Why We Need Pirate Radio For The Twenty-First Century

At the end of the movie “Pump Up the Volume,” Christian Slater’s character, pirate radio DJ Hard Harry, exhorts the kids who’ve come out to support him to start their own stations and “talk hard.” The film closes with a montage of students in basements, each broadcasting to their own audience, spreading their voices and the music they love.

But launching a radio station back in the nineties wasn’t as easy as the film made it out to be — equipment was complex and expensive, and broadcasting without a license was illegal.

Nowadays, we build playlists on Spotify, create personalized radio stations on Pandora, and watch music videos on YouTube. But despite reaching puberty in the age of social media, none of these services offer any form of live sharing, nor any ability for voice communication directly with friends or followers. One of the things that keeps people coming back to terrestrial radio is that they feel a connection to the DJ, and the biggest selling factor for Apple’s Beats1 isn’t the music, it’s Zane Lowe’s personality.

Given the advances in streaming there is no reason why the creation of broadcast radio stations should be limited to huge corporations. With today’s technology anyone should be able to create and host a live talk radio station, or share their playlists with friends in real time, or both. Essentially, it’s pirate radio with a twist; these online stations would have unlimited potential reach, they would be fully licensed and legal, and artists will be compensated for their songs. Anybody, anywhere in the world, could play DJ for a few hours, or polish their skills over a lifetime. People could host shows for a few friends, or build large followings putting real effort into quality programming.

It is odd that streaming services haven’t embraced such technology yet, given how pervasive personalization is. Users would spend more time on a site which offered such an exciting differentiator, driving increased subscriptions, or providing more ears for advertisers. Gifted hosts would rise to the top providing opportunities for such a service to source and develop new talent, much as YouTube has done with some of its biggest stars. Active followers could communicate directly with their favorite hosts, and even casual listeners would appreciate the option of listening to something with more personality than a robot. Kanye West could modify his playlist order on the fly based on real-time listener feedback, a popular pastor from Zimbabwe could build a global following for his sermons, or the kid next door could become the next Ryan Seacrest.

The biggest problem facing the streaming industry today is that streaming services are all pretty much the same; massive jukeboxes in a cloud. Users only real choice is between personalized endless streams or on-demand playlists, and this has remained largely unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s time to move the ‘streaming debate’ away from subscriptions vs ad-supported (both have their place) and toward diversification. To dramatically grow the streaming market real innovation is required. Democratization of broadcast radio, monetization of those broadcasts for artists, labels, and streaming services, and the catapulting of the 45 billion dollar terrestrial radio industry into the digital age seems like a good start.

(This article also appeared in Hypebot)

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