Podcasts did not kill the radio star - and nor should they

I was wrong about radio, and about its relationship to podcasting

When’s the last time you tuned into a linear radio station? As both a non-driver and a digital native, my radio consumption has generally been extremely minimal, but according to the stats, I’m in the minority. The latest RAJAR report for Q3 2022 says that almost 90% of the UK tune into radio on a weekly basis, which I found to be surprisingly high. Not only that, but even in the notoriously challenging youth bracket, almost three-quarters of 15-24 year olds listen to live radio on a weekly basis according to the RAJAR MIDAS report for summer 2022.

To be completely truthful, I have a tendency to think of radio as an outdated, last-generation medium, kept alive by neophobic older audiences too stubborn to move to the more flexible and creatively varied world of podcasts. Recently, however, I’ve had to rethink this characterisation. 

Last week, I attended Radiodays Europe in Prague; a conference which, despite a large and thriving podcast track, quite clearly still has live radio at its heart. I suppose this shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise, given the name, but working in podcasting can sometimes be a bit of a bubble, and it’s easy to forget just how young the podcast industry still is in comparison to radio. 

Public service broadcaster Czech Radio celebrated its centenary this year, and the conference floor was packed with programmers, commissioners and broadcast executives from radio stations, and a huge amount of the content focused on solving the challenges of linear broadcasting. Most of the podcast-focused sessions were packed out, but with most of them relegated to the smaller tracks, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was playing second fiddle. 

Podcasting is certainly making strong progress; it’s been growing in both revenue and reach, with podcast platform Audioboom seeing 36 million downloads and revenue growth of 24% last year, and the benefits of the medium for deep audience engagement shouldn’t be understated. However, there’s a reason that the vast majority of media agencies’ digital audio spend generally goes towards radio rather than podcasts.

While a certain amount of it comes down to the larger reach offered by radio which boasts an audience of millions, familiarity with the medium and long-term existing relationships between senior media planners and radio sales executives also plays a significant tole that can’t be ignored. Podcasting simply hasn’t been around as long as radio, and that makes it harder to convince established agencies to invest in it.

If podcasting is going to continue growing, it’s going to need to start taking some of that share of spend from radio - but we’re going to need to work with the radio industry to do it. As much as the gulf between radio and podcast spending might make it seem like it, the two don’t need to be enemies. As illustrated by numerous case studies and sessions over the course of this year’s Radiodays Europe, radio broadcasters are investing increasingly in podcast content, and the more existing commercial partners they can convince to funnel larger portions of their campaign budget into these podcasts, the more willing they’ll be to explore partnerships with podcasters outside of large broadcast houses.

Radio is also still a vitally important training pipeline for podcast talent (both and off mic), providing a firm grounding in audio production principles that is one of the main reasons why the UK has become such a leader in podcast creation. The pipeline works both ways, too, and personalities that have built a following via podcasts now have the option to leverage that into a more traditional radio show, if they so choose. In the UK specifically, the BBC’s license fee income means a (relatively) stable and guaranteed influx of content and professionals into the audio industry, which is good for everyone. 

Podcasting may have come a long way in a short time, but compared to radio, it’s barely taken the training wheels off. While podcasts are flexible, versatile and on the cutting edge of listener trends, radio has an enormous reach, the benefit of a long history and a level of regulatory oversight not seen in podcasts. Rather than each medium seeing the other’s specialisations as threats, however, the two mediums should be collaborating - leaning on each other for support in areas where they’re not as strong. The audio industry is big, and there’s certainly enough room for two mediums to coexist - so let’s try and play nice.