Is the radio obsolete?

An article on a journalism blog has Public Radio and the future of “old” media in its crosshairs.

The question comes down to this:

Do we still need radio?

Public Radio Dangerously Close To Making Public Radio Obsolete on PaidContent.org argues that smart phones and apps to to turn phones into “radios” have made the old transistor obsolete:


Now with the addition of what’s playing on my favorite stations right now, I have a lot more choices in one screen that I had previously: so instead of enduring “A Prairie Home Companion” on the weekend (not my cup of tea), I could try “On The Media” on at the same time on WBEZ Chicago public radio. And if I happen to join a show after its start, chances are I can get the latest edition of the show on demand (helpfully linked from the live version). In the car, where a lot of public radio consumption happens (especially in SoCal) with one of the options to connect the iPhone to the radio speakers, it makes the local public radio station redundant, to a large extent. Of course you can argue this is only true for the 20 million or so iPhone users, but you can see this playing out on other smartphones like Android and others, when the same app launches of their platforms.

Rafat Ali frets that the funding mechanism for Public Radio — primarily local pledge drives — would suffer because people don’t have a connection to their local station.

The future will be the death of us all. And therein lies the Catch 24 for all media in the digital age. Content is still king and content still comes from local stations. If people enjoy the breadth of possibilities across the Public Radio spectrum and stop supporting their local stations, it seems likely that the content they enjoy would begin to disappear. So the key, one supposes, is whether the audience in this environment understands that.

American Public Media, the parent of MPR, is one of the entities that helped develop the application. Incidentally, MPR News has an IPhone app. You can learn more about it here.

I’m not exactly in the iPhone app demo. I don’t have a smart phone. I do have an iPod stuffed with all sorts of great music that I listen to while I’m mowing the lawn or am stuck in a big aluminum tube somewhere. I’ve tried using podcasts but I can’t get into the habit of updating them enough nor listening to them regularly. So even with this “tool,” I have not found I listen to less radio; I actually find myself listening to more.

How about you? How do you see your digital future?

  • President of the Sea Stachura Fan Club

    Doesn’t really compute for me. Isn’t a great proportion of public radio listening done for the NEWS content, i.e., ATC/Morning Edition/Marketplace? There is no use in ‘time-shifting’ and ‘place-shifting’ (experiencing this media in another location than when it is broadcast) this kind of programming—ever have a desire to listen to last Tuesday’s ATC? Maybe occasionally for a specific interview or feature, but not regularly as leisurely entertainment: “What are you doing on your vacation?” “Oh, I thought I’d catch up on a few months’ worth of Weekend Editions.” ;)

    As for the smartphone angle, if you are connecting a mobile device to listen to in your car, you are not doing it for live radio. It doesn’t matter if it’s the new Lil Wayne record or This American Life podcast. The people who want to listen to their local radio station are turning on the radio. I would bet that an absolutely miniscule number of people on any day are plugging iPhones into cars instead to listen to public radio stations other than their local one.

    I use the MPR app (and other public radio apps) on my iPhone when I want to listen somewhere where there i have no radio. (On the bus, or in a different state, or…) Maybe once every couple months. These types of applications are fun, but it’s going to be a long time before they actually threaten public radio operations.

  • brian

    While I could see listening to public radio on an actual radio going by the wayside eventually (although, since all the content gets to an iphone via radio waves, I would argue it is still a radio), I think public radio itself still has plenty of time left. As Bob says, content is the key. As long as public radio stations have the best content, it doesn’t matter if we listen to them on a regular radio or not. They are already supported by voluntary donations.

    I could see smaller stations languishing from lack of donors, but people would then start to give straight to NPR, PRI, AMP, and the stations where their shows of choice come from (WGBH, KNOW, WNYC, WBEZ, WHYY, etc). I give to Chicago Public Radio, since I listen to This American Life via podcast, and MPR.

    I think a reason that Public Radio has an edge over paper based media is that you don’t have to change what you produce as much. Listeners may want to listen to programs at their convenience, so the way they get the programs may change, but they still want to listen to radio programs.

  • Al

    I’m not sure of the quality of local content in other places, but the MPR content makes it worth listening to instead of trying to tune into other national programs. Additionally, making local shows like Mid-morning available by podcast may keep listening (and contributing) to the local stations. I think the key to ensuring local support is local quality.

    I use the fund drives to catch up on podcasts of my favorite shows that I missed the first time around. But do the podcasts make it easier to tune out the fund drive. No. The buttons one my radio and the CD player always made it pretty easy to tune out a fund drive. But now when I tune out a fund drive I’m usually still listening to Public Radio.

  • Heather

    You’d have to pry my radio from my cold, dead fingers. ; )

  • Suzanne

    At the end of July I am moving to Ohio to pursue my Ph.D. I am a Member of MPR and a non-Iphone smart phone user. I plan on listening to MPR after I move and continuing to contribute to the radio I enjoy. However, it kills me that the only phone which has an MPR App available is the Iphone. There are two million Iphone users, total. There were three million new Blackberry users last year alone. Where are our Apps!

    Also, the humor of Prairie Home is too refined for that writers Californian tastes.

  • kennedy

    I chose another brand of MP3 player over the iPod primarily because the iPod does not include FM radio. Wireless plans are expensive. Wifi is spotty. For free, I can connect to FM anywhere in the city to get news/sports/music.

  • http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin/ Paul

    Some things on Public Radio can be timeshifted, and some things cannot.

    Programs like Fresh Air, On the Media, The Splendid Table…the future of those, I think, is being as available as possible on a variety of platforms. It doesn’t matter when I listen to them. They can be timeshifted.

    Morning Edition, All Things Considered: Those lose their value timeshifted. For them, there will always be a place on the radio to listen when they are on.

    And, local content is King, in the end. I value Midmorning and Midday and these programs, while they can be timeshifted, act better when you listen to them live, because of their interactivity