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Is commercial music radio losing its definition to multi-media content? | A UK Case Study

There have been countless discussions surrounding the continuity, or even existence, of radio (Smith, 2019). Traditionally having its most distinguishable feature as an utterly non-visual medium, radio seems to be rebounded in disadvantages of many ways (Crisell, 1994). Yet all traditional mass media have their problems, even newcomers like Facebook has its questionable issues. Media is constantly moving and there will always be more on the horizon but radio has been here for more than a century, relentlessly evolving with all the passing fads, both culturally and technologically (Ferguson and Greer, 2018). As part of this complex system, the way that we consume radio is changing and following that change, radio content is actually exploding (Dredge, 2017). Far from extinction, audience still ‘tune in’ everyday, in one way or another (Smith, 2019). With the technological transformation over the last two decades, digitalization has transformed radio into a multi-media, audiovisual medium (Ferguson and Greer, 2018). This comes with its perks but also risks and challenges. And whether we still call it radio or not remains in debate.

Radio is Evolving

Throughout almost a century, radio was an invisible and auditory medium (Ferguson and Greer, 2018). The ‘visualisation’ of radio was entirely based on audiences’ imaginations. Sadly, the ear is not our cleverest sense, the efficiency of communication through radio is highly examined (Crisell, 1994). Nevertheless, radio industry is an enduring one, it reassearted inself whenever challenged by other media. In a restless mass media complex, radio has to overcome its limits by establish a visual identity via extension into other media (Fleming, 2010).

The twenty-first century rolled around with the synergies between the development of radio and the internet (Oliveira, Stachyra, and Starkey, 2014). Internet-driven technologies offers radio several innovative ways to engage with and build core audiences. It is a tool to enhance (using visuals and text) and extend traditional programmes (content is carried across new platforms for further engagement) beyond show time. In this new paradigm, radio stations have come to recognise the internet as a partner in distribution and interactivity instead of a threat (Berry, 2014). Principally, Absolute Radio stated, ‘we put digital innovation at the heart of what we do’ (Bauer Media Group, n.d.).

From analogue to Digital Audio Broadcast to nowadays, internet radio, this medium is not simply something to listen to anymore (Trebilcock, n.d.). The internet is now considered as a secondary integral of radio operation. Hence, ‘new-media’ production team is now a built-in function of radio operations (Hendy, 2013). With that in mind, radio has become a part of a ‘hypermedium’ where media convergence occurs (Reis, 2014).

Production of Multi-media and Audiovisual Content

There has been recognisable effort put towards visualising radio. Stations now run a mixture of on-air content, websites, social media, podcast, live events, video and hybrid radios in the name of ‘enhancing radio experience’ (Berry, 2014). By adding a visual dimension to radio content, the medium is admittedly growing with the new generation.

It seems like a necessity now that broadcasters sync content all across their owned media platforms. Take an example from Absolute Radio’s Mission Christmas appeal that ran on their website, Twitter, Facebook and not to mention the physical drop-off points across the nation (Absolute Radio, 2019).

Screenshot from Absolute Radio's Website

Sreenshot from Absolute Radio's Facebook
Sreenshot from Absolute Radio's Twitter

Another example could be the Heart Yes-vember campaign with their branded content across their website where audience wrote in request, Twitter and Facebook (Heart, 2019).

Screenshot from Heart's Website

Screenshot from Heart's Twitter
Screenshot from Heart's Facebook

Production of Interactive Content

If traditional radio was strictly aural, internet radio is concurrently audiovisual and interactive. As the first medium to partake sharing, discussion and observation, radio can be considered the leader in embracing social media (Radio Centre, 2013). Presenters are required to make constant reference to invite listeners over to interact on other platforms, be it the website, social media, app or sending messages.

Screenshot from Heart's Instagram
Screenshot from Absolute Radio's Instagram

Screenshot from Twitter

Absolute Radio, for example, has a show specifically dedicated to song request. It is a two-hour segment with nothing plan. Leaving it down to Clair Surgess and her listeners to interact via Twitter (Absolute Radio, n.d.).

Social media interaction has become a key ingredient in program-making. The audience becomes ‘prosumers’ who produce an engaging inspiration for content in dialogue with each other (Jędrzejewski, 2014).

In the UK, whilst radio remains a part of young people’s lives, the idea of owning a physical ‘radio’ seems alienated (Lister, Mitchell, and O'Shea, c2010). With the rise of smartphone, there came the introduction of radio mobile applications. When 95% of commercial stations began to offer streaming service on UK Radioplayer, it welcomed 7 million listeners every month (Radio Centre, 2013). Absolute Radio also introduced its own app, InStream, offering more visual presentations and fewer but well-targeted advertisements (Bauer Media Group, n.d.). The app does not only provide audio but also adds value to the experience by making it more interactive and personal with convenient social media sharing.

Risks and Challenges in this Evolution

Fragmentation of Listening Behaviour

Whilst producing multi-media content enhance the visibility of radio, it is the double-edged sword which fragmented the radio listening behavior in the age of numerous devices and platforms to choose from (Linfoot, 2018). Take Absolute Radio as the prime example. The station provided a significant number of shows from inimate sessions to festivals. They even gave listeners the countless opportunities to win tickets via social media engagement, join on-air session or produce YouTube videos from live concerts, reaching 2 million views on YouTube (Radio Centre, 2016). On the surface, it seems like a huge success, and it is. However, it is questionable whether the audience will ultimately come back to the ‘original radio show’. With all the visual presentations from outside broadcasts, campaigns, competitions, YouTube video and social media engagement, audience might not even aware that they are consuming a ‘radio’ output.

Screenshot from Absolute Radio's YouTube

Listeners' Loyalty

The previous challenge throwforwards to this question of loyalty. Traditional broadcasters are struggling to invite young audience to listen to radio the same way as previous generation (Linfoot, 2018). Modern media landcapes spoiled this generation with choices. Technological advancement gathers all media onto a single handheld device, giving users the power to navigate freely and that creates the tendency to ignore traditional media (Jędrzejewski, 2014). Hence, it is going to be a longterm challenge to find a balance between visual presentation and inviting people back to the aural medium. Or even worse, there is a real risk that other media could potentially compensate and replace radio.

Inaccuracy in Audience Counts

Public exposure is vital for a commercial business which derive revenue from advertising. And it is even a more interesting case in commercial radio because ‘you make one thing and sell something completely different’ (Lister, Mitchell, and O'Shea, c2010, p187). The service appeals to audience first but then they become a commodity for advertisers (Starkey, 2014). Internet radio opens a new dimension for the industry where globalisation of listeners occurs (Hendy, 2013). Large stations like Heart and Absolute Radio constantly invite people to their websites to hear more content, chat and therefore, expose to futher advertisements. This helps station gain more advertising deals, especially with the added exposure on the interactive intranet.

However, this perk comes with a challenge. The environment and network that commercial radio stations created has become overly complex and it is hard to determined the real size of audience. This could potentially become a problem to attract advertisers since they cannot really know what they are paying for.

Increasing Competition

Following the point of a globalised audience network, joining internet radio means traditional stations are entering a globalised competition with not only radio but also other aural media, alternative types of broadcasting and radio listenting (Lister, Mitchell, and O'Shea, c2010). Radio, as we know it, is challenged to compete for young listeners’ attention. Hence, this challenge is not bound to producing audio but more importantly, in terms of digital engagement surrounding it.

So what is Radio?

Considering all the risks and challenges it has to overcome in this digital age, radio has been adapting to the changing world in order to survive, so much to the point where we question has radio lost its definition. But what is radio in the first place anyway? Dubber (2013) spent a chapter on his book to discuss this question with no real answer. This century witnesses a convergence of media where every medium melts into one. Media is part of a modern world that is evolving endlessly without a definitive final form (Jędrzejewski, 2014). This applies to radio.

There are so much complexities behind what people assume to be ‘a microphone, a transmitter and a voice’ (Fleming, 2010, p2). Radio used to strike Crisell (1994) as a blind medium but it is now multifaceted medium with various experiences beyond hearing (Dubber, 2013). Radio is everything in response to the cultural, technological and social shifts around it. Ever since video and audio existed on the same platform, especially on smart phones, the different conventions between radio and everything else broke down (Berry, 2014). With its constant investment in multi-media content, the definition of ‘radio’ is shifting to enclose all of its expanding digital contents (Linfoot, 2018). Indeed, the relationship between technology and radio has evolved to the point where it can create visualise content without undermining the impact of radio itself (Jędrzejewski, 2014).


The emergence of visually-driven and interactive media environment has been a catalyst for radio evolution, also signalling new opportunities and risks. Consumers today is introduced to a multitude of choices of platforms and devices. Regardless of the change in consumption habit, radio sustains its place throughout the chaos of technological advance by constantly expanding itself. Though the expansion presents challenges like audience fragmentation, loyalty, immeasurable audience size and increasing competition, radio is here to stay with its expanding definition. Whatever we have been referring to as ‘radio’, that medium will continue its legacy. Or as Jo Willey put it, ‘So it’s just such a different medium. But at the same time, it’s you and it’s a microphone and it’s somebody listening, wherever they are around the world. So radio, I think, still essentially remain the same.’ (Dubber, 2013, p1).


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