Social Media & Radio: A Natural Born Partnership?


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This week, I a gave a talk for the European Broadcasting Union at their HQ in Geneva. Here's the manuscript: Are Social Media and Radio Natural Born Partners?

by Professor Andy Miah

My starting point for answering this question is to think about the term ‘listening technology’, which has become a crucial concept within the field of social media. Anyone who is doing serious social media work is likely to have purchased some kind of listening technology and some of it is not cheap.

You can pay anything from nothing to tens of thousands of pounds for this software and it provides the most comprehensive means through which you can discover what takes place across your social media channels. The software allows you to understand how audiences engage, what they like, what they don’t like, and what you can do to improve the impact of what you share.

Yet, there is something ironic about the way this concept disregards what may be considered the first form of listening technology – radio. It is as if radio is seen simply as old media or that it has nothing to offer the dynamic world of social media. Radio was the first media technology to provide a direct, bi-directional communication between producers and audiences. Its content and its values became shaped by this ability and, arguably, so did the entire history of media culture that followed in its wake.

Are things different now? If radio was so influential to the way we think about the values of media culture today, then why does it seem that radio is treated as an outdated mode of communicating, unable to monetize its content to a level that is anywhere near television or film? Is radio’s distinguishing feature still its capacity to listen to people? Is it still the exemplary form of listening technology?

To answer this, I think we have consider what are the distinguishing features of radio today? However, this is no easy task to resolve in a world of complex transmedia experiences, where even our understanding of how people consume media is complicated and dynamic. We don’t even fully understand how people use media across devices and across formats. For example, consider the following media consumer, lets’ call him Andy. Andy loves radio, tv, and social content. He consumes a lot of it, particularly through social media and online television.

Now picture Andy jumping on board an underground train in London. It’s a busy, crowded train and he has on his headphones and decides to open up his download of the latest episode of Homeland, a show of which is starting to tire. The train pulls into Covent Garden and he has to now make the dash through the crowd to the elevator and up into the street. What does he do at this point? He can’t continue watching the screen, it’s too busy. The episode of Homeland is meandering a bit - he’s not very impressed with the latest series – and, instead of switching off the device, he puts the phone into his pocket and continues consuming the content using just the audio track. Instead of watching television now, he is listening to it.

Suddenly, this tv series has become a radio drama and has switched into becoming a different kind of product. He finishes the episode and makes a decision that he may go back to the content later to see the visual version, or he may not. I am not sure how typical this example is, but it is one of many ways in which the conventions around consuming media are changing.

It works the other way around too and this is why many radio shows are producing visual content around their production. The example reminds us that it's not just the technology that is transforming the medium, it is also the way in which the technology interacts with peoples lives and how it forms new habits. So, my first headline is quite startling: I propose to you that we still don’t really know what is radio. With this in mind, how do we begin to theorize radio’s relationship to social media when, in fact, most professionals and commentators would argue that we live in times of transmedia experiences - where the distinctions between types of media content experience is being altered.

Yet, this kind of conversation is all very abstract still, so let’s make it more concrete. Consider the daily media journey of another typical consumer, John. When John wakes up, he often begins his media experience by opening up his BBC news app on his mobile phone, checking the news of the day, before even getting out of bed. This is principally a reading experience, but it’s not deep reading, just quick skim reads. The whole experience may last just 3 minutes. He then get’s up and, while getting ready – still with mobile in hand - click’s the ‘live’ button on the BBC news app, which then opens up the BBC News 24 tv channel on his phone. However, he doesn’t watch it, he just listens. It is the background audio company to his daily routine. Is this a radio experience?

After getting dressed, John goes downstairs and switches on his radio but, while listening to the BBC Today Show, he also reads the BBC News app again and, quite quickly, is reminded of how the content on those two platforms are related - the stories on his BBC News app are quite closely connected to what the BBC Radio 4 programme is discussing, but he is getting more depth from the radio.

If he really likes something he hears on the radio, he might decide to tweet about it and tag it with the @BBCRadio4 account handle or #BBCtoday tag. Within seconds, friends of his - who are also having their breakfast while listening to the show - will favorite his share and this tells him that they are each listening to the show at the same time. They are connected. This has now become a communal media experience.

This example reveals how the first part of our answer to the question about how radio relates to social media requires taking on board the idea that social media has changed how people consume media and, crucially, that the catchall term ‘social media’ is actually part of a broader set of changes to media consumption that emerge around ‘mobile media’ - consuming media on the move. Mobility then, is a decisive factor here, perhaps even more than social media.

Yet, none of this is completely new. Radio has already made inroads to social media integration. So what do we know about how social media is changing how radio producers think about their content? We know mostly that social media creates a change in how people work. People stop chasing web traffic and instead focus on engagement and dialogue. We know also that social media users include a core group who quickly become co-producers of content. We also know that the ethos of social media can change an organization’s working life and how it relates to its audience. We also know that radio listeners do go to social media platforms after listening to content to find more and they want to comment on that content. We know also that young people especially are engaged by the social media content emerging from radio. Other key principles that social media content creators advocate is a 30/70 split, where 30% of what you ahre is yours, while 70% is other things that will interest your followers. Where you can, it is also a good idea to attach an image or video to content, to promote engagement.

However, there is a lot we still don’t know about this world. For example, we know that different audiences in different countries do different things. They don’t consume social media content that relates to radio in the same way. Back in 2007, TIME magazine’s Person of the Year was ‘You’ – it came at the height of the YouTube growth and the decision speaks to the importance of authorship, participation, ownership, matters which social media users care about, and there are some great radio examples of this.

My favorite radio show is a US program called 99% Invisible, part of the Radiotopia programme. At the beginning of this year, they launched a kickstarter campaign to get their program to a weekly schedule. They made a lot of money, easily reaching their targets, because audiences want to feel invested in the media they consume. This goes beyond co-production, it has something to do with co-authorship - the desire to feel invested intellectually or creatively into something. This kind of desire underpins the citizen journalism movement. It explains why we have such phenomena as CNN’s iReport, or the Huffington Post, or Sound Cloud.

So, my answer to the question is that radio is optimally designed to maximize the benefits of social media. It was the first direct form of social media, bringing listeners into contact with presenters and giving live air space to audiences. However, I think there is one other important factor to bear in mind here.

As various media formats converge and has habits of media consumption fragment, there is a need to re-think what we understand as any singular format and, in the end, what may distinguish radio from other media is what may be described as the 'art of radio’ In a world of pervasive user generated content, the distinguishing factor is no longer the platform, it’s not having a channel, since everyone has a channel. Everyone can edit, create, and publish. What’s left, in my view, is something to do with creativity and, to be novel in this social media age, radio producers need to think about their medium as an art form, not as just a communication device. Understood in this way, social media isn’t simply a mode of rethinking how you distribute content. It isn’t even just a context for thinking about how you connect with audiences. It is about allowing your organization and your medium to re-think its values, its purpose, and its contribution to people’s lives.

As a final comment, I want to think specifically about the applications of radio to sport. I recall being at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games and having taken a train to Whistler, which was quite a trek. On the way back, people in the carriage were anxious to know what was happening in the ice hockey match - USA vs Canada of course. I remember people would be checking social media to find out what was happening, but actually the place where they should have been is radio. The technology is at a point now where, as a radio commentator, you can deliver 10 second live clips - with minimal delay - across social media platforms.

This capacity requires radio producers to re-think how they relate to platforms - the radio waves are part of a wider ecosystem of audio distribution and engaging people differently with audio becomes all the more important in a mobile world where we struggle to ‘watch’. Even technologies like Google Glass are unlikely to change that situation. In an entirely screen based world, the importance of listening becomes all the more distinct and valued and this is why radio, perhaps more than any other format, has the capacity to really innovate with social media.

I met a man recently who has a hearing limitation and wears a hearing aid, which he has hacked to allow him to hear the presence of a wifi signal. He played the sound to us, which was a kind of crackling noise, fluctuating in volume. It might turn out that the social media trend leads us to think about our sensory capacity to hear in different ways and this may be the most exciting thing of all for people working in radio.

So as a concluding point, the power of radio – the art of radio – may not be found in its history, but in the way that social media is compelling it to re-think its future. The kinds of sounds we have typically heard from radio may be quite different from what we hear in the future and sports are fantastic contexts in which to explore this world.

Thank you.