Radio — a Reborn 85-Year Old

0:53 min

RADIO. Sweden is a “radio nation”. So is the rest of Scandinavia, as is Great Britain, USA, France and Germany. Despite the fact that radio has been around for a long time, radio listening continues in record-breaking numbers in country after country. A key issue for radio is digitalization. There are strong reasons for digitalization but at the same time, the window for digital radio as a technology may already be past. Internet is expanding and taking over.
   But the Internet will never have the same capacity. From a sensible media-ecological perspective, the question could be asked, isn’t it reasonable to utilize broadcast in communication aimed “one-to-many”? Shouldn’t the Internet be reserved for situations demanding “one-on-one” communication?

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Swedish Radio broadcasts 217 000 hours yearly. Wait a minute—there must be a typographical error here! There are 8 760 hours in a calendar year. Swedish Radio has four stations. Four stations multiplied by 8 760 hours yields a total of 35 000 potential broadcast hours per year. The answer to this apparent impossibility is that Swedish Radio doesn’t have four stations but rather three national stations and 25 local stations. And there are an additional 15 stations ether-broadcast or on the Internet. These stations range from the youth station Din Gata (Your Street) on FM radio in Malmö to SRC, which is an art radio station only found on the Internet. 

Radio in 2010 is very different from what radio has been. Until 1955, there was only one radio station in Sweden. Until 1987, the only radio stations were national, although these did broadcast short segments of local news. In 1993, commercial radio began in Sweden and starting in 1995, Swedish Radio began to publish content on the Internet.
   It’s easy to see radio as the medium whose heyday peaked before the breakthrough of television. But the big growth in radio came after that. One could even say that the real expansion, especially journalistically, came after traditional television reached and passed its developmental peak.

Radio listening is high in Sweden, just as it is in neighboring Scandinavian countries. Daily listening is between 67 percent (Norway) and 81 percent (Denmark). In Sweden it’s about 73 percent (for 2009). This daily reach of broadcast radio corresponds to a weekly reach of about 90 percent. Public service radio is strongest of all in Denmark with a daily broadcast reach of 63 percent. Finland, Norway and Sweden have a reach of about 46-47 percent. One explanation for the strength of public service radio in Denmark is that commercial radio is weaker in Denmark than in the other Scandinavian countries.

Weekly radio listening, which is the most common unit for international comparisons, is at about the same level in Sweden as in other countries—just over 90 percent. The variation between different age groups is small: about 85 percent of those between the ages of 20-34 listen to radio, and nearly 95 percent of those between the ages of 50-64. Radio listening has remained fairly consistent over the last decades. It increased somewhat with the introduction of commercial radio in 1993 but has now returned to the level it was at the beginning of the 1980s.
   A broader range of listening and viewing options results in fragmentation. However, for various reasons, radio is not as fixated on listener figures as television is. The competition between public service and commercial radio is not at all as tough as it is for television.

The development of the Internet in some ways is making radio even more relevant. Demands on immediacy and mobility are increasing. In these ways, radio and Internet are technological cousins. Radio has always been a live medium, and has also always been able to be broadcast and received almost anywhere.

Radio is Stronger Than Ever

Sweden and Scandinavia are radio societies, but not unique as such. News radio and talk radio have developed dramatically in the USA during the same time that the big television networks have lost their dominance and Internet has made its breakthrough. Since 1990, the number of stations broadcasting news or talk radio has increased from just fewer than 500 to more than 2500. Weekly radio listening in the USA is just over 90 percent of the population, about that of Sweden. Talk radio—for better and for worse—has become a defining feature of modern American politics. National Public Radio, NPR , America’s equivalent to European public service radio, broadcasts from almost 800 stations in the USA.

NPR is a creation of the last few decades and today reaches 30 million listeners in the USA. NPR’s Morning Edition is bigger than the morning programs of the big television networks combined. But talk radio in the USA includes talk shows that frequently have a distinctly provocative and branded content.
   Radio listening in Great Britain is at the same level as that of the USA.   Radio in total reaches over 90 percent of the population. BBC alone reaches 67 percent. Radio listening reached an all time high in Great Britain during the second quarter of 2010. One-quarter listened via digital platforms: 15 percent via digital radio (DAB) and 12.5 percent via cell phones. BBC broadcasts 10 national stations, 40 local stations and has a comprehensive selection on the Internet that is currently under reappraisal. BBC can accurately be described as the original model for public service radio.

Even if the quality of BBC’s television programs is met with strong criticism nowadays, this is not the case for BBC Radio. It’s hardly a coincidence that BBC reached its highest listener figures ever during the spring of 2010.
   It might seem natural to think of radio as music—to equate the two—but talk radio has a strong position in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. As a matter of fact, the same holds true for most of the world in general. Most of BBC’s stations are talk radio, as are those in Scandinavia. France is a typical radio nation.

Talk radio dominates mainly public service radio in France. In Sweden, it’s a combination of talk radio and music that is strongest. Swedish Radio’s largest station by far is P4, local radio with a combination of both talk and music programs. P4 reaches a third of the population aged 9-79 on a daily basis.
   The generations that dominate today’s society were growing up during the years 1955-1995. That was the heyday of traditional television. In the public domain, interest is directed to television, but radio is the ultimate citizen medium. At the same time, the structural changes in the media sector are so great that nothing is self-evident any longer. Fragmentation and transformation of television is already a fact. There remain several unanswered questions, the answers to which can be decisive regarding the role of radio in the future.

The Big Radio Questions

The Indirect Effects of the Digital Revolution
A first big radio question is about the indirect effects of digitalization and the development of the Internet. During 1990, 875 000 radios were sold in Sweden; 18 years later, 550 000 fewer were sold. Even more dramatic was the decrease in sales of portable players of the walkman-type. At the same time, sales of digital players increased. Analog radios and phonographs were replaced with digital players connected to the Internet. In parallel, the cell phone developed to become the new age radio device. Most cell phones contain an FM receiver. Today’s smart phones are microcomputers that make radio listening possible via Internet.
   The development of media devices we use is changing our listening patterns. Customized Internet applications or “apps” make it simple to listen to a program post-broadcast.

Does the Radio Device Remain?
A second big radio questions pertains to the direct effects of digitalization. Shifting from a radio device to a cell phone app changes the “ecology” of radio listening for everyone. The altered pattern of radio listening among young listeners is especially noteworthy. The somewhat paradoxical pattern that can be distinguished now is that young listeners are more dependent than earlier generations on cell phones but that the youngest listeners, allowing for a certain generalization, barely identify the cell phone as a telephone. The cell phone is the device for texting and sending photos or video clips. It’s a camera. It’s used for listening to music just like an MP3 player. When connected to the Internet, it’s possible to download radio podcasts. And, since summer of 2010, it’s a micro-television that allows live television viewing via the Internet.
   It’s easy to see how the cell phone, in the near future combined with the e-reader, is gradually beginning to replace traditional radio and television devices. At the same time, this implies a transition from broadcast to Internet distribution. Broadcast is communication from “one-to-many”. Internet is built on communicating “one-on-one”. An unanswered and particularly significant question is how the transmission capacity of the Internet will develop.

Will the future Internet and cellular phone networks be capable of managing hundreds of thousands of users listening to radio and watching television? The transfer of moving images via Internet is capacity demanding. It’s by no means obvious that in the foreseeable future we will expand the Internet so that it’s capable of managing the very large hordes of radio listeners and television viewers who will be listening and viewing on the Internet all at the same time. If the future of radio is built on Internet distribution, there’s a risk that it will lead to large information gaps within Swedish society. In the future, those who can’t afford to buy a suitably advanced cell phone, or even pay the extra premiums to the network operator in order to access the content, will not have access to the same information as those who are better off financially.

Digital Radio

This reasoning is closely related to a third big question about the future of radio: which broadcast technology should be applied to tomorrow’s radio distribution? A number of countries—Norway, Denmark, Great Britain and France among them—have begun the transition from analog FM-distribution to digital radio.   Sweden began an early attempt at digital distribution and was fairly well along in the process when limits were placed on the trial in 2002.
   Development on the international front is not altogether clear-cut.  Digitalization that is in progress now in Europe is built around DAB+ technology. At the same time, in contrast to the digitalization process of television, careful consideration is being given to selecting the final deadline of the analog phase-out. The reason for this is mainly fear of public outcry. For listeners, there are few apparent advantages of digitalization but the disadvantages are obvious: in general, a number of radio devices in every household will be made obsolete the day FM broadcasts cease. The difference in relation to television is that most households have significantly more radio devices than televisions, and each one will need to be replaced.

The preceding discussion contains a Catch-22. There won’t be many sales in digital radio receivers before the final deadline for the phase-out of FM is secured. And before sales of digital radio have picked up, it’s politically risky to confirm a phase-out deadline.
   There are a number of reasons for digitalizing radio Primarily, it’s because digital broadcasts allow for more stations at the same frequency space than FM broadcasts. This, in turn, could mean more competition on the radio market than what we have in Sweden today. With digital radio, commercial radio companies would have access to the national network. Thus, smaller communities in Sweden would receive the same broad selection of radio channels as Stockholm enjoys today.

Another reason for digitalization is that we would continue to have a robust system of communication that allows for the possibility of communicating “one-to-many”. Important messages to the public during times of crisis (what in Sweden is actually translated as “Important Messages to the Public”) can be communicated on digital radio in the same way that they are communicated now via FM broadcasts. The same is not true for cell phone and Internet communication, both of which depend on a functional electricity supply.

A third reason for digitalization is that digital distribution allows the possibility of combining audio with screen display features, such as complementary information about the program or its content. Audio can also be supplemented with still images or short moving image sequences.
   The latter might sound paradoxical. Should the capacity for sending visuals with audio play a decisive role in determining radio’s future? It’s not about transforming radio devices into primitive televisions but rather about the convergence that is occurring on the media market. Computers, television and radio are tending to join in one common player device. The cell phone is already such a mini-player and hybrid radio is another.

Hybrid radio is already available on the market. It’s a radio device through which one can listen to different forms of radio: traditional FM, DAB/DAB+ and Internet radio can be accessed. At the same time, regardless of which form of radio is being listened to, the user can connect to the Internet and, for example, communicate with the editorial staff of the broadcast radio program to which he or she is listening.
   It might well turn out to be the case that consumers growing up today are so used to communication devices with screens that FM radios may lose their appeal for that reason alone. A modern urban legend describes how a little child became extremely frightened the first time she encountered “a box that talked”; televisions, computers and cell phones she was well acquainted with but a talking box without a screen was something very scary.

It’s not unreasonable to presume that the concept of a universal media player in the foreseeable future will include a device with a display. This modernity argument is made even clearer when one adds Internet development into the equation. We are used to moving back and forth without interruption between different media and distribution forms.
   Radio listeners are encouraged to text or email the editors of live programs. Listeners want to tip their friends and colleagues on Facebook about a program that’s in progress. News editors want to have contact with listeners who are present at an important news event. All of this is possible when listening to Internet radio.
   But if everyone listens to Internet radio, a substantial increase in transmission capacity is needed. Broadcast radio—FM today, digital tomorrow—has the great advantage that transmission goes over the ether and that one signal reaches all radio receivers instead of each receiver being reached by its own signal, which is the case for transmission by Internet.

The problem with digitalization of radio is the transition period. Many households have a number of FM receivers. Politicians don’t dare say to listeners, “We’re phasing out FM now. Overnight, all your radios—even those in your cars—will become useless.” That’s an understandable political position. The transition is assumed, therefore, to occur gradually. During a number of years—up until the phase-out deadline—both digital and analog broadcasts must be supported.

Commercial Radio

The question of advertising in radio was big at one time in Sweden. Despite rather fantastic efforts by individual “pirates”, regular commercial radio didn’t appear in Sweden until 1993. One might imagine that the relationship between public service radio and commercial radio is quite strained. Such is not the case. Commercial radio has been positive for radio as a medium. The type and number of radio stations has increased. Not least, radio listening has found its way to the youngest listeners. It’s certainly not trivial to ponder what will happen with Swedish commercial radio in the future.


A particularly big question for all of media development is the issue of copyright. It’s especially natural that public service radio considers retaining the content (for which the listeners have already paid) in the company’s archives and making it easily available for listening on the Internet. Established media risks fastening between a rock and a hard place with pirate listening/broadcasting on the one hand and ineffective copyright laws on the other.
   Pirate use undermines the copyright holder’s economic potential. The copyright holders are then pressured to make certain that payments are received from those companies who still do pay for use. The competition between legal and illegal users becomes all the more askew. Once again we see an area where development is restrained because different interest groups block one another from acting. This applies to technology. It applies to financing solutions. And it obviously applies to copyright law.

Funding of Public Service

A fourth big question for radio’s future is about funding. For better and for worse, European public service media is at the mercy of political decisions determining levels and adjustments to the tax- and fee-based revenues. Typically, radio and television companies have the same economic features of other companies within the service industry. Productivity growth is lower than in manufacturing and production, which means that relative costs gradually increase for radio and television. This dilemma is commonly referred to as Baumol’s cost disease,  so named for the American economist William J Baumol.

Problems arise when, all too often, funding decisions don’t take into account this phenomenon. Public service television is faced with increasing competition from the big commercial companies in the form of sporting events and very attractive drama series. In the new fragmented television landscape, it is still these two program categories that can capture the largest audiences. Commercial television needs these programs to attract the big advertising revenue. Public service television needs them to legitimize the fees that finance public service.
   For literally natural reasons, the level of radio and television fees varies from country to country, as do adjustments to the tax- and fee-based revenues. The Scandinavian countries are all at about the same license level.

The most important factor behind the differences among the various countries—or rather, what should be most important—is that the relationship between program production and broadcasting is entirely independent of population, whereas license revenues at a particular fee level are totally dependent on the number of inhabitants paying the license fee.
   Even if the cost of program production and broadcasting is, in principle, independent of population, it is nonetheless to some extent affected by the geographical features of a country. Distribution over large areas is naturally more expensive than distribution over smaller areas. A small country with a homogenous population doesn’t have the same need for regional broadcasts, as does a big country with a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous population.

Spain and The Netherlands, to take two extreme examples, are countries with very different conditions. Additionally, neither those responsible for the management of public service radio and television nor the politicians who determine the financial funding levels can ignore the history that has made the media structure what it is at a given point in time. It would likely be a very controversial measure to replace, for economic reasons, a well-built network of local stations demonstrating high standards, with regional stations that cover a larger area.
   Had the local stations never existed, it would clearly be less obvious that they were missing. It would be a noticeable encroachment on a country’s cultural life to discontinue a thriving radio station devoted to high quality classical music. If the station never existed it would be, by definition, hard to miss.

In many European countries, funding of public service has become politically controversial. In Finland, the question of replacing license funding with a general radio fee has been discussed for years and has resulted in a political gridlock. In Norway, the question was on its way to becoming a key issue in the 2009 elections but it petered out. In recent years, BBC has been in the midst of an intense battle in Great Britain, where the company’s very generous resources has been a bone of contention. Germany is on its way to replacing license fees with a per-household fee.
   Demands have been made, not least by commercial media players, with News Corp and Rupert and James Murdoch in the lead, to defuse BBC  . Attacks on BBC have since become part of a wider European offensive on the part of the big newspaper owners against public service media.

In the fall of 2010, the British government and BBC came to an agreement whereby the company would lose 16 percent of its revenues. This is a significant reduction in the funds available to BBC. But one must remember at the same time that BBC has a total turnover for its public service operations—radio and television—of just over 3.5 billion pounds or 37 billion Swedish crowns, where radio accounts for 600 million pounds, or 6.3 billion Swedish crowns, and this for a country with a smaller surface area than Sweden.

Has Diversity Made Public Service Superfluous?

An important reason that the radio and television markets were publicly regulated from the beginning was the scarcity of frequencies. But as we have discussed in another chapter, politicians were also aware, from the very beginning, of the powerful impact that radio and television would have on society. Thus, there were editorial and democratic reasons for the creation of public service. From the beginning, European public service has also been a type of European society model.

Public service has played a very important role in the democratic development of Western Europe. When technological advances—new information technology and satellite distribution—made the scarcity of frequencies a problem of the past, many wondered whether public service had also played out its role. The rapid commercialization of radio and television has shown, however—and with great emphasis—that commercial radio and television really do not fill any societal role. It’s also no secret that the American media regulatory bureaucracy, the FCC, is avidly following developments in Europe to see if it might be possible after all to tweak American media politics somewhat closer to that of Europe.

Attacks by Murdoch et al

Against the background of the huge economic challenges that face the big newspapers, especially, it’s easy to see that they are fighting for their very existence. Obviously, public service is a tough competitor for newspaper companies. Without public service radio and television, Londoners would be more dependent on reading the Murdoch-owned London Times or viewing the also Murdoch-owned television channel Sky News. From a business perspective, it’s understandable that Murdoch and his colleagues have begun to strike out against public service.

What’s a bit more difficult to understand is the strategy. The big battle has thus far been restricted to Great Britain. Even when BBC is questioned, it’s not about its existence but about how large an operation it should be. During the foreseeable future, BBC’s basic radio and television offerings won’t be threatened. Practically speaking, the battle is about some of BBC’s Internet offerings. Purely theoretically, it’s harder for The Times to receive payments for their web-based content when BBC offers free news on their website.
   That’s just theory, however. The thought that, in general, it would be possible to trim or starve out free content from the web is absurd. Murdoch has enough competitors in his own newspaper market—who view free basic net-based content as a decisive factor in the future business model—that the maneuver wouldn’t succeed at forcing in paying users to Murdoch’s own sites. But this doesn’t mean that the newspaper companies’ strategy doesn’t hurt public service.

Many politicians are lacking in their own analysis and politics for public service and overall media development. They allow themselves to be pressured by the commercial media companies. The result is that public service is at risk of being weakened at a time when already the most tangible feature of big media development is a commercially contingent thinning of media content.
   Politics are demonstrably sensitive for pressure from the big commercial players. It’s been shown in Great Britain. It’s been shown in Germany. The German public service companies are basically only allowed to present program information on their websites. In addition, the German financing model has been revised. But politics don’t arise out of thin air.

In a democracy, politics are always a function of what is deemed legitimate in the voter’s eyes. Even if politics itself defends public service, as it does in a large part of Western Europe, it’s not enough. Public service radio and television must create and retain the listener and viewer’s confidence. Otherwise, the political backing is lost, and without that the willingness to pay license fees weakens. This is especially important in such a limited language area as Sweden—Swedish is not, after all, a world language such as English.

Radio Futures

For a number of years, Swedish Radio and Swedish Television, together with the furniture company IKEA, have been on top of the confidence barometer in Sweden. But confidence is only one side of the coin. The other is use. As previously pointed out, radio listening is high, in Sweden and Scandinavia in general, but also in all of Western Europe and North America. At the same time it’s important not to restrict discussions of media development to the categories of radio and television. Not least, television as a category is dissolving. Television is everything from debates between Barack Obama and John McCain during the election campaign of 2008, to the programs from the series “Sweden’s Ugliest Home”, broadcast on TV3, to the erotic film “Mad Love” seen on the pay channel Canal+ Hits.

Over time, more and more will view niche channels that are entirely void of editorial content. All channels are shifting their program offerings more toward entertainment on the information-entertainment scale. In other words, it’s becoming more “’tainment” in the television infusion usually termed as “infotainment”.
   Public service radio isn’t facing the same competition as public service television. Public service radio can focus, then, even more on the main editorial artery that justifies the existence of public service. Even though direct competition with commercial radio is relatively weak, public radio faces nonetheless competition for time. While radio listening is high, listening hours in Sweden are decreasing.
   Over the last 15 years, listening time has decreased from 150 minutes per day to 125 minutes. Also during the last five years, the decrease has been significant. Listening time is decreasing in all categories except among older listeners—those between the ages of 65 and 79 years. Most noticeable is the decrease in listeners between the ages of 15 and 24 years.

 This image of a generationally segmented pattern of change becomes even clearer when looking at news listening. A common assumption is that young people begin to read and subscribe to daily newspapers later and later. The same assumption exists regarding editorial radio. Recent research suggests that this is not the case, at least regarding radio.
   Those born in the 1960s show no distinctive pattern compared to previous generations regarding national news listening. However, those born in the 1970s do, and those born in the 1980s show an even more distinct pattern. There’s a difference of five percent in regular news listening between those born in the 1960s and the 1970s, bringing the level to just fewer than 20 percent. Between those born in the 1970s and the 1980s, the percentage of regular news listeners drops by ten percent. It’s striking that the level established by the age of 15-20 years in every generation tends to be largely stable.

There’s a handy explanation for this that relates to technology development. At the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, young people made a transition to music listening using new devices. It’s no longer the “radio phonograph” or stereo system being used; young people listen to music through devices that don’t necessarily include the option of listening to radio. There’s a risk involved when radio isn’t included in the breakthrough audio media. Which leads us back to the question of cell phones. Will radio be a part of cell phones in the future? This is perhaps one of the most decisive questions for radios future.

Radio is the simple medium, simple to produce and distribute, simple to receive. A computer and a satellite telephone are enough to produce live broadcast radio from Kabul right in the middle of a civil war in Afghanistan. It’s enough with a smart phone to receive all the world’s radio stations almost anywhere in the world.
   Radio, or at least “news talk radio” or talk radio, doesn’t exist in the commercial arena.
   Radio is also the local medium. Lee Rainie at Pew Research Institute in Washington DC, who follows American media development very closely, says, “Radio is built for intimacy.”
   In one way, radio is the medium for possibilities. With the will of citizens and their elected officials to fund public service radio, editorial radio will continue to be strong.  Gradually, radio listening may reasonably decrease. But all radio companies can see from their own data that this is not by any means a rapid process. And those most interested in politics and current events, the most societally active, also among the youngest, listen to editorial radio.

One speaks often of the artist’s artist and the writer’s writer. In the same way one might speak of radio as media’s medium. Nothing suggests this role is weakening. Nothing suggests that a weakening of its role would be more or less inevitable in the future.
   A key question for radio but also for media structure in general is about the future capacity of the cellular network. In a society where the cell phone is the most commonly used device for communicating via the Internet, the last link—between the cell phone and the sender/receiver—is, by definition, wireless. On the one hand, the capacity of the local wireless network (LAN) shouldn’t lead to critical problems. On the other hand, the next step is an open question, that is, if a cellular network that covers a city center or corresponding area can also handle simultaneous radio and television transmission for many users.

When one finally realizes that old and new media exist in actually a more complementary than competitive relationship, one also realizes the beauty of broadcast radio and television. Through using mainly broadcast for radio and television as communication from “one-to-many”, the use of Internet communication will be used mainly as “one-on-one” communication.

Next chapter: Rituals, Needs, and Devices

Grunden i vår journalistik är trovärdighet och opartiskhet. Sveriges Radio är oberoende i förhållande till politiska, religiösa, ekonomiska, offentliga och privata särintressen.
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