Does radio have a future? Audio and podcast professionals discuss in Prague

Radiodays Europe conference 2023

Hundreds of radio industry bigwigs from revered broadcast institutions like the BBC and Deutsche Welle, as well as independent podcasters and young audio content creators, convened in Prague this week to discuss the future of radio, audio and podcasting at the 13th annual Radiodays Europe conference. Co-organised by Czech Radio in the year of its centenary, the three-day event drew people from as far as Australia, Canada and the US, as well as from across Europe.

Andrew Davies | Photo: Radiodays 2023

Considered one of the best conferences for the industry in the world, Radiodays Europe (RDE) is billed as the meeting point for radio, podcast and audio. As such, it draws some of the biggest names in audio media from far beyond Europe’s borders – such as Eric Nuzum, who developed some of Audible’s and the US National Public Radio’s most successful podcasts, and Andrew Davies, head of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s specialist podcast production team.

But there were also plenty of younger rising stars from the world of audio at this year’s RDE 2023 in Prague, such as Arielle Nissenblatt, a podcast marketing expert from New York.

Arielle Nissenblatt | Photo: Radiodays 2023

“A lot of podcasters, when they start their shows, they think social media is really going to bring their show out to the masses. They really think that by posting on social, they’ll find an audience. And the truth is, there’s no one silver bullet that will grow your podcast. There’s no one silver bullet that will help you get your show out to the people that need to hear it – social media is just one of those elements. My talk really focused on the fact that social media is important, but it’s not everything.”

As you might imagine from a podcast marketing expert, Arielle listens to a pretty staggering number of podcasts herself – she estimates that her average daily listening time is 5 hours. As well as her regular diet of daily and weekly news podcasts, she listens to a truly astonishing array of genres ranging from comedy, history and true crime to technology, pop culture, and the business of podcasting itself.

And she has one top tip for travellers – whenever she goes to a new place, she downloads an episode of a local podcast to find out what’s going on in the place she’s visiting. Which is how, it turns out, she discovered Radio Prague International’s very own podcast offering, Czechia in 30 Minutes.

Zuzana Matějovská | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

“When I first arrived here, I started listening to this show! [laughs]”

Zuzana Matějovská, the head of the Czech Radio organizing team that partnered with Radiodays Europe to host the event, says that the large turnout this year suggests that the location was a big motivating factor.

“There are more than 1200 participants – you could really see that Prague was a very attractive destination for many of them. And after years of covid when the numbers were down, now people really came for this conference, and I think they are coming from more than 50 countries, also the United States and even Australia.”

Sadia Azmat | Photo: Radiodays 2023

From my own scant research, I get the same impression – several people tell me that Prague was a draw for them, such as UK comedian Sadia Azmat.

“I wanted to come to Prague – I’m not gonna lie.”

It just so happens that the year that Prague is hosting RDE is the same year that Czech Radio celebrates its 100-year anniversary, which Zuzana Matějovská sees as an opportunity to showcase Czech Radio.

Radiodays Europe conference 2023 | Photo: Daniela Honigmann,  Radio Prague International

“We were happy that the organisers went for Prague, and of course the 100-year anniversary of Czech Radio was hopefully the big motivator. So we will take this opportunity and present the great work that Czech Radio does.”

René Zavoral,  Director General,  Czech Radio | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

Radiodays Europe was conceived as a response to the changing needs and growing challenges facing the audio industry, and these were more present than ever at this year’s conference. How to reach and engage young audiences, diversity and inclusion in the industry, the impact AI will have on radio, and news fatigue and news avoidance were some of the hot topics that cropped up again and again in talks and workshops throughout the three days.

News fatigue, stemming from the constant barrage of depressing news that most of us are bombarded with almost constantly via our phones and social media accounts, has real and tangible effects on us – and it’s not good news for journalism either. According to data provided by Reuters, 36% of people say that the news brings down their mood, 16% say it makes them feel powerless, and 29% think it can’t be trusted, with trust in media even lower in Central and Eastern Europe.

Jeremy Druker | Photo: Radiodays 2023

One method of combatting news fatigue was presented by Jeremy Druker and Meenal Thakur of the Prague-based Transitions Media organisation.

“Solutions journalism in a nutshell is an approach to reporting which focusses on responses to social problems. It definitely stems from this problem of distrust in news, news fatigue and news avoidance, and this general feeling of lack of agency that people have when they’re constantly bombarded with news which makes you feel like there’s no option left and we’re all doomed. But now let me open my mind to this other side of reporting which might make me feel like I do matter, I can change things, and I can create impact. We have studies showing that people engage more with news, we see reduced news avoidance and increased trust in media once people start consuming solutions-focused stories.”

Radiodays Europe conference 2023 | Photo: Daniela Honigmann,  Radio Prague International

Meenal says solutions journalism doesn’t work for all contexts, but it is a way to make people feel empowered rather than powerless, and remind them there are ways they can act and engage in civic society rather than simply complaining or feeling hopeless. She stresses that this is not simply an approach to reporting that artificially elevates feel-good “fluff” stories at the expense of serious and important investigative journalism about crime and corruption, but simply an attempt to redress the balance of the traditional journalistic focus on problems without much reporting on solutions or community responses.

Radiodays Europe conference 2023 | Photo: Daniela Honigmann,  Radio Prague International

“It investigates how the response was implemented, what the evidence is for the impact of the response, but also the limitations of the response. The idea is to reimagine journalism by focussing on things that are working, giving these solutions the attention they need, and focussing on the agency of the community and the people who are coming up with these solutions to their local problems.”

She gives an example of a solutions-based newsroom in a part of Europe that one might expect would have the most reason to be despondent right now – Ukraine. The war in Ukraine was of course another topic that came up a lot, with Andriy Taranov, board member of the Ukrainian Public Broadcaster Company giving a talk entitled “Ukraine – How radio works in war” and Russian investigative journalist-in-exile Roman Amin talking about war reporting in the 21st century.

“I’m a big fan of this organisation’s work – Rubrika. It’s a solutions-oriented newsroom based in Ukraine. They just turned five recently and in these five years they’ve managed to achieve great feats in this field. Amidst the war, they practice solutions journalism and there were many wonderful pieces – they have a podcast, video explainers, a website.”

Radiodays Europe conference 2023 | Photo: Daniela Honigmann,  Radio Prague International

The range of people and groups represented at the conference varied from large state broadcasters to local radio stations, industry executives to independent podcasters, commercial radio to volunteers working at community radio stations. Time and time again, the importance of focussing on your audience was stressed. While local radio stations can focus on small communities and niche podcasts can target specific groups, other attendees have a wide reach as their audience is from across the globe. One such example is Karen Martin, editor of the BBC’s most listened to podcast, Global News. Working for the BBC World Service, she has to keep in mind that her audience is spread across many different countries and cultural contexts.

“Listeners actually send in pictures of themselves quite a lot and that really helps me. In my mind I’ve got a Nepalese farmer who is milking his cow while listening to the Global News Podcast, and then I also have a picture of a Washington law professor who is in her 60s and she listens, and then in India there’s a 16-year-old who is trying to improve their English. They live everywhere. I have a map as well, and we put a literal pin in the places that they write from, so when I look at the map I’m constantly aware. What we do then is say, ok, what is the connection between all these people? And the connection is that they are all curious about the world. They want to know what’s going on in the world, but they also want to know how the rest of the world sees them.”

Noel Curran | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

While Radiodays is about sharing experiences, best practice and lessons learned, and celebrating today’s success stories, there was definitely also one eye on the future at all times. AI, audiodata, and the future of radio and podcasting were the hot buzzwords.

Noel Curran | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

But despite all the challenges facing radio and podcasting in the coming years that were discussed at RDE2023 – losing audiences to other media, competition with social networks for the attention of young people, market saturation, and others – the outlook was bright. People believe that radio does have a future, and Noel Curran, head of the European Broadcasting Union, has numbers to prove it.

“It is the most trusted medium in 70 percent of European countries. Podcasting among younger audiences is growing rapidly. Eighty-four percent of people access or listen to radio at least once a week. That is extraordinary. That does not mean it is not going to have to fight for its position – it is going to have to change, it is going to have to adapt, it is going to have to follow where the audiences are going. But radio has a very strong base from which to meet these new challenges.”