Turn on, tune in

Modern radio in the streaming age

Vanessa Barron, Arts & Entertainment Editor

August 2017:

I’m driving into downtown Montreal for the first time, not as a tourist, but as a resident and student at McGill University. As I cross the Jacques-Cartier bridge after a 10-hour car ride from rural Pennsylvania, I turn on the radio just in time to catch Chumbawamba's 1997 hit single, “Tubthumping” : "I get knocked down / but I get up again!” It's just the song I needed to quell my college anxieties and driving fatigue, defining the moment with a click of a button.

As a medium, radio is prone to serendipitous moments such as this one. Each second of a radio show is unique to time and place, making what you end up listening to all up to chance. There is a certain amount of risk that you won’t know (or even like) the song a station will play next, yet there is the possibility that the next track will be one of your favourite songs ever. The uncertainty and discomfort inherent to radio listening may be an unfavourable choice for a young audience used to on-demand music through streaming. Radio listenership numbers have decreased in recent years, yet the roots of modern media, such as podcasts, live streams, and playlists, originated from the radio. In order to survive, radio has a lot to learn from our generation; in turn, we can learn a lot from radio, too.

Ironically, when commercial radio was first introduced in the 1930s, record companies predicted that it would end physical media, which at the time consisted almost entirely of phonograph records. Half a century later, on Aug. 1, 1981, MTV launched, and the first music video they played was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” heralding a new contender in the music scene. And yet, 40 years later, the radio is still around, outliving the heydays of music television and newer innovations in physical media, like cassettes and CDs. After nearly a century of radio, the industry has so far successfully adapted to many technological changes in order to survive.

Alex Moskos, music department coordinator for McGill’s student radio station CKUT 90.3 FM, has witnessed the shift from physical records to digital files and internet broadcasts in the radio industry during the last three decades. In his experience, change isn’t always bad news for radio—in fact, sometimes change is welcome.

“In the early 2000s, we used to get three mail bins a day filled with parcels with CDs,” Moskos said. “And honestly, that took so much volunteer power back in the day to keep track of everything that came in. Now [we receive] a handful of CDs per day. [Digital programming] requires a lot less of that.”

In its 30 years of existence at McGill, CKUT’s student team has changed its approach to radio. As a generation that did not grow up regularly listening to the radio, the current student DJs use their airtime differently than their predecessors.

“There's a tendency with younger people who grew up with social media and grew up with different forms of self expression [to be] more comfortable oversharing and talking about their feelings on the radio,” Moskos said. “Some older listeners complain, but too bad for them.”

Aside from a different conversational approach, this generation of radio producers operate their programs non-traditionally, opting for downloaded playlists rather than physical media. Sometimes, students host broadcasts on Facebook Live and Twitch streams while on air. This approach combines old and new media, but in the process, radio loses some of its mystery and charm.

“I think we live in a culture that's too reliant on our visual sense,” Moskos said. “[In traditional radio,] you, as the person producing the radio show, do not see your audience. And from the audience's perspective, you do not see the person making the radio show. It's a completely [auditory] experience. You use your ears entirely to do it. ”

The lack of visual elements and having to wait to hear song titles without knowing what will play next may make radio listening less appealing for younger audiences accustomed to streaming services. Aside from simply changing the station, the lack of control can be uncomfortable compared to the limitless options of Soundcloud or Apple Music. Radio listeners are exposed to content that they, or their Spotify algorithms, wouldn’t normally pick, leaving more room for variety.

The rise of streaming has consequently reduced the ubiquity of radio devices in recent years. Some car companies have dropped AM radio from their dashboards entirely, and Apple has not included FM transmitters in iPhones since 2015. Some speculate that this is done purposefully—radio is completely free, so it competes with streaming and music downloading platforms. But radios are handy, especially in emergencies when the internet or cell towers may not work. With more frequent natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, now might be the perfect time to own one.

July 2020:

I am alone in my Montreal apartment because I’m too anxious to travel home for the summer. To cope with my newfound isolation, I started listening to Montreal radio stations on an old alarm clock that I discovered in my closet. It’s good background noise, and the voices keep me company in my solitude.

Radio is a good antidote to loneliness. For starters, a real person is curating the music for the listeners, not an algorithm. There's a great deal of talking on many stations by people a few miles away from you. In movies, radio DJs dedicate songs to the romantic leads; sometimes the radio is the reason people find each other, like in Sleepless in Seattle. In a sense, radio is perhaps an archaic form of social media, allowing people to reach out and connect across expanses of space.

A popular modern-day successor to the radio talk show is podcasting. Gretel Kahn, B.A. ‘19, is a researcher at CBC Radio Montreal who initially started working in radio because of her interest in podcasting.

“I'm a regular 20-something-year-old, [so] I didn't wake up every single day to turn on the morning radio and listen to the news,” Khan said. “But I was a huge podcast person, [particularly] news podcasts, so I thought that might be similar. Now that I work in radio, it’s something that I’ve fallen in love with.”

One of the differences between a podcast and a radio talk show is the approach to the audience: Podcasters talk amongst themselves, so you feel like you're listening in, leading to an often parasocial experience. On the other hand, radio hosts talk more directly to the listener. Additionally, Kahn noted that the length and detail of an online podcast differ greatly from a standard segment on CBC Radio.

“[With] podcasts, you can work on one episode for a very long time and go into great detail,” Kahn said. “Podcasts are able to really dive into a specific issue for as long as they’d like, [whereas] we're trying to cover a lot of issues in one show. We have to do one episode every single day, and we have three hours of air to fill with what we think would be of interest to Montrealers and to our audience. It is more than what meets the eye.”

As a newcomer to an old industry, Kahn has learned a lot from her time at CBC, including an appreciation for journalistic standards and the medium itself. Although she predicts that the future of radio will see a shift to largely online platforms, the fact that FM radio is free increases its potential accessibility.

“Radio is still relevant to a lot of people,” Kahn said. “[It’s] perhaps one of the most accessible types of media, especially for the elderly, people that cannot access the internet, or [people whose] eyesight is not the best. They can always tune into the radio and get informed on what's happening. Just as any other media platform or journalistic platform, the radio still has a place today.”

One of radio's most remarkable qualities is its presence in everyday gadgets, as most cars and alarm clocks have an FM transmitter. The future of radio, however, requires a younger generation to embrace the platform with all its flaws and unique characteristics. In return, radio needs to adapt for a younger audience.

September 2020:

I'm lounging on the grass in Parc La Fontaine with my closest friends. We’re eating brie with baguette; the sun is setting—life is as good as it gets during a pandemic. I brought along my new portable radio, relieving me of the pressure of crafting the perfect queue for the evening. I find a station that's playing a horrendous mashup of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” We bask in the glory of this hilariously bizarre 2012 throwback and enjoy it nonetheless.

Although many modern media elements evolved from radio programming, listening to the radio today may not feel modern. This is both an advantage and disadvantage. Nostalgia can be a powerful tool: In an era in which contemporary technology invades our privacy constantly, it is comforting to go back to the media associated with simpler times. This nostalgic quality is sometimes incorporated into modern music production, like in “Telegraph Ave” by Childish Gambino and “Late Night” by GoldLink. Spoken radio introductions give the music a timeless effect and a softer, “background noise” ambiance. Although radio has no physical attributes, it creates a romantic image, something lost in time, for the listener.

Throwback-themed music sets and classic rock stations offer comfort and familiarity, but there is an undeniable lack of fresh music on the frequencies, including contemporary stations. It’s a tricky balance for radio stations. Listeners like the music they know, but does it keep them interested? To compete with the algorithms of recommendations on Spotify and YouTube, radio stations should play up what algorithms don’t have: Personality.

Paul Orasanu, U4 Engineering, studies music technology and is an avid music and podcast listener. Still, he rarely listens to the radio—not an uncommon combination for Generation Z. However, Orasanu sees potential in the work of student radios like CKUT because of, not in spite of, their unconventional programming.

“Occasionally, I’ll tune into CKUT when I’m driving because they play some really weird stuff I wouldn’t hear otherwise,” Orasanu said. “[Even though] we now have curated playlists and recommended podcasts on streaming apps, I appreciate stations like CKUT where people play specifically chosen music that doesn’t normally get the attention it deserves, and I think that would be really sad to see gone.”

For radio as a whole, Orasanu does not have high hopes for the longevity of the industry; it depends entirely on its success to adapt to the internet, but a shift to online content costs money, which may be difficult for smaller stations. Despite these costs though, online content offers features that cannot be seen elsewhere.

“The appeal of podcasts for me is the fact that they’re available on-demand, and the appeal of a livestream is the chat interaction,” Orasanu said. “A [traditional] radio show mixes the two with none of the parts that appeal to me.”

Online stations can easily incorporate these elements that appeal to a younger audience like playback, song titles, and chat windows, while still keeping the basics of radio production intact. Montreal-based online radio station n10.as takes a fresh approach to classic programming by incorporating a chatroom and links to DJs’ Soundclouds on their Windows 2000-themed website.

The future of radio is uncertain, but there are glimmers of hope in the latest generation of broadcasters and DJs. Striking a balance between new and old is tricky, but the radio industry has consistently proved that adapting to significant changes is both possible and necessary. For a contemporary audience, radio provides a refreshing break from over-personalized streaming services. Learning to embrace the mystery of the airwaves allows modern audiences to engage with a broader scope of content, as well as their local communities. Just as tuning into a station requires embracing the unknown, the producers of tomorrow must forge ahead into the endless future potential of radio.