1.8 million regular listeners to a US science and philosophy radio show?

Is the BBC’s long-established domination of ‘serious’ talk radio finally seeing a serious challenge?

This is a critically-acclaimed multi-award winning program from New York called RadioLab. And if the all-important iTunes statistics (it’s currently No.2 in the US podcast charts) are telling us anything about the future of media, then the BBC (and broadcast networks in general) need to sit up and take notice. The supposedly geeky subject matter is doing nothing to stop this show’s continually innovative format going from strength to strength.

Here’s some background to RadioLab gleaned from the august pages of Wikipedia:

Radiolab has been widely acclaimed among listeners and critics alike.

Around 1.8 million listeners tune into the show, though most of them access it via podcasts.

It has even been hailed, along with This American Life, as one of the most innovative shows on radio.

In a 2007–2008 study by Multimedia Research (sponsored by the National Science Foundation), it was determined that over 95 percent of listeners reported that the science-based material featured on Radiolab was accessible.

Additionally, upwards of 80 percent of listeners reported that the program’s pace was exciting, and over 80 percent reported that the layering of interviews was engaging.

Radiolab has also won several awards, including the 2010 George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast excellence.

Radiolab received a 2007 National Academies Communication Award “for their imaginative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences.

Ok, here’s my two cents worth:

There are some special things going on here, that need pointing out.

In that video clip, did you notice something that wasn’t, and couldn’t be in those podcasts?

That’s right, it was video and it was awesome: the podcasts in those iTunes statistics are audio recordings, not videos.

Is someone going to tell me that if they made (and released, maybe on YouTube) videos of RadioLab shows, this would somehow reduce the listening audience, and the whole thing would then go into decline? Really?

Or are they going to say that the additional costs of doing videos would render the whole thing uneconomical?

Or maybe even that if they video the shows, it would somehow spoil the content, even if they didn’t change the format?

Or perhaps they believe that the mere fact that they introduce video would bring irresistible pressure on the presenters to ‘make things more like a TV show’, and thus risk undermining the virtues of the ‘made for radio’ format?

If these concerns are indeed what is holding them back from making Radiolab into ‘watchable radio’, then it’s all too easy for me to glibly scoff at what looks (from 50,000 feet) to be timidity: they’ve got a lot to lose.

But I do think these questions need asking.

Why?

Because I would not be at all surprised if the pitfalls and risks can be overcome and the resulting (as I see it, inevitable) increase in audience would have as big an impact upon what the broadcast industry still currently thinks of as being ‘the future of television’ as Radiolab’s success on iTunes podcasts portends for the future of radio.

The potent mixture of ‘the creativity-inspiring constraints of a radio format‘, plus a live audience, seem to lend themselves to a variety of different video treatments (where video editing can be either sophisticatedly ‘aesthetic’ like a movie, or by contrast economically ‘functional’ and unobtrusive, like a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary).

Such flexibility of potential post-production (or even live vision-mixing for a live or even live-broadcast audience) treatment (which can be introduced without necessarily changing the essential radio-style presentation format at all) leaves enough practical options open for any talk about video as a ‘watchable radio’ medium to avoid getting bogged down in the inevitable ‘but it’s radio, not TV’ argument which would otherwise be expected to hold everything (including valuable experiments) back.