The Future of Radio

In 1962 a cartoon called The Jetsons premiered on American television. The premise was simple: what would life look like for an American family in 2062? 

The protagonist, the family patriarch was named George Jetson. This is George Jetson’s commute to work. This is how George jetson walked his dog, Astro. How he brushed his teeth. How he got his news.

This is George’s wife, Jane Jetson. In the 50s, the men who created The Jetsons, and they were men, imagined a future with flying cars, video conferencing, smart watches, electric toothbrushes, But they couldn’t imagine a future where a mom worked outside the home. I mean, Jane had a robot maid, what exactly what was she doing all day?

All this to say, as futurists we’re very good at dreaming up new technology. But we’re not so good at predicting all the ways the technology we build might change us. 

That’s what I want to talk to you about. You’ve likely been hearing all about new technologies that might change the way you reach your audience. Now, I want you to challenge you to imagine how that same technology might affect your newsrooms and the work they do from the inside out. Come on this time-hopping journey with me. 

I love this tweet. It reminds me that humans have been telling each other great stories as long as we’ve been around as a species. Our reptile brains didn’t evolve to read and write. They evolved to tell each other stories. The earliest examples of literature, like The Odyssey or the Epic of Gilgamesh, were oral traditions meant to be performed in front of a crowd. 

In the 1890s when Marconi created his radio, the crowd you were performing in front of suddenly got a lot bigger. It was world changing technology. He unlocked the story’s potential to travel across the air. All of a sudden you could broadcast your voice to people miles and miles away. 

Radio is magic. It captures our imagination and inspires us to consider experiences and perspectives other than our own. We gather around it in our living room. That was true in the 1930s, and it’s true today. The research we have shows that families gather around smart speakers in their living rooms, kitchens and cars. 

And do you know what’s one the most common things that people ask their smart speakers to do? Tell me a story. Like Marconi’s radio, this technology is world-changing. Think about it. We have these affordable, high fidelity speakers everywhere that make all the audio in the world searchable, and they actually understand what we say. It’s amazing.

But it’s still VERY early days. The world of audio looks the way the World Wide Web looked in 1996 – this was the Wall Street Journal’s home page. It’s clunky: no links between stories, it looks bad, not user friendly, we don’t really know how it’s going to shape out. Here are problems that technologists say they’re solving for right now: 

  1. Giving creators new tools and platforms to tell better stories
  2. Getting the right story to the right listener at the right time. 

But I want to fast forward to the future, let’s imagine what the Radio of the Future might look like once these problems are solved. This is what I see when I close my eyes and think of the future. Radio that’s more on-demand, data-driven and interactive

What you see when you close your eyes might be a little different, that’s okay. I just want to show you how I go from the technology to its creative implications, and like a science fiction author, I want to invite you to do the same with the technologies you’re most excited about. So let’s hop in to my imagination. 

You might ask yourself, why are tech platforms obsessed with audio all of a sudden? Radio has been around forever. Here’s some context. In the last few years, improvements in machine learning have powered automatic transcription that’s cheap, quick and accurate. That transcription makes it possible, with enough computing power, to treat mp3 files like text. Before ML, mp3 files were like black boxes. Now it’s possible for computers to know what an mp3 file is talking about without the use of metatags. 

If we can treat mp3 files like text, we could link between them. What might it be like to fall into an audio rabbit hole? What would it look like to have programming that expands and contracts depending on how much time a listener has or where they are in their day? With better personalization what’s news to me might be slightly different than what’s news to you. It used to be that you had one giant antenna for your whole audience. Now, as a broadcaster you have many antennas for many audiences

In a future where you don’t just have one big audience, but many, I think having a diverse newsroom is more important than ever. Look around your newsrooms right now, what talent are you overlooking? Who could you start developing right now? I think you could future-proof your newsroom by hiring more people that look like your audience and training them today! 

In the radio of the future, the role of editors might change. They’ll still be really important, Editors are the ones who decide what’s news. But it used to be that one of the main functions of an editor was choosing which stories went into the circular file – the trash can. You only had so much air time. But with dynamic on-demand radio, they won’t have that problem. In this version of the future, I think the best editors won’t be the gatekeepers. They’ll be the champions. The advocates. And they’ll have an incredible tool in their tool belt: data. 

With data, we can overcome our personal biases to make better informed editorial decisions. It’s no longer I like this, I don’t like that. A savvy editor could learn about their audience and what works for them. We can use data to tell better stories. With second by second analytics, we’ll make better choices about our craft. We could A/B test a lead, for example. We can question everything! 

Lastly, in the future, I think listening to a great piece of audio will no longer be a strictly passive, linear experience. We have platforms that speak to back to us and understand what we say. 

Here’s another example I mocked up. My friend and colleague Lewis Wallace’s beat is LGBTQ+ issues. He’s found that when he’s telling a story for his own community, he tells it one way. But when he’s talking to a general audience he simplifies it, changes it. What if he didn’t have to? What if when I didn’t understand something, I could interrupt him and ask, just like when we have a conversation in real life?

Now, I don’t want it to sound like I’m reinventing the wheel. The idea of interactive radio is not new. Think about the ubiquity of call-in shows. They’ve been around forever. The first interactive radio show in the U.S. was called America’s Town Meeting of the Air. It aired in 1935. 

Go ahead and listen to it. You might feel like the topic of the show sounds familiar: “Will the Machine Dominate Man?” Will the Machine automate man? No! It wasn’t true in 1935 and it’s not true today. Great storytelling isn’t going anywhere, because the art of telling a story hasn’t changed for thousands of years. We are about to enter a Golden Age of Radio.

If you’re someone who is creative, intellectually curious and game for experimentation, I think the future of radio is going to be great for you. I know because we are going to build it together. 

 

 

 

 

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