Video killed the radio star–how come radio’s still here?

The history of science and technology is full of hits and misses. Whenever a new medium is on the horizon, apocalyptic voices preach that the old media will soon die out. You’ll see it’s not really the case by looking back on the history of media, with specific examples of radio, television, and the Internet.

Radio and cocktail party

Radio is an incomplete medium–it delivers sounds, but no visual images. Television, on the other hand, is a more complete medium that offers both vision and sounds, which is closer to how we experience the world around us. But then again, how come radio–an incomplete medium–is still around us in the Internet era?

Surprisingly enough, it’s because radio is a niche medium. Radio is a sound-only medium. Our sense of hearing is the only channel that’s open 360-degrees around us. People have natural capability to filter out noises to concentrate on signals. That’s what the acoustics experts dub as “the cocktail party effect.”

Let’s say you’re a guy going to a cocktail party with your gorgeous girl friend. You’re saying hello to your colleagues, leaving her behind among a bunch of handsome guys. She’s laughing out loud at some guy’s joke. You’ll probably use your keen sense of hearing to filter out all the meaningless noises and focus solely on her voice! All while you’re talking with your colleages.

Hearing is about the only sense that allows multi-tasking. That’s why you drive, work, and study while listening to music, talk show, and news. You don’t even pay much attention to the general content, but still you can catch a phrase or two, or a tune or two that appeals to you. Radio is a sound-only medium, so that it doesn’t take away all of our attention. Radio has moved snugly back to the background.

The future of radio has already arrived!

What about the fate of television in the face of a new medium called the Interent? We already know the answer. TV time and Internet time are not compatible. TV and Interent compete to attract the same kind of attention from us. We have to face the screen–though they’re two different types of screen: one is a one-way screen; the other, interactive. If we don’t face a screen, our experience won’t be complete.

Another reason why young TV viewers have moved to the Internet is that the latter is a more interactive medium. You can participate and do more with the medium. This will significantly increase the use value of the medium. That’s why we now talk much about interactive, digital television broadcasting and convergence of communications and broadcasting.

As the renowned sci-fi writer, William Gibson once said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” The future of radio, the niche medium is already here, too. Take Last.fm or Rhapsody for instance. These new types of radio, a la Web 2.0, learn from your listening habits what you like and what you don’t. It streams out songs that are similar to what you liked before. It’s full of feedback loops, user recommendations and other filters.

So, what’s the future of radio and other media? Well, it depends on you. Technology is not an island, just as no person is an island. Technology evolves and thrives feeding on users’ feedback. When it meets your needs and wants, and if it works the way you work, it’s highly likely that it will survive the next wave of innovation. It’s all up to you to choose what’s best for you. That’s the beauty of tech evolution.

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