Where is radio at today and where is it headed? A discussion with the EBU’s Graham Dixon

Graham Dixon, photo: archive of EBU

Radio Prague is today celebrating the 80th anniversary of its first, shortwave broadcast. Obviously the medium of radio has changed enormously since 31 August 1936, particularly in recent times with the advent of the internet. To look at where radio is at today, and where it may be headed in the future, I spoke to Graham Dixon, a former managing editor at BBC Radio 3 who is now head of radio at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in Geneva. My first question concerned the biggest changes Mr. Dixon has seen in his three decades-plus in the radio industry.

Graham Dixon,  photo: archive of EBU
“When I started, there was a single, linear channel which was radio. And you were absolutely obsessed by making that one channel as good as possible.

“And of course, unless you were fortunate enough to be working in the industry, if you missed a programme that was it – there was no way you could access it.

“Now what seems to me the most significant thing is the fact that you can listen on demand.

“There are some things – the Olympics, which of course we have just had, and news – which are very exciting when they’re of the moment.

“And I think that’s a real particularity of radio.

“But actually being able to go back, being able to access programmes, listen-when-you-like, has gone along, I think, with an increasing focus and awareness of audience needs and serving audiences.

“I think we’re far more interactive now. Clearly because the technology allows it, but also in our attitude as an industry, in terms of reaching out to audiences, having a dialogue with them, and creating services to meet their changing needs, respecting the fact that they have many, many calls on their time.

“And we want to be an attractive destination, and remain so.”

There’s been a lot of talk about DAB radio in recent years. Now of course many people consume radio on their smartphones or other handheld devices. Where are we at with DAB on smartphones? If I understand it right, not many phones come with a DAB function now?

“We’ve been really fortunate actually this year, because LG has launched a DAB phone with fantastic functionality.

“People are starting to produce apps for it, and I’m very confident that as we go into the autumn people will see the success of this phone.

“And actually there are discussions going on, which we’re involved in, about other manufacturers moving in the same direction.

DAB receiver,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“Because I think it’s massively important that radio is not only available on IP, over the internet.

“We’ve all lived through a really difficult year with the events in Munich, in Brussels, in Paris.

“Of course on those occasions, when those national emergencies happen, it’s quite characteristic that the government or those responsible for security are switching down the internet.

“That’s exactly at the moment when people most need information and most need to come back to what is an extremely reliable medium – and that is radio and public radio.

“I think our societies need to have a way of transmitting radio which is independent from the internet.

“The ideal in the long run is to have this robust backbone of audio transmissions with all sorts of exciting new offers, provided with the flexibility of IP, around the basic sound.

“But there are some issues to say the least about moving there, not least the amount of data that live radio listening consumes: three hours per person per day across Europe.

“Of course battery life as well is not up to providing this.

“So we absolutely need a terrestrial radio transmission medium.

“DAB, by being digital, is a gateway into many new applications, many new visions of how radio can actually meet people’s needs.”

What about the role of cars in the future of radio? Obviously cars are the place where many people consume radio?

“It’s an interesting one this, because it very much varies from country to country.

“If you look at the statistics, a country like Italy is very, very high on car listening. In Switzerland, where I live, car listening is relatively low. But of course it’s a really important part of people’s listening.

“Again depending on the markets, a large number of cars have DAB in the UK, Norway and Switzerland.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“Germany has an increasing commitment to DAB and of course its strong involvement industry means that there’s going to be, I think, a considerable increase in the number of cars produced with DAB.

“But of course the smartphone is itself dockable into a car, which is another exciting possibility which is being explored in Norway.

“So I suppose when it comes to it and we talk about platforms I really care about robustness.

“But people need to be able to consume radio in the ways that are convenient to them.

“And the one thing that I really care about is that radio should be a direct relationship between the broadcaster and the consumer. Not susceptible to paywalls, not susceptible to gatekeepers. This should be there for everyone, rich or poor, whatever their means, to be able to consume.

“For that we need to have devices that people pay for once – they go to a shop, they buy their radio, they switch it on and hopefully for many years hopefully it gives them really efficient radio programming.”

You used to work at the BBC and the BBC’s iPlayer is perhaps the best-known on-demand player that there is. I read the iPlayer described as a “catch-up service”, but is it really about catching up? I think for many people it’s simply the way that they consume today – they don’t feel like they’re catching up on anything, it’s just the time that they want to consume something.

“Yes, it’s interesting, the iPlayer. In terms of television, television has become more asynchronous than radio. People are consuming more radio out of real time than they are radio.

“Because I think if we look at radio, it’s incredibly useful to have those programmes on demand and of course the iPlayer is a major success and has really transformed listening for a lot of people.

“But if we look at the programmes that are accessed [on the iPlayer] they are very much sort of information-heavy programmes.

“It’s really important to understand that everyone working in radio really appreciates what IP has done, but actually when it comes to it radio is for most people, most of the time, a live experience.

“They go there for entertainment, they go there for company, they go there for information and news, for weather, for traffic, so many aspects of our lives.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Radio is a real touchstone of information and actually providing us with what we need. And a lot of that happens in real time.

“So at the risk of sounding slightly conservative, I think we mustn’t forget the centrality of the live experience for radio listeners, which is absolutely vital.

“And then of course the add-on of being able to return to it is highly attractive.”

Is the word “radio” still relevant? Personally I listen to almost nothing live and think of it simply as “audio”.

“You can take two approaches to this.

“I remember at the BBC the division that I was a part of called itself ‘audio’ a number of years ago and then moved back to ‘radio’.

“I think that respects the fact that most of our listeners still think of what public service broadcasters – and also of course commercial broadcasters – do as radio. So it’s having that identity.

“To return to a previous point, it’s perhaps also underlining the liveness of it. Radio is something we expect to be live and actually that’s a really special thing – that expertise of delivering live radio.

“So yes, of course it’s audio, we can consume it when we want, but one of the special things that we – I say modestly – are really good at is delivering a live experience.

“Maybe the word ‘radio’ underlines that.”

How do public radio stations justify spending money – sometimes a lot of money – on services that aren’t live?

“Well, I think if you are not providing a rounded service for audiences who listen however they want to, in the way they want to, on the devices and platforms they’re using, then I don’t think there’s really a great deal of future.

“We need to be listening to audiences, understanding their needs and actually providing for them, rather than simply providing the listening experience via a linear stream and then expecting people to come to us.

Photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“I think the days of, how shall I say, pomposity are probably over. We really need to be aligned with audiences, aligned with their needs.

“It’s really impossible to say, Yes, but you have to be interested in, I don’t know, consumer affairs, at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday, otherwise you’ve got to wait until next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. Those days are gone.”

Radio Prague is celebrating 80 years of existence. Obviously you don’t have a crystal ball and you can’t see 80 years into the future. But if we look at the nearer future, what do you see as the most likely developments in radio in the coming decades?

“First of all, this is a most fantastic achievement. We’ve been talking a lot about technology together – of course 80 years ago it was technological innovation which made this whole thing possible.

“Clearly we’ve reached at which we have the flexibility to be able to listen out of real time, and we’ve discussed that a certain amount.

“But all sorts of exciting things could happen.

“Recently I was in touch with someone who was seeing if there was a Google application that could be put on top of audio, so that audio could be searched.

“So we could look for the first use of a word. We could look back at what certain politicians have said and see when have discussed certain subjects on radio.

“That sort of deep search on audio is something that’s not yet really available, but is something that actually could be a way of changing our perception and looking backwards over our archives.

“I think that could be incredibly interesting.

“I also think that personalisation is really important – to what extent would we want to make our own schedules?

“We’ve talked about live, we’ve talked about on-demand, but could we somehow produce our own schedule that gives us what we want live, to keep us in contact with our world, but actually at the same time come out of that live world and into subjects or musical choices that really interest in-between.

Photo: Jindřich Jeníček
“So is it possible somehow to create our own schedule?

“And then there’s all the stuff about wearables and information. Being able to give smarter updates.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if a particular subject that you had notified was about to be mentioned and you get a message saying, They’re about to talk on, I don’t know, a particular musician or news subject, and you knew that was about to happen.

“I think the opportunities for radio, for audio and for public service are really more than ever before.

“And it’s up to us all working in the industry to have an incredible open mind and to try to exploit these exciting opportunities.”