Radio’s Importance According to will.i.am — “The Format Is America’s Stage”

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Digital Music News invited will.i.am and several industry experts to discuss the future of radio in our DMN Pro ‘What is Radio in 2024?’ event. With his focus on the future, will.i.am provided some unique insight into where he believes the radio industry is headed.

During the panel, will.i.am called radio “one of the most important conduits for the world of music.” He said the radio stations that do it right, do it really well—they’re still important from a cultural zeitgeist standpoint. “Streaming doesn’t really cover what’s going on in communities. On the community level there’s still folks that tune into these staples of culture for the personalities, the community leaders, and people to follow.”

He calls radio a stage for America, especially for artists who are in their breakout phase. “[Radio] is America’s stage for a lot of these artists when there’s no outlet; how do you really get mass [appeal]? Certain countries do a better job at that,” will.i.am concedes. He mentions BBC hitting all of the UK, while NRJ reaches all of France. Getting Ryan Seacrest’s attention hits a huge portion of America.

“I just don’t wanna write-off radio as like, it’s old school,” will.i.am says. “It’s a very important vein into the pulse from TikTok to streaming to what’s being enjoyed in the real world. We saw that with COVID and the drop in real data when no one was going to restaurants, malls, no one was in cabs. We saw a real huge dip in streaming numbers because of that type of airplay—no one has selected to listen to something.”

“With radio, that’s an old monetization model where advertisement is doing that but people are actually tuning in. People are choosing to listen. When we see reach, are we counting the true tuning in? How do you monitor radio, terrestrial radio? You can’t really monitor it like you can skip rates with a streaming platform. I don’t know if that’s fair to the radio because it’s algorithmically not the same to monitor how the system works.”

“In digital, you’ve got a lot of ‘ghost listening’ where it’s not real humans behind the streams. But with radio, humans tuned in because they’re in a car or they’re at work listening to the radio. Comparing them as if they’re the same—they’re not. It’s the engagement [with hosts and personalities] that people are glued to when it comes to radio,” will.i.am continues. He says he doesn’t think the skip-rate for streaming is an attention span thing—it’s are you a personality?

“Are you a personality? Cardi B is more of a personality than just a musician and a person that makes songs,” he continues. “I wanna talk and chill with Cardi B. I just wanna sit, listen, lean back and get lost in what ideas she’s spewing out verbally, idealistically. If it’s heavy with substance or if it’s just escapism and giving me a giggle or laugh—get me out of a predicament and into the moment—that’s radio.”

When it comes down to it, being a personality is a huge part of being successful for major artists. But meeting people where those conversations are happening means hitting up podcast shows and radio interviewers for getting that appeal to the masses. Radio in the future will be different, according to will.i.am.

“Companies and technology that push boundaries forward opens up the gates to allow more people to express themselves,” will.i.am says. “Before the record company, not many people were able to perform in theaters and basilicas and amphitheaters. Recordings opened that market to a new wave of people.”

“Here we are in 2024 with new types of technology and computing time that is expensive. What does that mean? What’s the next Apple that’s coming with the iPod, which brought us podcasts? What’s the next General Electric that’s coming with its gramophone and broadcast technology?”