station than an online-only service”.

But all panellists agreed exciting times are ahead, and are possibly just around the corner. “The other day I drove from North Wales back to Sheffield”, Jeff added. “And with my Nokia phone in place, was able to listen to Radio2XS the whole way. Now, you need to have technical know-how to do that just now, but such things are only going to get easier”.

“Labels are already seeing the potential of online stations to promote their music”, plugger Liam Walsh of Ask Me PR added. “Whereas previously online radio would be down the bottom of the priority list, some labels now recognise that certain online services can be very valuable to reach certain audiences. And that’s exciting for people like me, because over the last 20 years the numbers of people we can talk to in radio about our bands has declined greatly, as stations become more and more networked and controlled by central teams. Having more outlets for our music has got to be good news”.

So, all in all a very positive hour for a session on the future of a terribly insecure industry about to undergo a period of radical change. It must have been the impromptu heatwave Liverpool Sound City delivered for its delegates. Or perhaps it’s because a dangerous revolution is exactly what British radio needs just now.

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