Embracing Digital: A Radio Roundtable


(By Mike McVay) The ever-present inferiority complex that radio suffers from allows the companies that have digital delivery to play on the perception that they’re dominant. There is a true superiority over radio that the DSPs have regarding quality.

They often have a better listening environment and a value proposition that paying for a monthly subscription is less expensive than paying for downloading individual songs. Given video subscriptions, subscribing to a DSP is not the leap that it once was, and CarPlay makes it even more convenient. 

What DSPs lack, more than anything else, is distribution at the level of over-the-air (OTA) radio. That will change with time unless radio focuses on the expansion of OTA to digital with cross-platform promotion, and unless radio makes a true and real concerted effort to improve the listening environment and level of content for the audience. 

Many of the offerings that the DSPs present are mostly music-driven – that is to say music without personalities. One can make the comparison that those channels are today’s version of a record department in a big box store. Maybe a better comparison is having an iPod on shuffle. (Anyone remember the iPod?) I assert that music-heavy DSPs compete with music downloads more so than radio. They’re a competitor for hours listening, but they’re in a different lane than radio.

There are DSP channels that offer personalities. Those are more closely compared to OTA Radio and are more competitive from that standpoint. Fortunately for OTA radio, there are fewer personality-enhanced stations on DSPs, as of today, and their national platforms make it difficult to connect to a local market. That will most assuredly change with time. Including the customization of content for a market. Radio must understand that having an audience is not a birthright. It has to be earned. Just because you’re on the air doesn’t mean you’re being listened to. It just means that you’re on the air.

Broadcasters must continue to promote their terrestrial locations, but given the diminishing number of “regular radios” in homes and workplaces, accessibility on smartphones, laptops/desktops, smart speakers, as well as on in-car platforms like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is imperative. 

In a study presented last year, Edison Research showed that Americans now spend more time with audio on a mobile app than they do with a traditional radio receiver. Listening to radio OTA or via mobile apps is changing dramatically. Especially with younger listeners. Aged 13-34 listeners are divided into 19% Radio Receiver and 48% Mobile Device. Age 35-54 is almost even at 33% Radio Receiver/34% Mobile Device. It is only when you move the age window to 55+ that you see Radio Receivers lead 52% and the Mobile Device falls to 14%. 

Even in-car listening, which radio has previously owned, is seeing erosion. Mobile devices make up 23% of the listening in auto. Other audio sources make up 19% of listening in-car. Radio still leads with 58%. Not long ago it was 90%. If your radio station is not creating a great experience using a mobile app, you’re missing out on connecting with half of the potential audience. 

Jan Mueller, Founder and CEO of the global digital company Brands Are Live, with the app platform audio.one, believes that, “The user experience on digital platforms demands a unique approach. Online content needs to be tailored to the distinct behaviors of smartphone users, who typically prefer on-demand content. This distinction is vital for engaging audiences effectively. Secondly, there is a notable absence of discussion regarding the evolving business models in the industry. Modern radio stations have the potential to generate substantial revenue through diverse channels like programmatic advertising, subscription services, and interactive features such as online coupons. The key to unlocking this revenue stream lies in strategically encouraging frequent user visits to their online platforms.”

Technology is another pivotal factor. Many radio providers rely on small, individual services that often lack modern features and appear cost-effective compared to those of DSPs. However, Mueller believes that users ultimately triumph in this scenario. “They do not discriminate between a DSP and a smaller company in terms of service quality. That is where our solution, audio.one, comes in. It addresses all technological challenges comprehensively: offering state-of-the-art platforms, efficient data collection, and effective monetization strategies. Importantly, it’s priced within reach for even smaller companies aspiring to grow in the future radio market.”

Brad Holtz, President of Sarkes Tarzian’s ST Radio, which includes Indianapolis, Ft. Wayne, and Bloomington, Indiana shared his belief that there are things that radio can do better to improve the listening experience for the audience. What are those things? Maintain a respectful spot load. An eleven-minute break with 20 units is simply not fair to a listener OR to the advertiser who’s stuck in the middle of the pod. Focus on relevance. While many corporate clusters are focused on transactional and programmatic buying, this oftentimes leads to messages that are completely misaligned.”

“So much listening is done online, yet for many stations, the online listening experience is an afterthought. Hence, dead air, an endless stream of the same PSAs, from stations that cover spots online. There is a great opportunity to create attention-getting content that could not only keep listeners through a break but strengthen brand identity.” My interpretation of Brad’s comments is that we absolutely must prioritize listening online and on apps. Meet the audience where they are listening. 

Bob Lawrence, General Manager of the National Radio Talent System (A Division of the Radio Advertising Bureau) noted that “it’s sad that a larger percentage of our terrestrial product is not being utilized through smart speakers and apps. We need to cut through whatever barriers keep those numbers from being much higher. This is an education issue, not just for listeners but for the industry as a whole.” Lawrence continued. “We all need to keep in mind that we now communicate with more than just a microphone and a transmitter. We must focus on building heightened listener experiences, especially while they are streaming on our websites and mobile apps.“

When I first heard of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, and before I knew them as Smart Speakers, I was overly excited. Smart Speakers put radio back into the home and helped to keep it in the workplace. Apps have returned radio to being portable. Those technological upgrades help me to remain encouraged about radio, but now it’s up to us to take advantage of the added distribution that is available. Before you scream from the rooftops that radio can be heard everywhere, we need to upgrade the listening experience. Better content and better quality. The old saying holds true: “A first impression is a lasting impression.“

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]. Read Mike’s Radio Ink archives here.


  1. It’s only sailed for those who’ve allowed to. Be honest with yourself, nobody is being coerced into listening because you told them to via another platform. It’s not working. You don’t have to tow the “digital will save us” line, because That ship has sailed. (Or never worked)

  2. Radio: let’s send listeners away from our unique platform to somebody else’s forgettable digital platform where nothing sticks.

    Also radio: what happened to our ratings

    • Radio should promote where you can hear the over the air signal. That is OTA, online, on smart speakers and on demand via podcasting. Radio has to be available everywhere. I understand your concern, but that ship has sailed.


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