How many times do we hear about the death of terrestrial radio? Both The Future of Music and The Long Tail offer a gloomy prognosis, with listener numbers apparently at a 27-year low in the US. This trend isn't so clearly reflected here in the UK, where several factors are different, including a strong legacy of commercial-free music radio and a growing terrestrial digital sector that offers niche programming (satellite radio isn't likely to be viable in Europe). Even in the US, according to new research from Bridge Ratings, terrestrial radio remains the most common place that people go to discover new music. See their recent press release for a larger version of this graphic.
Forty five per cent of their sample identified terrestrial radio as their preferred means of discovering music. Even if you take out the older 35-to-54-year-old group, and include just people aged 12 to 34, this percentage drops slightly to just over 35%.
There's a seductive myth that discovery is driven by MySpace and filesharing these days, but the figures don't support terminology as strong as 'driven'.
The new services have definitely changed the landscape, and shifted the centre of gravity for discovery. They will undoubtedly grow in significance, as will internet radio and satellite/digital radio. A decline in traditional radio may take root in other markets, as well as the US. In the UK traditional analogue radio will actually be switched off in a decade or so, but the 'traditional' radio stations are expected to survive this transition to digital, without a major shift in power, ownership or the proportion of advertisements. Not 'driven' but perhaps 'complemented'.
So for some time yet (a generation, maybe?), the new discovery services will co-exist with the old ones, rather than replacing them. And, as and when there is a replacement for radio, it may embrace some elements of the radio experience.
Gradually we will see the categories in the chart above blur into each other. The BBC, for example, is planning to offer personalised radio. This won't be the same as the personalisation offered by Last FM, Pandora or the recommendation systems I discussed with Paul Lamere and Zac Johnson (all of which are currently lumped together under "On-line networks" in Bridge's chart) — but so much the better in terms of the variety of discovery methods available.
So what's undermining radio in the US, then? In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson cites possible causes including the rise of the iPods. The problem with this is that iPods alone cannot help you discover new music (unless yours is full of music you haven't heard and presumably haven't paid for). They mainly help you rediscover music you already have (see my old comments on this). iPods are popular in the UK, and radio is holding up well. So the other causes Anderson cites may be more pertinent, and they are US-specific ones, related to the regulation of the medium the and concentration of ownership that has arisen as a result.