- The death of radio has been predicted many times, most recently with the rise of AI.
- But radio can survive and thrive by leaning into its humanity.
- In a time when algorithms dominate, there’s an audience that hungers for something different.
Shawn Campbell is the founder and general manager of Chicago’s CHIRP Radio, 107.1FM.
Radio’s death has been predicted many times in its century of existence, most recently with the deluge of news surrounding AI. It’s managed to survive its earlier competitors: television, the internet in general, streaming audio in particular – but as corporations like Spotify develop personalized AI DJs to complement their playlists, and services like RadioGPT launch, offering station owners fully-AI-programmed broadcast services, will artificial intelligence deliver the death blow?
I don’t believe it will. In fact, I believe the investment audio-focused companies are making in AI gives some radio stations the chance to show what makes them vital.
I’m the founder and general manager of an independent community radio station in Chicago, CHIRP Radio 107.1FM, and when I introduce new volunteers to the station’s core values, I begin with radio’s traditional strengths: its localism, immediacy, and intimacy. Radio, I tell them, can make you feel less alone in the world in a way your Spotify account doesn’t.
We invite radio into our private spaces: our cars, our bedrooms, even our showers! As we listen, we start to feel like we know the people we listen to, to trust them when they tell us about a new band, a business opening in our community, a piece of news that impacts our life in ways big or small.
Radio offers a shared outlet for grief when an iconic artist like Prince or Tom Petty dies, or a communal celebration when the Cubs win the World Series after a 108-year drought. And even when it’s something as simultaneously crucial and mundane as a severe weather warning, your local DJ has the ability not just to alert you to the news, but also to offer context and share in the feelings that information creates. This type of listening experience can’t be replicated by getting a news alert on your phone.
Live radio, done well, builds a sense of connection that — to my mind — is unmatched by any other medium.
AI-driven radio will provide an opportunity for stations that lean into their humanity
Spotify’s AI DJ and the Radio GPT service appear to see a desire among audiences for connection and think that hearing a voice can fulfill it – any voice will do, even if it’s not human. This expands on what I believe is one of the biggest mistakes radio has made in the 21st century: Replacing live, local personalities firmly ensconced in their communities with syndication and voice-tracking (the phenomenon by which a host records each of their voice breaks ahead of time, often from a completely different media market), eliminating so much of that sense of place and immediacy that listeners have traditionally valued from a local radio station.
The RadioGPT service sounds remarkably similar to today’s (nominally) live commercial radio. It’s an impressive technological feat, and certainly will allow stations to cut more jobs and save money in an industry that’s already been gutted over the past two decades. But will it improve radio’s status in the minds of listeners, or provide a reason for those who’ve left radio to return? I don’t think so.
With nearly endless audio choices in our earbuds, good radio serves a very specific need. It ties us to our community and fosters a sense of shared experience. Hosts on live, local radio stations reveal themselves over time to their audience, rewarding regular listening in a way that feels similar to building a friendship.
At my station, we saw this need reflected firsthand during the height of the pandemic as we heard from so many listeners whose comments reflected those key values I like to talk about. CHIRP, they told us, was providing them with a sense of normalcy at a time when nothing seemed normal. They listened to the station and the voices they heard felt like trusted friends, crucial when hanging out with friends in real life was off limits. The station helped them stay connected to the Chicago music scene when there was no live music to be found, and told them how they could support local artists, venues, and businesses that were struggling. The word “essential” came up regularly.
AI-driven radio would further diminish the humanity of radio, taking it to its logical end point by eliminating humans from the mix entirely. And despite this, station owners would surely continue to pass off these stripped-to-the-bones stations as a community service (since according to FCC law, in order to maintain your broadcast license, you must serve in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity”).
That’s why I believe that, if the industry fully embraces AI as a cost-saving measure, it provides a tremendous opportunity for independent stations like mine. In this time when algorithms dominate, there’s an audience that hungers for something different. When everything is automated, being live sets you apart. I see the chance for radio stations like CHIRP to embrace their humanity and find listeners looking for a human connection.
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