By Kristen Sinclair, Contributor
On 12:01am on 1st August 1981, The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ aired as the first ever broadcast on new US channel MTV. It marked the dawn of a new decade and the music video generation, yet with a kind of tragic irony, its lyrics reflected the ever-increasing loss of listeners to TV that would plague radio stations for years to come.
The number of hours that 15-24 year-olds listen to radio has fallen from 29 million hours to 16 million from 2010 to 2016. Over at BBC Radio 1, Breakfast Show presenter Nick Grimshaw has lost half a million listeners in the past year, and the station itself one fifth of its audience over the past five.
Such disheartening statistics would suggest that in today’s tech-obsessed society, we’ve simply fallen out of love with radio. In generations gone by, it played a more central role in everyday life and acted as the springboard for many a career. Whilst many famous personalities have risen to fame throughout the decades (Terry Wogan, Fearne Cotton and even our very own Pete Snodden to name a few), that sense of excitement and anticipation to tune into your favourite radio show has arguably been lost to televsion series. Having provided the likes of Snow Patrol and Two Door Cinema Club with their first airplay, radio shows such as BBC Ulster’s Across the Line, which still showcases the best of the music scene across Ireland today, aren’t quite the weekly ritual they used to be for our parents. So what exactly is to blame for the lack of millenial interest in the once-beloved radio set?
It’s easy to attribute such low listening figures from young people to the rise of music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. Advert-free with personalised album recommendations and the ability to be used any time and any place, these services make for stiff competition to the humble radio show. Once the first place to hear the latest music or breaking news, the invasion of the internet and social media into modern life makes it hard for stations to keep up. Instantaneously updated news feeds mean that we’re no longer at the mercy of the radio DJ to hear our favourite band’s latest single (because they just tweeted it two minutes ago) or the latest in global politics in an era of fake news (who doesn’t get in-app notifications on the latest Trump fiasco?). Even the increasingly popularity of podcasts – which are all but pre-recorded radio sessions – could replace tuning in to your local station in rush hour traffic.
Despite the lack of younger listeners, there is little to suggest that older generations are listening to any less radio now than before. Radio 1’s loss has been Radio 4’s gain,boasting consistently increasing numbers of seven million listeners in 2015 to 7.4 million in late 2016. With more and more competetion for people’s time, it may seem that Radio 1, no longer in its 1970s and 1980s heyday, is losing its now middle-aged original listeners to stations which play music from their youth.
But it’s not all bad news for radio lovers: rather than proclaiming the death of the medium as we know it, it may just be that the way we consume music is changing. Whilst the damaging impact of streaming services is undeniable, it’s interesting to note that 19% of all UK app time was spent on audio. Likewise, 89% of UK adults still regularly listen to a radio breakfast show. Then how has live radio maintained its appeal in a world of instant music streaming and news apps? A representative from our on-campus station Queen’s Radio believes, “If people can get immediate access to the songs they want to hear they will do so, rather than listen in to a radio show. Most people just don’t have a radio in there house, or if they do, would rarely listen to it. We at Queen’s Radio are trying to counteract that by bringing in digital listening as our main source, through our website or our app. I think the only appeal live radio has now is the banter between the radio hosts. Student radio would appeal more purely because the presenters are the same age and aren’t talking about things that younger listeners can’t relate to, which happens a lot on conventional radio.”
Perhaps the human element of radio broadcasting is difficult to replicate elsewhere; the conversational rapport with listeners and spontaneous nature of live radio, often with a local accent, is not only entertaining but unwittingly forms part of our daily routine. In fact, a study carried out in 2011 by the Radio Advertising Bureau showed that radio makes us happier than TV or internet, exhibiting on average an increase in happiness and energy scores.
So were The Buggles right to declare the death of the radio star to video back in 1981? Not entirely. Whilst millenials mighn’t be tuning in to as much conventional radio, that doesn’t mean they’re not listening to their local station’s mobile app whilst studying. You may be able to access the news on your social media feeds from your desk, but that doesn’t quite replace a human voice reading reliable coverage on your way home. Especially with many stations’ increase in older listeners as well, the ‘death’ of radio has been exaggerated in many respects. As another famous 80s ode to the power of radio insists, it may yet to have its finest hour.