The role of the radio in the modern age

06-05-2008

This year, Český Rozhlas or Czech Radio is celebrating its 85th anniversary. A number of special commemorative events and broadcasts are being planned for the coming months. As an institution, Czech Radio has played its part in, and survived, two revolutions, as many major uprisings, and a world war. But could one of its biggest tests be, quite simply, a change in times and consumers’ tastes? As we are bombarded with information from an ever increasing number of sources, is there still a place for good old radio in the modern world?

“Hello, hello. Prague, Czechoslovakia calling. Good evening ladies and gentlemen.”

Footage from one of Radio Prague’s earliest broadcasts, dating from 1937. The Czech state broadcaster, Český Rozhlas, to which Radio Prague belongs, goes back even further – to 1923. Czech Radio’s first station was Radiožurnál, which still exists today. Its current head, Alexandr Pícha, says the station had very humble origins:

“The first radio broadcaster was called Radiožurnál – the same as my station is called today. And they were broadcasting from Prague airport, because it is very flat there, which creates very good conditions for AM broadcasting. They broadcast from a tent, and they had some very basic problems. For instance, during a symphony, when all of the musicians were gathered in this tent and playing, a hen would wander in and start clucking, and so they would have to stop the symphony and shoo the hen out.”

Today, Radiožurnál is a much more polished affair, which broadcasts out of a state-of-the-art studio complex instead of a tent. But Mr Pícha admits that there are still problems. He and the board of Radiožurnal have been deliberating the direction that his station should take:

“I do think that radio has a future, and I think that there is a place for radio in the world today, but I think that it has to change more to fit people’s current behaviour. We have to realize that people think of radio increasingly as something in the background. But I think that even in these circumstances, radio can fulfill its role. Because for example, we can play music alongside news and contributions which act like small hooks, which catch listeners’ attention. So people can listen to music and our news, and know from such a programme that the presidential elections are coming up here, that there are problems in Kosovo, that the euro won’t be adopted here just yet, and so on and so on.”

Radiožurnál – Czech Radio’s flagship station - has ceded ground to commercial radio in the last ten years. It is now the third most listened to station in the country. It has recently been trying to change to adapt itself to listeners’ needs – but what does Mr Pícha think that these needs are?

“You know, we live in a very fast-paced age. People don’t have much time, so they don’t have time to listen to very long features, very long news bulletins. So, we adapted to people’s needs and we shortened our features and our news bulletins. Our traditional listeners complained, but the amount of traditional listeners is getting smaller and smaller. And if we don’t change, we can’t attract new people who have different needs when it comes to the radio – who have, for example, only 20 minutes a day to listen to their news before they have to run.”

But what about the listeners themselves? I posted myself in front of the Czech Radio building to ask some passers-by about their listening habits. My first question was how often they listened to the radio:

“Um, sometimes.”

And what sort of things do you like to listen to?

“The news.”

And when do you listen to the radio?

“When I drive a car.”

“I only listen very rarely. I listen in the morning when I’m at home, but in the evening I watch the television instead.”

Do you listen to the radio a lot?

“No, I don’t.”

Do you prefer the television?

“Yes, I like TV, and when I want news I read it on the internet.”

Do you often listen to the radio?

“Sometimes I do.”

And what do you like to listen to?

“Music.”

And where do you get your news?

“From the internet.”

“I listen to the radio for around four hours a day, because I need to relax and music is one of the best ways of relaxing.”

So is it classical music that you listen to?

“No, hip-hop music, and pop sometimes.”

Oldřich ČípOldřich Číp Oldřich Číp is one of Radio Prague’s longest-serving employees. He deals with the technical side of radio broadcasting and is himself a radio enthusiast. He doesn’t think that radio will be eclipsed by other forms of technology:

“Well, I think that sound radio broadcasting as it is usually called, will continue as one part of the media, and that it is not going to be brought to an end by any new technologies or anything of that sort. I must admit, though, that I have been working for most of my life in international radio, and I am sometimes a bit concerned about the fate of international radio. Because it’s heyday was, you know, during the Cold War era in the 20th century. And after it ended, I think that nobody has yet succeeded in reformulating the role of international radio.”

And does Mr Číp think that radio has any special quality? One thing that other media just doesn’t have?

“Sure, I’m sure that it does have one distinctive property. I, for one, never switch on the TV receiver on my own, but I am constantly listening, wherever I can, whenever I have free time, to the radio. So there will always be an audience who prefer the spoken word to words and pictures. And this means I’m not afraid about radio’s future.”

Alexandr Pícha agrees:

“Yes. Radio has one special advantage, which is that you can listen to the radio for instance when you are driving, or in your free time in your workshop or whatever. You don’t need to concentrate only on the radio. When you are reading the internet or when you are watching TV, you have to focus only on the TV – your eyes, your mind everything. I think this is radio’s best asset – that you can listen to it everywhere.”

We’ll see how radio fares in this modern age of the internet and rival forms of media. But one thing is certain, increased competition is forcing radio to up its game and evolve, which can’t be a bad thing.

06-05-2008