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Radio survived the tape, CD, and iPod. In the age of Spotify, it’s more popular than ever.

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  • Amy X. Wang
By Amy X. Wang


Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Think of any teen movie out of the 1980s or 1990s, and there’s a fair chance you can recall a scene of characters lounging in a car, singing along to the blare of a dashboard radio. If not driving, they’re listening to radio while sitting around a breakfast table, or doing homework, or gathering at friends’ parties, those trusty AM/FM waves forever crooning on in the background.

Music listening these days looks different. People don’t need a DJ spinning them new tracks that they’ll rush off to buy at a record shop; they pick their own songs on digital streaming services like Spotify. According to everyone from Jay-Z to entire national governments, the reign of radio is over.

Yet why the gloom? Radio is actually more alive than ever.

Nielsen, the data analytics company that tracks US entertainment consumption, reveals in its just-released annual Music 360 report that radio is still the number-one way people are discovering new music. What’s more, the group’s Radio’s All Dimension Audience Research reports also shows the percentage of Americans aged 12 and older listening to broadcast radio on a weekly basis has stayed relatively steady from 1970 to today.

A playlist is a radio.

Terrestrial radio isn’t cool anymore—that much is certain. And fewer people own cars, causing the once-iconic sing-along-driving-down-a-highway scene to fade from modern entertainment culture and daily life alike. The numbers don’t lie, though: Radio, as a way to listen to music, is the opposite of dead. It may actually be the future of music entirely.

Long live the king

“Radio” really refers to two things:

  • Terrestrial radio: AM/FM stations on local or national broadcast.
  • Internet radio: Digital stations without physical limitations (e.g. Pandora).

While the latter may seem more appealing to younger people—the millennial generation has grown up accustomed to boundless accessibility, after all—it’s actually the former that grabs most Americans’ hearts.

Old-fashioned AM/FM radio remains the biggest mass-reach medium in the US, with more than 90% of consumers listening on a weekly basis. That percentage has stayed strong even in the face of the explosive growth of music streaming; it was 96% back in 2001, according to Nielsen’s yearly reports.

But considering that Spotify, Apple Music, et al. provide an entire buffet of tens of thousands of songs, why stick to a rusty old format that offers much less?

“For many people, the availability of so much music has led to what some academics and analysts call the tyranny of choice,” explains Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “You’re confronted with all the music in the world but what the hell are you supposed to listen to? Somebody tell me! What’s good?”

Most people simply don’t care all that much; they want music listening to be a passive experience, something to have on in the background as they cook and clean and go on with their lives. Overwhelmed by options, they would prefer to sit back and have somebody else—a DJ, a charts-based hits list, any trustworthy authority—take control. Which is why streaming services are looking more and more like radio.

Spotify, the leading music-streaming platform, made waves a short while ago when it dropped Discover Weekly, a clever algorithm-driven playlist that is continually refreshed with recommendations for the listener. “It’s a low-involvement experience to check something out,” Miller says of the playlist’s immense popularity.

Since Discover Weekly, there’s been Release Radar, Fresh Finds, My Time Capsule, and a litany of other recommendation engines. Spotify’s RapCaviar playlist this summer became an industry-toppling revolution, launching the career of many a new or obscure rapper—such as Cardi B, whose song “Bodak Yellow” made history last month and even managed to topple the supremacy of universal pop queen Taylor Swift.

In other words, streaming service’s playlists are a new form of radio. “Bodak Yellow” was passed by on most AM/FM stations; it owes the bulk of its success to RapCaviar, which has around 7.6 million followers and is effectively the rap and hip-hop community’s new megaphone. “Rockstar,” a single from rapper Post Malone, recently reached #2 in the US—becoming the second track to soar up into the charts with minimum (traditional) radio play.

A promising future in the past

Given the profusion of music-listening choices today, we’re now seeing an evolution in the idea of radio, i.e. curated passive content, pop up on other platforms.

“In the last five to 10 years, radio—and the use of it, ‘I listen to radio’—is a relatively ambiguous word,” says Paul Brenner, president of NextRadio, an app that offers local FM streaming on smartphones.

Tom Poleman, chief programming officer of iHeartMedia, the largest radio station group owner in the US, tells Quartz he has seen the definition of the word morph many times over the course of his decades-spanning career in the music industry—to the point where no two companies, musicians, or listeners share the same understanding of what it is.

So how should we define it? “It just means you listen to audio passively, linearly,” Brenner says. “A playlist is a radio. In the old days a radio station was the frequency you tuned into for a programmer’s choice of airwaves. Now it could be a playlist somebody created, or a pre-programmed genre channel.” Spotify currently has 140 million users and growing; its playlists are a perfect entry point for a mass-market audience that is new to streaming.

Curation, taste-making, personalization—whatever you want to call the act of somebody plopping songs in front of you, the music equivalent of sitting down and asking for the chef’s recommendations without bothering to glance at the menu—is the future of music. It is the centerpiece of a music, in people’s private homes, in public spaces, in social gatherings. And if you ask anyone from the older, airwaves-loving generation: That’s also exactly what it’s always been.

Image by chaps1 on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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