What is radio?

Radio panel, by Antonis Lamnatos, https://flic.kr/p/QNuGt
Radio panel, by Antonis Lamnatos, https://flic.kr/p/QNuGt

At the British Library we are in the middle of a major programme entitled Save our Sounds, which I’ve mentioned before. Its goal is to to preserve the nation’s sound heritage, or at least a good proportion of it. Much of the programme is concentrated on historical sounds, too often held on formats at risk through deterioration or technical obsolescence, but that’s not the whole story. We’re also interested in what I refer to as ‘future heritage’ – the stuff that hasn’t been produced yet but which is at just as much risk because there aren’t the processes in place to take care of it long-term.

For example, radio. We estimate that over 90% of current UK licensed radio (that’s 700 or so stations) is not being permanently archived and is certainly not available post-transmission for study or research. A huge amount of the great creative medium that is UK radio effectively disappears after broadcast. We have a national television archive, managed by the BFI, which preserves a substantial part of UK TV, whose existence is enshrined in law. There has been no such provision made for radio. The British Library does have a major radio collection of some 200,000 hours, but of current UK output we capture about 8,000 hours per year – and 3 million hours of radio are broadcast in this country every year.

So we have a plan, which is to start building a national radio archive. It hasn’t got statutory provision behind it, there are a lot of risks involved, but we’re making a start. From April of next year we plan to start building a pilot version, and to run that for two years, testing the technology, research value and sustainability models. We’re going to spend the first few months tinkering around with the software, so don’t expect anything exciting to appear too soon, but there will be reports on progress via the BL’s usual channels. There will also be the occasional speculative post from me on this blog, since I’m leading the project and for me it raises all sort of interesting questions, such as – what is radio?

The Future of Radio podcast

As part of our project, we have a commissioned a report on the future of radio. The idea is to get a sense of where radio is going, so that we can have an idea of what we’ll be archiving not just in 2016 but in 2026, and beyond. Of course you can’t really plan around speculation, but the debate is interesting and useful, because really it’s about understanding what radio is. That became particularly clear in a podcast that we commissioned, which was published last week. The panel were Matt Deegan (Creative Director of Folder Media and co-founder of the Next Radio conference), Helen Boaden (Director of BBC Radio), Femi Adeyemi (founder of Internet station NTS) and journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer, with podcaster and broadcaster Ruth Barnes as chair. It’s an entertaining hour of debate, full of hopes and not many fears, and I do recommend it.

Recording the Future of Radio podcast. L/R Femi Adeyemi, Matt Deegan, Helen Boaden, Miranda Sawyer, Ruth Barnes. Photo by Paul Wilson.
Recording the Future of Radio podcast. L/R Femi Adeyemi, Matt Deegan, Helen Boaden, Miranda Sawyer, Ruth Barnes. Photo by Paul Wilson.

Like all debates about the future, it’s really about our understanding of the present. The discussion opens with the panelists asserting that radio is so much more than just a playlist. The rise of iTunes, Spotify, BBC Playlister and so on, is challenging the very concept of radio, now that we can all curate our own lists of music or podcasts. Is Spotify radio? It serves a function of radio, but does that make it radio of itself? What is the special nature that radio offers that these successor media may not possess, and will that special nature survive if and when radio evolves into something else?

What seems to define radio is its quality of being live. I’ve discussed this issue in relation to television here (and here, and here). That doesn’t just mean live in the sense of DJs or other presenters talking to us, or those genres that are peculiar to the medium, such as phone-ins. The liveness exists, as I’ve argued, in being caught up in the immediacy of the moment whatever the broadcast, shared with anyone else who might be listening. Radio, like television, connects us to the unfolding future, forever on the point of discovery, balanced between accident and assurance. Unlike television – traditional television, that is – radio is ubiquitous. We can carry it with us anywhere, and potentially it links us to any point anywhere if it happens to be broadcasting. Radio is a world wide web without the need for hypertext.

That liveness of the radio, curiously, may extend beyond what we understand as live broadcasting. I think a podcast shares the same qualities. It may be catch-up in nature, but it is still about the moment, albeit the time-shifted moment. I think playlist and personalisation sites such as Spotify may qualify as well. They may seem time-free, but their construction is less important than how we engage with them. It is the act of listening that makes radio, not the forms in which it is delivered. In this it differs significantly from television, which must be consumed passively, or domestically (though that is changing the more video we are encouraged to consume on the move). Radio is consumed actively. It lives with us.

What the future of radio is depends on how you define radio. Structurally and commercially there will certainly be changes. As is noted in the podcast, 30% of UK radio listening takes place in cars. But as we move rapidly towards driverless cars, will people on the road begin to prefer watching video to listening to audio? For me radio in the future is going to incorporate more of the visual. Radio stations are doing this already (consider the various TV tie-ins that BBC radio stations now produce) but more will be generated as data is increasingly derived automatically from speech and music analysis software, linking this up to external resources. I’ve written about how speech recognition technologies will change discovery in a huge way. Believe me, it’s going to happen, and radio can be at the forefront of this.

Smart radio, incorporating services such as Spotify Connect, further blurring the edges of what is radio
Smart radio, incorporating services such as Spotify Connect, further blurring the edges of what is radio

But what about archiving this future? Aside from the complexities of definition of radio, there is the question of how one captures it. You cannot, in any real sense, capture live – as I argued only recently, the very act of archiving nullifies the liveness. It becomes an idea of live, not live itself.

The podcast panel wrestles with the idea of what should be archived. Some want the idea of radio itself to be archived, capturing say an entire day of all UK radio from all stations. That would be an interesting exercise, but perhaps it would be more nostalgic than archival, a record of loss rather than of something preserved because it would have significant value in being listened to again. Others argue for archiving for content’s sake, in particular the speech radio from community stations, preserving the passions and preoccupations of the time.

We’re still working on our plans. We will have to be selective (there simply isn’t the resource to capture all of UK radio), and we will probably focus on speech radio, though not exclusively so. The nature of archiving is changing overall, as how we engage with what is published becomes ever more personalised. That’s the problem with archiving the Web (another topic covered here). There isn’t any one Web that you can capture – it is different for every single person who engages with it. Archiving Twitter, for example, is a logical impossibility, because it is not what was published that is significant so much as what we saw of it, and each of us saw it differently. And what we saw was then lost at the point of seeing.

Archiving radio is much the same. That which makes radio of itself is us as its listeners, and that you can’t archive, not even if you recorded everything. In a playlist-driven, cross-media, cross-platform world, such an idea becomes all the more chimerical. But you can, and must, capture something, for the content and for what it documents about ourselves. You capture what was creative, challenging, informative and memorable about radio. But the idea of radio itself lies beyond the archive, because it can only be, and must always be, live.


  • There’s a contextualising post by Radio Curator Paul Wilson on the BL’s Sound & Vision blog, which will also be hosting a series on guest posts on the ‘future of radio’ theme over the next couple of weeks.
  • For a guide to the British Library’s current radio collection, see here
  • There’s an entertaining piece on a visit to the BL’s radio archive on the Sound Women site
  • More information on the overall Save our Sounds programme is at www.bl.uk/save-our-sounds
  • The foremost radio futurologist out there is probably James Cridland, who produces a weekly newsletter on where radio might be heading
  • The Radio Academy’s annual Radio Festival is being held at the British Library on 26 September 2016


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