The great boat called terrestrial radio is sinking, yet listening is doing better than ever, because the lifeboats are actually larger than the broadcast bands ever were. Here's the inventory:
1) Computers (using browsers) and mobile devices (using apps);
2) Car entertainment systems, now being fed cellular and satellite signals that work over far larger geographies than AM/FM ever could; and
3) Smart speakers, which can carry everything car entertainment systems can, but with a much easier user interface, once they’re set up.
The choices of programs, music, personalities and other interest-grabbing “content” (as the marketers like to call it) on these devices so far exceeds what’s on the broadcast bands that the game for those bands could hardly be more over, even though, well... the bands play on.
What we listen to on those bands are still called stations. Which of those will survive on these new devices and listening methods?
I think the branded stations—the ones listeners feel most connected to in their lives—will survive. The rest will go down.
There are simply too many stations on the air in the U.S., with too few formats still left, and too many other ways to listen than AM/FM stations can possibly provide.
And the radio business has already botched two forms of what could have been life support for stations.
One is RDS, which lets a car radio carry a station from one signal to another over large geographies, and which the U.S. rejected in the ’90s in favor of a crippled replica called RDBS.
Another is DAB (digital audio broadcasting), which would have been a much better way for stations to move to digital than HD Radio, which is too proprietary, too hard for listeners to figure out, too poorly implemented in the radios that have it, hated by too many engineers, and a failure-in-progress in the marketplace.
But even DAB has problems of its own, mostly thanks to its geographical and technical boundaries, placed by different implementations in different countries.
What DAB has done, however, is obsolesce AM and FM radios wherever those countries make it the only choice left for radio listening. And there are more of those all the time. The US won’t be one of them. But then, it hardly matters. The Internet is the new broadcast band. Its coverage is worldwide, and there's no limit to what you can do on it.