In my box of radio treasures lies a yellowing radio research diary from the ‘70s for Glasgow. Listeners were invited to note down their listening to Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 (Scotland), Clyde and Luxembourg.
That’s as complicated as life got.
No podcasting. And streaming was confined to dialling Dial-a-Disc on 16 from the phone in your cold hallway.
It was tough to secure an on-air position in those days, with under 50 stations in the whole country, BBC and commercial.
However - if you were lucky enough to get a gig, you were huge. Within weeks of being on-air, you were delivering impressive audiences and could brush your chest with pride at the many thousands hanging on your every word.
Did that mean we were the greatest radio presenters? Maybe not. We were just one of very few citizens equipped with a dirty great big mast on a huge hill.
There were some presenter greats back then. And a lot of others who weren’t. Both are regarded fondly to this day by their audiences.
Now, the audience battle has never been tougher, with hundreds of radio stations on FM and DAB - alongside podcasting and streamed options - and a busier world with online and gaming affording so many other ways for people to spend their time.
No longer can you go on-air with a mediocre offering and expect to command huge audiences. Each pair of ears has to be truly earned.
Chris Moyles, Chris Evans and Simon Mayo switch to pure digital platforms and they know that, no longer bolstered by station loyalty and FM universality, their audience now has to make a bit of effort to seek them out. They thrive or fail on their own endeavours. Bauer’s music brands now compete increasingly head-on with Global’s. BBC local radio listeners can watch daytime TV or hop across to Smooth or Magic for a few pleasant tunes. Having a building on the high street doesn’t entitle you to the local listenership.
Those presenters who commanded high audiences in the old radio world now have to gird themselves for the fight. Not all will survive, even if we are lucky enough to hang on to our gig in a changing consolidated world.
Creating the finest radio is a challenge, and just maybe some listeners will conclude that some presenters who thought they were brilliant aren’t. They were just lucky.
Podcasting similarly exposes vulnerability. When you launch one, you have no listeners. Every one has to be earned and retained. Then it is your audience endorsement and algorithms which propel you.
On radio, whether you are doing newstalk, a breakfast show or daytime music radio, you need to be, amongst other things, genuinely entertaining company - and know your craft - and that’s a gift. Talent needs to be talented.
Never before has audio been quite so democratised. Whilst radio listeners continue to show loyalty, the range of places to attach that loyalty is growing and they may not quite love some presenters enough. The days are likely numbered for those who get away with plodding along.
It’s about brand-building too - both the radio station and the talent. It’s easy to get sniffy about radio brand-spread and TV presenters on radio, but familiarity and profile can help trial, and that’s an asset. Canny presenters now realise too that part of their job is building ‘brand-me’ off-air as well as on. Whatever the buzz around you, however, in time, listeners will decide whether what you do on-air is sufficiently valuable to make them want to hang around.
Job opportunities in local markets have been lessened and that’s caused huge pain to those affected. Some people will find other opportunities and some won’t, and given luck counts for something, there will be some undeserving casualties. Nevertheless, creating and disseminating audio has never been easier. Never before have you been able to distribute a podcast to sizeable numbers, create a streamed station, become a YouTube influencer, appear on a polished national radio brand, pitch for Government funding for a fresh idea, play a role on a community station, work with global giants as they devise new audio offerings - or rent some DAB space and get on-air in your town. When the excellence of what you do is proven - you’ll be more valued than ever.
As linear and non-linear proliferates, this is the most exciting time for audio. But to survive long term, you’ve simply got to be the best at what you do. If you’re on radio now - and not up for the fight, make way for someone who is.