“We believe that the days when all media will be distributed over the internet are not too far away.”
Those are the words of the BBC’s Chief Technology and Product Officer, the very nice Matthew Postgate, who made a long speech which the BBC has reproduced on its press site. Digital TV Europe excitedly reported it as the BBC predicting an all-IP future.
I tweeted this last week, and it was retweeted heavily, with a lot of radio people posting “I told you so!” and “I’ve been saying this for ages!”; and a few online radio companies jumped to self-promote themselves as part of the all-IP future.
Calm down, everyone.
First, as a former senior manager at the BBC, I’d start with the seemingly trite statement that whenever you hear “we” coming from a BBC manager in a speech, what they really mean is, firstly, “my department”, and secondly, in most cases, they also mean “television”. Indeed, there is no mention of radio in the section of Matthew’s speech which talks about an all-IP future.
Radio and television are very, very different. The BBC used to publish figures that highlight this. Below: 92% of all TV consumption online is on-demand — but for radio, that figure is only about 30%. Radio works best as a shared experience with a human connection; and that shared experience is stronger when people listen at the same time.
The fact is that right now, only 9.3% of linear radio listening is online. Just 9.3%. It’s tiny. Broadcast accounts for the rest. Radio has been streaming since 1998 — and in twenty years, we’ve achieved just a 9% takeup. This does not appear, to me, to herald an all-IP future for radio any time soon.
And, as Matthew says later in his speech, there are many problems in the way. The internet networks couldn’t cope; everyone doesn’t even have fast internet in the UK; and not everyone can afford internet either. As an example, the BBC is showing the World Cup online in 4K: however, they’re limiting the number of people accessing these streams — because the all-IP future is, it seems, not very scalable.
It could well be the case that the future of most television is on-demand. We’ve seen this beginning to happen for some time — PVRs or services like Netflix would tend to highlight where the future might be going. Live TV appears to be best used for news, sport or Royal Weddings. (All three of those are still quite important to people, seemingly).
On personal connected devices, the same might be true for radio. The BBC stats I linked to earlier don’t show an increase in online linear radio listening since mid 2011. People like a ‘skip button’ on the device in their hands. Music radio already has a strong competitor in terms of services like Spotify; and talk radio is competing, to an extent, with podcasts. A live, linear stream is not a good match for a highly interactive product like a mobile phone.
I believe that with the right product we could significantly increase radio listening online — but that wouldn’t be to live, linear radio. If radio’s future online is a mix of near-live and personalised content, as I believe it is, then that needs dramatic change to how we make radio programs. It’s not going to be enough to get the intern to edit out bits of a live show, as we currently do. Lazy, live, unpolished radio doesn’t compare well with other forms of audio we have available now. We need a total rethink of how radio production works for our future.
As Matthew says: “At this nascent stage, the type of future we are heading towards is very much up for grabs”. I’ll say. With just 9.3% of radio listening being online at this point, I’ll go further: we won’t see an all-IP future for radio in my lifetime.
Post Script: After I published this article, Enders Analysis shared this tweet. Live television (overwhelmingly delivered via broadcast) will still continue to be important for many years to come.