Has streaming finally killed the radio star?

What is the state of the radio star? With people promulgating its demise for so many years now, it seems banal to even raise the topic. First music videos, then CDs, then the very first iPod: all were supposedly the final nail in commercial radio’s coffin. It is now quite clear that these threats were for the most part overblown with none of them ever really threatening radio’s commercial viability, or more importantly, its cultural hegemony. 

The first real challenger, an event akin to the birth of Christ in the history of music, was the launch of the website Napster. The development of the music industry in the last 75 years can be broadly divided into two distinct periods: pre and post Napster. The ability to access all music at any time for free was a truly revolutionary idea and, although Napster was shut down and sued into oblivion, the toothpaste was out of the tube. The idea of paying for music, for anyone born after 1990 became an anachronism almost overnight. 

For years the music industry has failed to properly adapt: iTunes drastically cut prices but still charged for individual songs and albums nonetheless. Eventually a compromise was reached. You could access all the music you want, whenever you want, if you pay a flat monthly fee. This idea was first proposed by Spotify but quickly adopted by Apple; a synthesis of the two competing forms of music consumption. This settlement codified a system which, everyone finally agreed, would actually kill radio, essentially finishing the job Napster started. This is the view held by most within the music industry, though it has not really borne out in empirical enquiry. 

A 2015 survey of over 2000 American adults found that 86% percent of respondents still used a traditional AM/FM radio to listen to music (the second most popular service was YouTube at 62%). Now, this is of course largely down to the continuing dominance of the car, although this too is slowly beginning to wane. Despite this, the fact still remains that radio cannot be written off. 

Most can agree that radio no longer occupies the position of cultural hegemony it once did. This, by and large, can be put down to the rise of streaming, but even more so to the internet. This, in my view, can only be a good thing. Through the internet, artists producing more esoteric music can utilise unique and creative ways to garner potential audiences. All without having to dilute their sound to suit radio’s tastes. 

“The internet, if not streaming, has definitely killed the radio star”

Radio’s advocates might reply that there are still independent stations that curate culture: Radar, Balamii etc. While I don’t want to disparage these undoubtedly important and organisations that do a tremendous amount to promote independent artists, I do find it doubtful they are that influential in their capacity as strictly radio stations. Rather, they seem to mainly function as YouTube or internet shows; their status as radio stations almost incidental. On average, their listenership on radio is likely dwarfed by the amount of people who consume their content through platforms such as YouTube. Needless to say, the future of radio might be safe commercially, although this is likely contingent on the continuing popularity of cars. So perhaps not for very long. 

It seems to me pretty undeniable that as an influence on culture, musical or otherwise, the internet, if not streaming, has definitely killed the radio star. This is quite obviously a good thing. 

Could radio revive itself? Perhaps, but it seems unlikely. The only possible route I can see is through a turn to a sort of hyper-localism. Radio historically thrived through its connections to unknown local scenes and brought these underground spaces to a larger audience. Nowadays, radio sadly appears to be going in just the opposite direction. Predictably radio executives do not seem to care about cultural impact as long as they remain commercially viable. It’s a money oriented world.

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