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How Terrestrial Radio Botches Live Streaming

On my way out the door this morning, there was a specific out of town radio station I wanted to listen to. The method for listening to it would be to stream it via app and then Bluetooth it through my car speakers. Under ideal circumstances, I would open the app, select the station from amongst my favorites list, and then off it would go. Such was not the case this morning.

After experiences with a frozen app home screen, an app reboot, a phone reboot, and having gone through the effort to clear app storage memory/cache, I finally gave up while wondering why something so simple, such as attempting to listen to live radio streaming, can still be so difficult?

As one who has been streaming terrestrial radio via mobile since the technology became available, I can say with confidence that the experience continues to be a poor one. From station/app accessibility restrictions to double-dipped advertising to poor user interface design or poorly functioning apps, the most ardent consumer of terrestrial radio streaming is repeatedly subjected to a subpar listening experience for a variety of reasons.

Attempting to Remember Which Station is on Which App

With sports and team interests outside of Chicago, my listening to out-of-town radio stations is a habit probably not shared with most other people. Between the four Wisconsin stations I listen to for Packers talk along with a few additional stations around the country for college football talk, I am regularly bouncing back and forth between no less than seven radio stations via three separate apps (Audacy, iHeart Radio, and TuneIn). Attempting to remember which station is on which app is becoming increasingly more difficult.

While the streaming of television shows and movies are fragmented across several platforms, I don’t know if the same problem exists on those platforms as a result of end user cost. I imagine most ardent streamers of generally know where to find the television shows or movies they are looking for (i.e. knowing that the “Star Wars” film franchise is on Disney Plus while reruns of “The Office” are now on Peacock).

While terrestrial radio via the Audacy, iHeartRadio, or TuneIn apps are free because they are ad supported, most of the premium content on services such as Disney Plus, Peacock, or HBO Max require a paid subscription (though that trend is seemingly on the verge of changing, a separate conversation best saved for another time). For an advertising supported model such as live terrestrial radio where a cost investment is not required by the end user, it should make more sense to push the content in front of as many ears as possible by casting a wider net as far as its accessibility.

So it seems, some of the larger radio corporations have learned that lesson, now that iHeart Media and Cumulus owned stations recently became available to play on TuneIn as well as the Simple Radio app after previously being accessible only via the iHeart Radio app. About a decade ago, then CBS Radio mandated their owned stations be accessible exclusively via their own CBS Radio app before reversing that decision a few years later. Unfortunately, that decision was reversed yet again by Audacy, the eventual successor to CBS Radio, which once again has made its stations accessible exclusively via the Audacy app.

Having to Listen to Additional Commercial Advertising 

Radio stations make money off advertising, so commercials are the lifeblood. While no one wants to listen to the commercials between talk or music, they are an accepted part of the deal when listening to a station. What I don’t appreciate is when opening an app and selecting a station, or sometimes switching from one station to another within an app and being subjected to additional advertisements inserted into the app that run prior to the beginning of a new stream of a given station.

If I select to listen to The Fan/WSSP (out of Milwaukee) on the Audacy app, I’m eventually going to hear the normal commercials in between show segments. To run additional in-app advertisements on top of the normal station commercials just allows these greedy station owners to double-dip on advertising. Unfortunately, we are left with a seemingly dying medium that is resorting to nickel and diming whatever is left of their most ardent listeners, while leaving them with a listening experience that is all the much worse.

Radio Station Streaming Apps are Poorly Designed or Just Don’t Work

As mentioned previously, I’ve been using my phone to stream live radio stations for more than a decade now. On top of that, I think it’s safe to say that I am fairly tech savvy, and yet, using any of these radio streaming apps has the potential to quickly turn into a bad experience.

On top of such apps being poorly designed, they are generally buggy. Live streams are prone to random stops while the apps easily become unresponsive or eventually crash. Simple selections that should be a single tap or click often require repetitive taps or clicks due to poor design and navigation.

While I rarely worry about being signed out of my respective accounts from The Athletic app or the New York Times app, for whatever reason, I can expect once or twice a month to open the Audacy app, find my station presets missing because my account has been signed out.

Non-Traditional Broadcasters that Get Streaming Tech Right 

The first world woes described above are further compounded when compared to streaming technology not involving commercial terrestrial radio that works remarkably well. There are an abundance of traditional and non-traditional broadcasters that have successfully made their audio and/or video streams easily accessible. In both examples, the success has been demonstrated regardless of the listener’s device, and therefore, putting the big-wigged titans in traditional radio to shame.

The most immediate example that comes to mind is Josh Pate’s “Late Kick Live,” a college football show produced by 247 Sports, which is part of CBS Sports. Whether watching the video feed live or on-demand via YouTube or Facebook, it just works. Always. The same goes for the audio version which is accessible as a podcast from whichever podcast app I use.

An example of traditional broadcasting getting it right is Bill Michaels and the infrastructure he has built in addition to whatever support he has from The Zone (WOZN FM), the Madison sports talk station owned by Mid-West Family Broadcasting. I will admit, I’m not familiar with Mid-West or what financial resources they have available, but they most certainly are not an iHeartMedia or an Audacy (which isn’t intended as an insult – as a matter of fact, that probably should be considered a compliment). For those around Madison, they can hear the Bill Michaels Show live on WOZN’s AM or FM frequencies, while the show is also easily accessible via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or Twitch – all of which always works (which I appreciate it since it spares me from having to use the TuneIn app).

An example of non-traditional media getting it right is Cheesehead TV. With the infrastructure of Live X, a media production company based in New York City (owned by a diehard Green Bay Packers fan who runs Cheesehead TV on the side), Cheesehead TV is able to output Packers video and audio content that is easily accessible on multiple platforms and again, just happens to always work. I can listen to or watch “Packers Daily” or “Packers Transplant” live or on-demand glitch free.

Further expanding on the potential of accessible audio has been Clubhouse, Greenroom (previously Locker Room), and most recently Twitter Spaces, the latter of which is extremely awesome and reignites my excitement for how streaming live talk still has so much more potential to evolve. With Twitter Communities now being a new feature, I see added potential of Spaces being used hand-in-hand to super-serve large pools of interested users with easily accessible live audio content.

While I can appreciate that some legacy radio stations, such as The Score (WSCR) and ESPN 1000 (WMVP), both in Chicago, make video streams of their local shows accessible on Twitch, I don’t know that those efforts will be enough to combat against the ease of accessibility of streaming media that is done right. At least they are trying, even if I think there is still room for improvement (an example from a few years ago was SKOR North/KSTP out of Minneapolis, which had their terrestrial radio shows accessible across multiple social media platforms). Another positive effort from legacy radio is WBBM NewsRadio in Chicago, which recently devoted full-time resources to developing original podcast series on top of its 24/7 live news content.

While I am pleased to see stations such as The Score, ESPN 1000, and WBBM making some efforts, there are many more legacy radio stations such as WGN in Chicago or WLW in Cincinnati that are broadcasting on shoestring budgets while making seemingly zero effort to stay relevant in an increasingly multimedia and streaming world. The days of just having select podcasts availability or a minimal social media presence will no longer cut it.

With no shortage of examples of media out there that does streaming right, the fact that the terrestrial radio industry collectively continues to botch it is absolutely mind boggling. For all the talk that terrestrial radio is either dead, on the verge of death, or that its best days are behind it, the geniuses at the top of the industry are further cementing the irrelevancy of their medium.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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