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Why the future of music listening is online

RNZ’s thwarted plan for Concert is just the overture to an internet-based future for music – and DJs.

RNZ Concert’s stay of execution from the FM airwaves and the state broadcaster’s plans for a youth-focused station raise some bigger questions about the future of radio.

I couldn’t really understand the angst around the plan to scale back Concert. I love classical music, but I get my fix online rather than over the airwaves.

Maybe that’s because I’m more into Hans Zimmer than Handel. I’m also less into presenter chatter and more into the music itself. On YouTube, I can access hundreds of classical playlists that let me delve into exactly the type of music I’m looking for – Rachmaninoff while I’m working, Vivaldi to wind down in the evening.

Listening via the internet gives me better discoverability, with algorithms tailoring music to my tastes, offering up text and visuals on the artists and, if I subscribe to a streaming service such as Spotify or Apple Music, offline listening wherever I want.

I get that a decent number of classical lovers enjoy pottering around in the garden listening to Concert, and there’s a digital divide issue – some can’t afford decent internet access or a smartphone on which to play streaming apps.

But Concert’s future looks increasingly shaky unless RNZ accommodates the tastes of younger classical lovers. Although the station is streamed crystal clear and for free via the RNZ app, the future is ultimately a version of the BBC Sounds app, which last year replaced the Beeb’s iPlayer radio app.

It was a rough start, with complaints of a clunky interface and podcasts hosted on Sounds that were kept off the other popular streaming apps. But the BBC’s hefty budget has allowed it to reflect much of what has made the streaming apps so popular – the personalised experience, curated playlists and discoverability we now take for granted in online content.

If RNZ’s youth station actually makes it to air, that aspect will be critical to success. Overall, we are still a nation of radio listeners – millions of us tune in every day. But drill down into the youth demographic and you see the influence of the internet. In the 15-39 category, 49% listen to the radio daily, according to NZ On Air, compared with 61% in the 45-plus segment. But when it comes to music, 67% of youth stream it via the internet daily, compared with 16% for those 45-plus.

We really need versions of Apple’s online Beats 1 radio station to offer that DJ banter that many still value radio for, but delivered in the app environment.

Radio is also sounding decidedly 20th century. We could have followed other countries down the path of switching our AM/FM network to digital audio broadcasting (DAB). We’ve essentially already done the same thing for TV, with the Freeview digital TV network.

DAB has a number of advantages: you can offer extra radio stations and localised content through more efficient use of the radio spectrum; the sound quality is better, with no fading out when you reach the edge of coverage; you can offer a richer experience, such as images and text delivered to devices with a screen, or rewind and playback features.

The big drawback is that the entire radio network would need to be upgraded and you’d need a new DAB-capable radio to receive the digital signals. That major barrier to uptake, and the strong existing audience for analogue radio, led Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi to decide last year against introducing DAB after a six-year trial of the technology.

Maybe he made the right call. In the 5G mobile world, we’ll increasingly have internet-connected cars, so streaming could become the delivery path for radio, wherever you are, anyway.

But whether it is classical for baby boomers or Billie Eilish hits for millennials, listening online is just a better experience and one our public radio broadcaster needs to more fully embrace.

This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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