The Audio Renaissance

Radio transmission towers line the California coast.

by Rick Rockwell

Let’s get this straight from the start.  Audio’s importance has never waned in the media universe.  Think of films before the 1920s.  The 1920s also saw the explosion of radio as a mass medium.

Sure, since then, a few other media have overshadowed audio and radio.  There’s that invention called television.  And of course, let’s not forget the latest craze:  the internet.

But one of those arbiters of what is cool in the journalistic media galaxy, the Poynter Institute has decided that audio is in again and they’ve declared 2012 will be a year we rediscover its importance.  (Some folks, this author included, who have worked in radio or taught radio courses, have never relented on the importance of audio.)  Well, let’s be clear, Poynter also got a bit of a push before the light bulb formed over their collective heads.

Of course, the push came from websites. Alexander Ljung of SoundCloud is touting his service as bigger than video, because recording is easier. (Full disclosure: this author regularly uses SoundCloud and to demonstrate the service’s ease of use for distribution, SoundCloud provides a free professional account for Latin Pulse, the podcast I produce.)  AudioBoo counters with its history of promoting shorter, spoken word files for streaming, noting that SoundCloud began as mostly a music service.  Some of the appeal of these audio web platforms, Jim Colgan of Poynter says, is that they can easily be used while multi-tasking and via smart phones.  No computer necessary.

But let’s think beyond the developed world.  (SoundCloud, by the way, is a German firm.  AudioBoo is based in the U.K.)

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) recently revealed that audio is still the king in what it sends out globally.  The BBG is the U.S. government body that oversees the Voice of America, Al-Hurra/Radio Sawa, Radio & TV Marti and other news, information and entertainment programming platforms. (Some would say these outlets are for propaganda, but that’s a debate for a different posting.) BBG’s ratings statistics show its worldwide radio audience was 106 million people, compared to 97 million people for its television programs and only 10 million users for its internet platforms.  Part of the reason radio leads the way in these statistics is because the BBG aims much of its programming at the developing world.

A report from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) cites many of the same reasons terrestrial radio is taking off in the developing world, paralleling how audio is gaining ground on the web: the growing accessibility of cell phones, new audio producing technology, and liberalized legal structures that have encouraged new forms of radio beyond state-controlled or commercial radio.  The report shows that small stations are using technology to stream programming to phones, which means they effectively extend their reach nationally or internationally in search of audiences.  Radio is no longer limited to the radius of the antenna and the power of the transmitter.  The CIMA report cites polling in 2008 and 2009 that revealed 37 percent of young Pakistani listeners (18 to 29 years old) were listening to radio via cell phones and that number stood at 42 percent in Colombia.  Those trends mirror the interest of audiences in the developed world who want to replace traditional radio programming with what they can access via the web on their phones.

While the developed world seems hypnotized by the wonders of the internet, what went ignored for many years is that radio remained the dominant medium in the developing world.  Under-developed areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia retain their reliance on AM, FM and shortwave.  Various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have realized this for years.  So for example, this is why Internews has focused its work in Africa and elsewhere on radio. Or why the Panos Network found in its work on HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa that radio was the most cost effective way to disseminate important messages but was also under-utilized.  Or why the Sisterhood Is Global Institute used radio plays and radio outreach in its campaigns to raise awareness of women’s issues in the Muslim world as far back as the mid-1990s.

As the internet penetrates these areas beyond elite circles and the price of cell phones drops, the power of radio will only be amplified.  For instance, in Nicaragua barely eleven percent of the population is connected to the internet. In Iraq, the connection rate is only three percent.  In Ethiopia, barely one percent. That shows plenty of room for growth.

So 2012 may be the year of audio, but that realization has been literally decades in the making.

(The photo is by Kevin Collins of California via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.  To listen to a story from The World about how scientists are using audio from the oceans, please check below.  Also, to hear an archival clip from media theorist Marshall McLuhan about the power of radio from 1970, please also check below.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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