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Audio – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Radio is well on its way to becoming something altogether new — a medium called audio.

And we have given that name to the chapter of this report on that sector.

To a greater degree than some other media, radio is unusually well suited to the digital transition. Voice and music are mobile and move easily among new platforms. And audio has done better as a medium of holding its audience than some other sectors.

Traditional AM/FM is still the dominant way people listen, although its hold has been slipping.

More and more, listeners are tuning in not only from their homes and cars, but also from desktop computers. Some skip tuning in altogether and download audio podcasts for later listening. An increasingly large number are also tuning to radio broadcast via satellites, which has enjoyed rapid growth although its two pioneers merged in 2008 to form a single company. The move is toward listening to what you want, when you want it.

Some technologies are not gaining much audience. HD radio continues to struggle, and the number of stations converting to HD has leveled off.

Internet-only radio, such as Pandora, while popular, faces major problems from proposed changes in copyright rules that could force some operators to shut down. Despite industry backing, there seems little traction, too, for broadcasting traditional radio to cellphones.

The economics, so bleak for some legacy media, appear less dire for audio. The better word might be uncertain.

As ad budgets dwindle in the recession, the ability of traditional radio to make money has been hindered but not devastated. And stations have been able to gain advertising online to help make up the difference. Podcasting also continues to grow, carrying its own advertising.

The recession has further dimmed the prospects for people buying expensive HD radio receivers. And even the big satellite merger has not seemed to sort out whether satellite radio, which is largely dependent on subscriptions, will finally move into the black.

How news will fare amid the changes remains to be seen. The number of people who cite radio as a chief source of news has slowly diminished over the years, although the popularity of talk radio remains high.

Audio’s future, unlike print or television’s, seems less a crisis and more an intriguing fragmentation, but it does share one thing with its legacy siblings. As audio adapts to consumers demanding more personally tailored media, the sector still largely has to sort out how to generate revenue in the world of free content on the Internet.