Listen Up: An Argument for Radio in the Streaming Age

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By Erin Cavoto

I remember it well — sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s minivan, her newly minted license displayed proudly in the clear front of her wallet, our local alternative station blasting what felt like its tenth rendition that day of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.” Radio was already careening into feeling outdated, aux cords plugged into iPods — and increasingly, smart phones — a staple in any teenager’s car by the early 2010s. But there was something about turning the station on and letting the radio gods decide what we would listen to that made the experience more unique than just plugging in an iPod. We bonded over our least favorite DJs who always played the same 90’s soft rock (sixteen-year-old emo kids aren’t into dad rock), getting amped every time Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” came on (at least once a day), and feeling superior to our peers who only listened to the top 100 hits stations (the rare time we felt superior). Enduring car commercial after car commercial through persistent static, the station held a special place for us, like a well-intentioned — even if sometimes misguided — relative.

    In the age of streaming, the future of traditional radio appears precarious. The next decade brings Generation Z to the forefront, a generation with limited need to engage with traditional media and has demonstrated little interest in it. With on-demand convenience constantly and literally at their fingertips, it’s hard to imagine this generation getting on board with something as outdated as radio. Why spin the dial and let a DJ miles away takeover when you can set up a playlist curated by you or Spotify’s algorithms? The impact of streaming is undeniable, rising to dominance in what seems like a few short years. Streaming now accounts for 20–30% of data that compromises Billboard’s Hot 100, ironically contributing to the decision of what plays on the radio. With subscription services replacing ownership we used to have over our content, it’s easy to say streaming is here to stay.

    But maybe it isn’t all doom and gloom for radio. After all, Nielsen’s 2018 mid-year radio listening report showed a consistent upward trend for the Adult Contemporary format, maintaining its upward climb since 2015. Alternative, the second highest ranked rock format in America, has also been at an all-time high since February of this year. Nielsen also reported in its 2017 Music 360 report that radio remains the number one way people discover new music, ranking at nearly 50% versus online music services which came in at only 27%.Perhaps even more persuasive of radio’s omnipresence is that the percentage of Americans aged 12 and older listening to radio on a weekly basis has stayed quite steady from 1970 to today. Today, 90% of radio consumers listen on a regular basis, down only 6% from 2001 — before the takeover of iTunes and streaming services.

    So what does this mean? Sure, it might come as no surprise that sitting in traffic and listening to the radio on your commute hasn’t changed. And all this data will most likely change once the majority of Generation Z starts driving. But there’s something oddly comforting in these numbers, hearing that the ritual of flicking on the radio and letting some DJ take the reigns is still alive and well. It’s reassuring that in an age of algorithms and curation every way we turn, there’s still value for sitting back and discovering something new, something that your weekly discover playlist might not pick up.

    In college, when I would feel homesick, I would pull up my old local alternative station’s online streaming and let the same DJs that we used to affectionately whine about pick out my studying music. I remember feeling warmed by the familiar car advertisements and ticket giveaways for venues that had become second homes to me as an angsty teenager. We know that music has a powerful way of transporting us back to a place in time, so it doesn’t surprise me that a radio station can have the same effect. When living with every possibility you could ever want right at your fingertips, there is something relaxing about letting the radio play and not worrying about having a perfect playlist. It stems from the same reason why I prefer working without headphones in coffee shops. I’ll let the barista take over, for once just letting the sounds around me happen rather than dictating them.

    And yet, even as I write this in a coffee shop, I just pulled my phone out to Shazam the song playing over the speakers to add to my Spotify library. Maybe it’s all about compromise. Even pre-digital age, there’s always been a give and take when new technology is introduced. So maybe once Generation Z become awkward teenagers driving around their suburban town, every now and then between queued up songs they’ll flick the dial on that radio they never use and find the same comradery groaning over hearing “Wonderwall” yet again that day.