onsdag 21 september 2011

What is radio?

I've already written about the course "Future of Media" and this year's theme which is "The future of radio / Radio of the future" in earlier blog posts (here and here). This is a note about some thought-provoking ideas presented by one of our guest lecturers, Daniel Johansson.

Daniel was a guest of ours already last year when the theme was "The future of music / Music of the future". His message then was powerful as he stated that we are undergoing a shift where we to a lesser extent are paying for a recording of music (a CD or an Itunes song) and to a larger extent are paying for the performance of music (a live concert, or a service like Spotify).

On Spotify, you pay a flat fee (100 SEK/month) and your money is divided and sent in different directions depending what you have listened to during that month. If you listen to 1000 different songs, your 100 SEK is divided into 1000 parts and sent in 1000 different directions. If 100 of those 1000 songs are Lady Gaga songs, Lady Gaga gets 10 of your 100 SEK. In reality, most of the money stays with the record company and all the Lady Gagas out there usually get a pittance (same is true for the composers), but let's call that an "accident" rather than the "essence" of this new way of distributing and paying for the music you actually listen to (rather than the music you own and can choose to listen to or not). We are thus moving from a copy paradigm to a streaming paradigm where music will work just like water or electricity. In some way and in some form, you pay for your usage.

Where revenue from analog distribution of music has fallen steeply in the last decade, revenue from digital distribution has risen steeply, but what had been gained by way of digital distribution does not make up for the losses in analog distribution, so there is less money in the music industries right now than what there was 10 years ago.

Daniel has since then consulted for Swedish Radio and could thus come back also this year and talk about music and radio. He had several different suggestions for what radio has been and what it is:

- Radio as a gadget, a radio set
- Radio as a companion, as comfort and a habit (turning on the radio each morning or in the car)
- Radio as availability, as a playlist or a feed that is always there for you
- Radio as a filtering mechanism (with editors doing the filtering/recommendation service)
- Radio as brands (radio stations)

What is radio? What is the "essence" of radio - rather than a historical "accident"? We may have believed that the essence of radio was the radio set 50 year ago, but the radio set has since been phased out/integrated into iPods and cell phones without radio-as-content disappearing, so what radio is (once-and-for-all) is debatable, or up for grabs.

Daniel's provocative suggestion is that the essence of radio in the age of Internet convergence and abundance is 1) a filtering mechanism that 2) is published (broadcasted in an earlier age). The essence of radio has for him thus become the function of someone making choices of what song to play next, and making those songs (or choices) available to others. According to this definition, a single individual can become a "radio station" and the title of his talk was actually "When everyone becomes a radio channel". His definition does presumably also answer the questions he himself posed before his lecture:
- Is "listening to a Spotify playlist recieved from the Sveriges Radio P3 API on Radiofy.se" radio or something else?
- Is "a video recording from the studio during a live show at Mix Megapol that is published on YouTube" radio or something else?

I'm not really finished thinking about this yet, but I did have a question for him. At an earlier lecture, we were presented with information about the music "output" from different Swedish radio stations. In last year (2010):
- Swedish Radio public service channel P3 played 13848 songs a total of 63549 times.
- Commercial radio channel Mix Megapol played 1461 songs a total of 100945 times.
- Commercial radio channel Rix played 559 songs a total of 114019 times.

As can be seen, Rix plays the same songs over and over again (the average song was played over 200 times!), while P3 plays the average song less than 5 times. Statistics such as these are right now the basis of reimbursing artists and composers (and the record companies and publishing houses that own the rights). In order to be able to reimburse artists and composers in a streaming radio paradigm, someone would have to have the same kind of detailed information not just about commercial radio stations, but about all radio stations and/or all listeners. The information about what is transmitted on "radio" (remember that everyone is/can be a radio channel), or what everyone listens to would have to exist somewhere. I asked about this as I found the concept slightly worrisome and creepy. Daniel's answer is that this information already exists - Spotify has the information about what every single person listens to and it is the basis of reimbursing musicians and composers (and everyone else who wants a piece of the action).

Daniel's lecture raised a lot of questions that are unanswered right now. Perhaps some of them will be explored by my students in the course? Who takes "responsibility" for the content? In a world of active listeners, every listener puts a lot of time into selecting what song to listen to next, or what playlist or radio channel to listen to. But can everyone be an active listener? If everyone is busy making choices and being a radio channel, who are the listeners? Does not a "radio channel" imply that it has listeners (plural), and that some listeners will continue to be rather passive? Don't some people want to hand over the responsibility to filter/edit to someone else? I mean, not everyone can have as a hobby to spend time and make choices about what song to listen to next, right?

I made a connection to my RSS reader that collects "news" from lots of blogs and other sources on the Internet. Is this a newspaper? "Yes" says Daniel, but only if I make this "newspaper" available to others. If I "publish" it ("Daniel's selection of news"), then it becomes a newspaper. One could (again) ask if it is a newspaper even if it has no "subscribers"? This all makes my head spin. While the ideas are intriguing, it feels like they raise as many (or more) questions than they answer... I guess that's where we're at right now. Hopefully I will have a better grip on things after the course and the students' projects are finished at Christmas.

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