Radio As A Metonym?

From Wikipedia: Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept. For instance, “Hollywood” is used as a metonym for US cinema, because of the fame and cultural identity of Hollywood as the historical center of movie studios and movie stars.

Using that definition, radio is being used as a metonym for any transmission of audio from a central source to an individual or a group. What started as AM radio and became AM/FM radio has now morphed into satellite radio, Internet radio, streaming radio, custom radio, listener-driven radio, on-demand radio, and a plethora of other audio services calling themselves radio. So, what is radio?

  1. Radio, as it has traditionally been known, is a one to many broadcast.
  2. Radio, as it has traditionally been known, was free to consumers and advertiser supported.
  3. Radio, as it has traditionally been known, acted to build a community of like-minded people.
  4. Radio, as it has traditionally been known, is curated by an expert such as a program director or news director filters content on behalf of the community.

Now, if you asked 100 people working for a traditional AM/FM radio station, you’d likely get 100 more definitions of radio, and even more reasons that some of the new products and services are not radio at all. Most of these new services do conform to at least three of the four definitions, and a select few meet all four criteria. But here’s the problem with defining every “audio delivery platform” as radio, based on what radio really is. Traditional AM/FM radio works much differently than any other media or medium ever invented. And while the content itself is portable to other formats and distribution methods, the inherent and intangible parts of radio are not. The unique combination of the four (or more) things that make AM/FM radio what it is need to be put together in a very specific way for it to work.

I love using metaphors to explain digital media, and in this case, a pancake recipe seems appropriate. When you make pancakes from scratch, you can add all sorts of spices (cinnamon!) and accents (chocolate chips!) to make them fit your personal preferences.  What you can’t do is change the ratio of flour, milk, eggs, and butter beyond a certain level without compromising your breakfast or ending up with something that no one would ever call a pancake. I’ve tried it, and I ended up having scrambled eggs instead.

Traditional AM/FM radio is very much relevant in today’s world of marketing and advertising. That world is changing rapidly, however, and we are each being pulled in more and more directions and being asked to spend our time paying attention to more and more things. It should be noted that online radio listening is currently a complement to broadcast radio, not a substitute.  According to The Infinite Dial research reports from 2010 & 2011 (conducted by Arbitron and Edison Media Research), 89% of weekly online radio listeners also listen to AM/FM radio versus just 11% who do not. Still, AM/FM radio has its own internal challenges as well but none of these issues takes away from AM/FM radio’s essence or blesses those other services with the the inherent and intangible. Maybe we shouldn’t rush to make radio a metonym after all.