Reviving Radio (part one)

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It’s clear radio is in trouble.

There’s never been more non-radio choices for listeners. The 18-24’s, of which I’m a member of, are giving up on the medium.

It was pretty clear to me something changed between my freshman year and my post-Mission college. In 2003 my roommate would wake up to 94.9 ZHT every morning. I had a little pirate FM station which my fellow apartment complexers would tune in to. I remember recording a sweeper for Q95.9‘s “A-to-Z Weekend,” only to have someone approach me on Sunday and jokingly recite it back to me.

It all changed when I set the station back up in 2006. I couldn’t find anyone who owned a radio, besides the one in their car. And pirate stations don’t carry far at 45 miles per hour. It’s clear to me that my fellow millennials have given up on the medium.

Sure. The iPod has changed everything! But radio hasn’t been playing a full game either in the last few years. Less and less of the content is live, and it appears local content is the next to do. It makes me wonder who radio’s greatest enemy is, new technology or itself?

Let’s look at what strengths radio traditionally had:

  1. Introduce new music.
  2. Provide immediate local news/weather/traffic information.
  3. Encourage community service activity.
  4. Community connector.
  5. Companionship.

Let’s see. Radio is still doing a good job at #1 (introducing new music), albeit not so good at showing local music. Given, local music can sometimes really smell.

Only one station in the entire state does a good job at #2 (local news). That’s down from 2 or 3 about ten years ago. Most stations don’t have enough talent to do local news.

A number of stations still do #3 (community service), but with less local air talent, it sometimes seems impersonal, and the response rate can’t be very high. If Jimmy Chunga tells his listeners to donate to the homeless shelter, it’s probably going to be more successful than if the national voice-over talent guy tells them to in an over-played sweeper.

Almost nobody does #4 (community connector) anymore. You can only take local calls if you have a live and local talent. That means you can throw out all of Clear Channel’s stations, most of Simmons and a few Citadel stations. The country and hip-hop stations are the only ones who regularly take live callers, outside of talk. And most talk stations, besides KSL, are almost completely national shows.

And for #5, I’d say the list is almost as pitiful as #4. Radio’s greatest strength of all is being able to communicate the mood and vibe of the moment to the listener in real time. So far no technology has the power to “go live.” Radio owners are squandering this asset in the name of cost cutting. On most stations few voices, if any, are live. Owners see live talent as an “expense” that needs reigning in.

Which of these can radio still own? The internet will take away #1. The internet is also taking over #2, albeit not in the car. Behind the wheel, radio will own traffic and news for decades to come. Internet message board can take over #4, but not with voices in real time.

That leaves #3 and #5 up to radio. I think the medium can do it. But they are going to have to start hiring talent back again. And that is going to cost money.

Tomorrow … how radio will pay for it.