Are you listening? The future is on air

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The Independent Online
THE REVIVAL of steam radio continues. Ten or 15 years ago it was seriously unfashionable to believe that there was any prospect other than a continued slow decline for radio.

Sure, there would be room for three or maybe four British national stations and a series of niche markets for local interests. And there might be a few pickings for specialist pop music stations and news. But these were never going to very big in commercial terms, nor matter much politically. Britain, it was argued, was not like the US, where there was a multitude of local stations all over the land, identical (so Britons sneered) in the crassness of their content.

It has not turned out like that at all. We have already seen an explosion in the number and variety of radio stations here, with most of the innovation coming from the commercial sector. For example, some of the programming ideas developed by LBC have been adopted by the BBC for its Radio 5 Live news network, while the 'listener-friendly' approach of Classic FM has expanded the audience for classic music far beyond its Radio 3 enclave.

If one wanted a testimony to radio's new status as a serious medium it would be the involvement of Richard Branson's Virgin group. It would be hard to find a British entrepreneur who better combined an eye for high fashion and a nose for commercial opportunity than Mr Branson.

This week we have had a further practical illustration of the medium's appeal. The Radio Authority received 41 applications for the six commercial licences it had on offer, including 28 for the three FM stations. The applicants range from Virgin (which wants to swap its AM frequency for FM) to a number of 'easy listening' stations with names like Cruise FM and Easy FM, to a series of tenders from ethnic groups, including Pakistani, Arab and African stations.

There are proposals for a French-language service, sports networks and a service for pre-school children. Media glitterati such as Lynne Franks, Paul Gambaccini and Joan Bakewell are all supporting bids, while the Christians want a service 'reflecting the beliefs and values of the Christian faith'.

This is wonderfully vigorous, exciting stuff, evidence of a creativity and exuberance in our society which one would not catch from reading the glum pages of most national newspapers. It is also utterly different in its tone and feel from mainstream television, where programme-makers have either to shoot for large audiences to support their cost base, or deliberately create 'minority' programmes to fulfil social or contractual obligations. It raises the question: why is radio so exciting?

For a start, radio is cheap. Not only is the physical investment small by comparison even with a magazine launch, but much of the raw material is either virtually free (from listeners on phone- ins) or very cheap (pre-packaged music tapes bought in from the US). This limits risk and therefore makes it possible to serve audiences which are too small or specialised to be commercially attractive to other media.

The cheapness of the service naturally allows the cost to advertisers to be held down, but it further allows advertisements to be crafted for the specialist audience available. Not all radio advertising succeeds in capitalising on this - you still hear naff adverts on supposedly up-market stations - but the potential is there to catch people who would normally be very difficult to target efficiently.

Next, radio is intimate. In one sense it always was. But we no longer have families clustering round the wireless to hear the latest news from the Western Front, or giggle at The Goon Show. Nowadays listeners are often on their own, perhaps single people living alone, perhaps in a car. Many more people live on their own than ever before. Programme tone has changed to reflect this. Radio talks in a curiously personal way - sometimes in phone- ins, an extremely personal way.

I suspect that the one-to- one relationship with a talented broadcaster is particularly appropriate to the individualistic, sometimes lonely mood of our times. We do not want to be preached at, or even professionally 'entertained'; we want a friendly voice at the other end.

This leads to a further element, which is perhaps the most important of all. Because it is or can be small- scale, radio is genuinely and naturally interactive.

How to make media interactive is the great quest of the industry. Newspapers increasingly seek to create the atmosphere of a club among their readers, running promotions that encourage some kind of response from the purchaser of the product - offering a credit card or special discounts. Regular television stations attempt to create the illusion of interaction - 'you too can play along at home and we'll tell you when to shut your eyes' - but actually find it very difficult to do so with existing technology.

Even the most experimental of the cable television networks are only just starting to establish a system where viewers can send a signal back along the cable to the head office and put some kind of request across. Technically it is possible to do so, but whether any useful communication can take place is another matter. Ask what these new interactive services are and the television companies mutter about booking restaurants and theatres, or home shopping.

By contrast, radio really does create dialogue. I was in a studio the other day being interviewed and it suddenly became evident that the next person due to come on had not turned up. The interviewer had 20 minutes to fill, winked at me, and asked people to phone. The lights on the console lit up as the calls came in and we had a string of very interesting conversations. No other medium could do that.

There is surely a wider message here. As society becomes more fragmented - and that trend seems set for a while yet - the media will have to become more specialised to serve its customers. But people living individual 'specialised' lives will increasingly need to bind themselves into clubs, where the glue is some kind of special interest, or at least a common situation. Radio is the ideal medium for them. We do not yet have nearly enough channels for radio to fulfil its potential obligations: all of those 41 applications would produce services that would interest some listeners, and 35 of those listener groups will be disappointed. But looking into the future, with the digital radio technology now available, all these markets could be satisfied. Radio is the new democracy.