Redefining Radio: The Changing Properties of UK Radio in the Information Age

When I began researching this essay, my intention was to examine the impact of recent social, legislative and technological changes surrounding radio, in an attempt to create a sketch of the future ‘forms’ radio may adopt. It became clear that television forced radio to redefine its role in the mass media1 and that, surprisingly enough, considerably more had been written about the impact of new ‘forms’ of television in society, when compared to radio. Considerably more has also been written about the future of television. As my essay is limited in words, I have decided to make use of hyperlinks to draw upon my research, largely from the Internet, as there is a dearth of information in printed form on radio’s future. My idea was that hyperlinks would, in many cases, clarify and expand my points as I made them, rather like glorified appendices. However, hyperlinks only work in electronic form and are useless on paper unless they are typed into a web browser. I would therefore urge the reader, then, to co-locate my essay with an identical HTML copy, uploaded to on 20/5/99.

The purpose of this essay is to try and consider the properties (elements) of radio that will survive as radio enters its second century of broadcasting. More importantly, I’d like to ask why such changes have occurred in the ways they have. Finally, my intention is to examine how far can we apply the precedence of history next to assumptions being presented around new technologies by examining how far it is possible to map radio’s future through looking at its history.

In the past, radio’s seemingly imminent death – as new media were born and technology changed, allowing its audiences to use the medium differently – has been prolonged by its integration into new technologies to offer coverage where other mediums can’t reach as cheaply or effectively. As Matelski reminds us, radio is - and still is, as I hope to prove - a ‘victim of it’s own success’ (1995:6) and the BBC invariably reminds us of the importance of its World Service in developing and non-democratic countries2. Radio ‘is so omnipresent that it is easy to take for granted’ (ibid.). Its changes have perhaps been so drastic that we should think of early radio as a base medium – it has a long historical significance in British culture, exists in forms everywhere across the globe and has survived world wars. Further functionality has been added to the base at different times, which have altered and shifted its meaning and implications: it gets smaller, lighter, cheaper, which determines where and how it is used. As Scannell and Cardiff remind us, in the mid-thirties ‘radio sets were not cheap’ (1991:361), and they were initially designed to resemble ornaments or furniture, to assimilate ‘into the familiar environment of people’s homes’ (ibid.:360). The emphasis in later years with the advent of television was that technological innovation allowed the radio to move further from the home into cars, public spaces and personal receivers3. That early radios were both expensive and designed to resemble items of furniture is significant; in the context of DAB, both statements remain true today, as I shall discuss later.

Until recently, broadcast radio could have been broadly categorised into two separate groups: ‘BBC’ and ‘Commercial’. Both have been affected by legislative changes, which have allowed for more stations, in turn affecting output and generating new research into how stations can best sustain audience figures. Further changes also allow for in-store broadcasting, making it yet more omnipresent and tailoring commercial radio to specific in-store corporate identities and audiences. To an extent, both groups offer a public service but differ where ownership and content regulation is concerned.

Public Service Broadcasting initially mapped imagined communities and a cultural history and identity for its audiences, which were later made smaller and fragmented, with the opening of new markets and commercial choice for listeners4. The BBC’s principles have remained largely unchanged since its’ birth in 1927 and Crisell (1994:21) identifies its’ key roles as to ‘inform, educate and entertain; to report the proceedings of parliament; to preserve a balance between political points of view’. It has a guaranteed income from licence fees although this is subject to state control. Commercial radio is driven by commercial imperatives. Funded largely by advertising, which means both attracting and sustaining an audience base to guarantee its’ income - and therefore its’ survival – suggests that evaluation of audience needs and the successful provision of that service, lies at the heart of commercial radio. In a recent document on the future of the radio industry, GWR Group, described by The Guardian as ‘the second biggest commercial radio station owner’ (29/1/99), recently stated that: ‘Commercial radio should not have to make any judgements about what its audience ought to hear. It should, however, respond to what its audience wants - this is its public interest role’5.

In redefining radio for the next century, a look at past developments will inform us of the ways in which radio has evolved and more importantly, can highlight the most likely changes in usage and consumption in the future. Several changes require close attention and I will examine ‘form’ as a starting point. An ambiguous term, form can be identified in the context of broadcast output; as generic differences between shows, in the light of forms of regulation and more importantly for this essay, technological form. I argue that while radio’s success can be gauged from its ubiquity, a key determinant lies in the technological development of receivers. In the past, technological change has ‘carried’ radio, making it increasingly accessible. Future radio broadcasts will be listened to on four groups of receiver. Firstly, the multimedia computer. This is significant, as to my mind it is the most recent and both its software and hardware are changing rapidly. It is also potentially a key determinant in the future of radio and I will explore its virtues (and weaknesses) later. Secondly, the ‘domestic’ receiver. Arguably the first means of reception made available to the public. I define this the ‘set’ for the home, or to coin a Reithian expression: ‘the friend in the corner’. In this category, hi-fi ‘separates’ manufacturers are also producing high-end digital tuners. For the domestic receiver, its future is already clearly accounted for6.

The BBC claims digital (DAB) transmitters already cover 60% of the UK (BBC1 Ceefax, 697/4) and interestingly, this ‘includes many of the motorway and road routes’ (ibid.). The third group, then, is the ‘in-car’ receiver. This is undoubtedly important and I will examine its technological redefinition later. At least five major manufacturers already have in-car digital radios for sale7. Finally, there is the ‘walkman’ receiver, which is still unavailable. I spoke to Wood Brothers TV, a digital radio retailer in Brighton, and was told that the first designs for DAB walkman receivers had failed; there was a problem receiving DAB using a device operating on small batteries. BBC’s web-site has also announced this: ‘Due to the power consumption of the DAB chipset a truly portable receiver will not be available until after the year 2000’. (

Many radio stations, especially the BBC, are now taking the next step on from dual use of television and radio receiver as ‘pictures with radio’ (where live coverage on television events could be matched with the more ‘visual’ or detailed live (and often stereo) coverage offered by radio. The radio description, allowing for the traditionally ‘blind’ listener8, incorporates much more fine detail about the game and the ‘new media’ viewer now can have the best of both worlds. In the past, this has also been considered a key factor concerning radio’s survival. Now, many shows are offering ‘radio with pictures’9 encouraging listeners to co-locate their PCs with the radio and use the Internet to supplement the audio program going to air with related images and text files. Although not vital to the overall program these related pieces of information add value, a secondary level of information that normally would be the subject of a 'write in for more details' announcement. As Collins and Murroni observe: ‘New media supplement, rather than replace, the old … in each case, the incumbent medium changed, adapting to new circumstances by focusing on its core capacities: news and music on the radio, a night out at the cinema’ (1996:141-2). In the case of radio, this is absolutely true. Rhoads reinforces this view: ‘radio has proven itself able to adapt, Phoenix-like, to whatever comes ... So satellites, digital broadcasting and other new technologies don’t mean a thing – challenges have always meant opportunity for radio’ (1995:15).

However, co-locating the PC with the radio for supplementary information seems tantamount to reading a teletext accompaniment to a television transmission if it’s merely a case of gaining extra textual information. On closer inspection, it seems as if there are a number of issues at stake here: national ‘network’ radio (BBC or commercial) can use web-sites to embellish their transmission, just as live radio coverage of an event can supplement the same television coverage. It could also be argued that the Internet encourages listeners to contact radio stations, which creates the potential for closer interaction between DJ’s and audience. For example, an e-mail message has the potential to get directly onto a DJ’s laptop in the studio uncensored. Conversely, operators screen the few ‘successful’ telephone connections first. Mark Goodier was the first Radio 1 DJ to combine the Internet with his shows and gives his e-mail address on air: ‘The great thing is, the Net adds more depth of communication with your listeners … People say e-mail is impersonal but I think it's more personal. It only takes ten seconds of your time and you have a reply winging its way back to a listener. Mail and fax take a lot more effort’10.

So for a Radio 1 music programme, the Internet means more efficient communication between the DJ and the audience. Consider talk radio, where co-location with a PC could open new possibilities. As the Internet provides arenas for on-line ‘chat’ rooms, it would make sense to use such a technology to add another layer to talk radio. In tandem with the radio broadcast, a discussion (or several discussion topics) could allow people to follow and sustain broadcast arguments on-line. This resembles the notion of broadcasting as the ‘social cement’ that Reith envisaged and gets closer still to Brecht’s vision of radio as a means of communication, to make ‘the listener not only hear but also speak’ (1932:25). When the Chris Evans Breakfast Show went on-line, ‘more than 3,000 listeners logged on for the first morning’, from all over the world and the majority returned11. In addition to this, continuous live-feed broadcasts, DJ biographies, archived music, notice-boards and a desktop news channel also offer extra audience information12. While it is easy to look at the possible advantages of this technology to its audiences and advertisers, I am also aware of its’ problems. Talk radio especially is about a DJ (a personality) hosting a discussion with many people one-by-one. The DJ takes a call and works the person on the other end, live and on air. Without this ‘two-way’ intimacy of interaction, the station is effectively trusting its audiences creativity and imagination, which, while positive, could also fail to produce material that could be used on-air. Part of the process of talk radio is that the DJ needs to play ‘host’ and have an effect (positive or negative) on the person on the other line. However, it is often the case that in ‘chat-rooms’ there are host controllers, who can take control of the conversation. Therefore, we are moving away from a genre of ‘intimacy’ (one-to-one) to something more like a public debate with the DJ at the top and then ‘hosts’ occupying separate chat rooms relating to all of the subsequent discussion topics that occur throughout the broadcast.

Radio is a medium, which by nature has encouraged people to ‘span’ mediums. However, despite the current technical limitations another hybrid has sprung out of Internet technology. Internet Radio or ‘web-casting’ as a concept is truly alive, by the ‘end of last year there were about 2,000 radio and TV stations broadcasting on the Net’13. Not only for making existing radio stations bigger and better, many stations now appear exclusively in Internet form with ‘Web DJs’ presenting anything that was once the sole domain of broadcasting AM and FM stations. The only down side to web-casts at present, is that we are once again seeing a rebirth (or repackaging) of broadcasting, only played out in cyberspace. At present, it seems as if little consideration has been given as to how existing Internet web-casters might offer radical new directions in media programming.

However, two arguments justify the existence of web-casting: freedom of expression and the potential for a global reception. Strict rules and regulations to which operators must adhere in order to keep their licenses govern public broadcasting. There is also a Promise of Performance which covers issues specific to the individual broadcaster’s programming formats, signal power and frequency assignment. In cyberspace, however, none of these restrictions apply as yet14. Web-casting, for the time being at least, purports to eradicate the concept of the ‘pirate radio’ station, as audio streaming over the Internet means a ‘free for all’ for any potential Web DJ. Sounds Utopian, like Brecht’s dream? Web-casting has its’ flaws; to receive Internet radio, the user needs a PC and a modem, which is not portable like most radio receivers, leaving it confined only to domestic (or office) use. Also, Internet radio data is often streamed at the lowest quality rate in order to compensate for heavy Internet traffic. The software for receiving Internet radio still needs improving and the hardware (the PC and components that make the Internet) seem too slow often to pick up even low quality broadcast streams without some interruption, especially when the Internet is busy.

The BBC promises that all DAB transmissions are uncompressed15 and by doing so are standing by their principles of real-time broadcasting whilst acknowledging their Public Service role. To quote Raboy, purporting to be ‘seen as an instrument of social and cultural development, rather than as a marginal alternative service on the periphery of a vast cultural industry’ (1995:9). The BBC, recognising the important symbiotic relationship between the radio and the car, has targeted DAB at this market and will undoubtedly be there long before the web-casters. Another potential weakness within reception of web-casting, suggesting that it is unlikely to outstrip Broadcast radio (especially in the UK), is that modem connection time must be paid for. As DJ Robin Banks points out, he: ‘can't see people paying for a phone bill to listen to radio on the Net when they can listen to it with a digital radio receiver’16.

The convergence of the Internet and the radio does seem to indicate a shift in roles. Current broadcasters are moving closer to becoming collectors and collators of information and acting as a source for the listener to tap. The BBC is precisely doing this with its web-site ( The listener is no longer confined to the scheduled content that the broadcaster offers at a specific time. Only specialist shows are doing this for the time being (those after 6.30pm Monday to Thursday and after 6pm on Sunday, such as the Evening Session and John Peel). These shows are broadcast and then made available on the site for people to access when they please. However, as Jason Wilburn, Radio 1’s web-site manager, remarked: ‘if the station had a 24 hour live net feed the BBC servers would be swamped’17. What seems to be happening here, rather than broadcasting, is that all radio stations will become big servers and on-line information providers, as both the BBC and Virgin seem to be doing. They will become radio broadcasters, potentially Internet service providers and on-line hypermedia ‘magazines’. So does this mean that The Archers is going to remain scheduled or stored as a file on a central server? Will the BBC become a collection of files based upon its own heritage and corporate identity?18 There is a fear that its global market principles, developed in its recent history, have finally over-run its original PSB remit. Analogue services clearly won’t dry up overnight; we are assured that ‘it will be another five years before the UK Government decides what to do with the old analogue frequencies’19.

From the radio station’s perspective, the process of production for Internet radio programming is virtually identical to that of broadcast radio20. The only difference lies in ‘streaming’ the transmission from the studio output. Rather than sending the signal out to a transmitter and into the air, the signal goes to a software data encoder first to be compressed, which significantly lowers sound quality and also means that the PC receiver has to work harder ‘unpacking’ the signal to play it back. From the encoder, the ‘stream’ is released onto the Internet. Sound quality is also dependent on other factors. Most important is the ‘bit-rate’ at which the signal is converted from analogue (from the studio) to digital (to the Internet); sampling at higher bit-rates means clearer sound and better reproduction as a larger proportion of the audio ‘spectrum’ is used. However, a higher bit-rate also means larger data files to stream and more chance of ‘drop-out’ in the audio stream. So bit-rate concerns the level of detail given to the sound when recording or converting, but larger files increase the likelihood of the stream being eaten up by net congestion.

Internet radio is not portable and expensive if you are accessing the Internet using a modem. Poor quality broadcasting in terms of quality and ‘drop-out’ mean that it isn’t going to revolutionise radio overnight. Available Internet bandwidth is still too limited and increasing demands are placed on it daily. In terms of broadcasting, DAB seems the logical next step for ‘Public Service’ radio, and the BBC tell us that: ‘Digital Radio = CD quality sound + interference-free reception + new stations’21. Internet ‘DAB’ quality transmissions will not be found for a long time, although DAB PC receiver cards and software have been developed22 and this is, ironically despite DAB’s virtue of being portable, likely to become the cheapest and largest area of DAB uptake. Until DAB car receivers become significantly cheaper - and it seems clear that it is the high-end companies, targeting an elitist market23 - DAB will remain quiet in the background. It seems we have a paradox here: if none of the five car receivers really sell, competition will not be encouraged and the price is unlikely to drop. However, DAB car-stereos will not sell until people hear the benefits of the new technology. As Collins and Murroni observe ‘this technology bonanza will not determine the future of broadcasting: consumers will’ (1996:141). On second evaluation, the arguments presented here are similar to the ones surrounding the introduction of NICAM; a high-end elitist market was targeted with a promise of difference in sound quality. However, NICAM appears to have found a market.

The first chapter of Understanding Radio remarks that the relation between radio and cars is so symbiotic that drivers don’t listen to the radio, ‘they sit in it’ (1994:3). Shingler and Wieringa claim radio is ‘an excellent means for busy people to gain information and entertainment in short bursts either during breaks from work or whilst on the move’ (1998:xi). The BBC has ensured that DAB can be received on all major roads, so a brief examination of the transmission technology reveals where its strengths lie. Firstly, DAB is not carried by fibreoptic cable. A 1995 BBC research document reveals DAB ‘is explicitly designed to provide a reliable service for mobile and portable receivers’24. Unlike mobile phones, the Internet or fibre-optics, DAB purports to have interference free mobile reception, especially where cars are concerned. The technology required to guarantee such a claim means a signal must be available for reception at all times, even if the same piece of information is sent a number of times, the receiver needs to recover all of the data. This has been achieved by:

‘Splitting the signal across 1,536 different carrier frequencies … the feeds from London all leave Broadcasting House simultaneously, but by the time they reach the transmitting sites via different routes they are no longer synchronised. To resynchronise them to within 5 microseconds (one two-hundredth of a second) it's necessary to use timing pulses from 24 satellites 10,000 miles above Earth’25

However, despite new technological developments, there is still an apparent lack in programming options. New systems of broadcast (and new channels) have been developed with the potential to challenge the existing broadcasting structures and practices. However it seems apparent that these technological changes, whilst opening up new and improved forms of web-casting, are not having a significant impact on the more ‘tried and tested’ content. In other words: the new technology is meshed in with the old form and the program concepts themselves remain the same. Should new radio technologies concentrate on maintaining the tried and tested formula of designing and creating a product, editing and compiling it, and then releasing it, hoping somebody will be listening, or opt for something more brave?

Perhaps the likelihood is that ‘viewers of the future will be charged only for the programmes they watch’ (Collins and Murroni, 1996:140). Internet providers will make the fastest move towards such consumer choice where we, as ‘customers’, schedule what we want and when we want it and our choices are narrow-cast back to us. The Internet, in time, will be perfectly suited to pay-per-access, although it has a lot of teething problems to overcome first. Although DAB will rely more closely upon Internet technology, I believe that the traditional broadcast model will still hold true. The BBC must still fulfil its role as a Public Service Broadcaster. Their web site again reminds us that their ‘new digital service[s] will supplement, not replace, its current range of television and radio services’26.

The ‘communications revolution’ has clearly eradicated the need for a traditional Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) monopoly and entry into broadcasting has become possible. PSB is also a different concept at the end of the century to what it was at the beginning. It is no longer the social cement, or the creator of a national culture dedicated to ‘making the nation as one man’ (cited in Scannell and Cardiff, 1991:10). The time individuals now have free has ‘been reduced and the consumption of the mass media has become ever more fragmented’ (Shingler and Weiringa, 1998:x). PSB’s initial mandate was to provide a ‘national service in the public interest’ (Scannell, 1995:25) and to provide a service that was ‘universally accessible to everyone living within the boundaries of the United Kingdom’ (ibid.). In this respect, and following the increased emphasis placed upon the Internet, the BBC can be criticised of working itself into corners, into niche markets. The debate, which perhaps has always been the case concerning broadcasting, is that society becomes increasingly divided into the ‘have’ and ‘have not’. However, radio is now so ‘transparent’ and so integral in everyday life that it is likely to stay. The growth of the commercial sector and the development of in-store radio perhaps offer the broadcast equivalent of web-casting and it is undeniable that radio is growing and not shrinking, like many traditional print media. As Shingler and Weiringa remind us ‘radio is the only medium in the 1990s whose share of advertising has expanded, particularly in Europe’ (1998:xi). Although I am in no doubt that analogue transmission will be phased out some time next millennium, whenever its silencing is not imminent, I will believe the BBC’s claim that digital services supplement, rather than replace. In the advent of new markets, new technologies and specifically a largely unregulated Internet, Charles Wintour’s claim that ‘radio is our servant, not our master, and should be used exactly as we please’27, can be seen to remain definite.