Recently, I was invited to be a member of a panel of radio station owners, program and news directors and mass communication educators to talk about the future of radio. These were comments I prepared for the event.
Fifty years ago, I took the worst job at the coolest radio station in Music City, USA. I was the kid who turned on the remote mixer, checked the phone line connection and rode gain on the microphones during church services on Sunday mornings. I worked for WKDA, one of the two Top-40 stations in the market. We were on 1240, a Civil Defense frequency with a better nighttime signal than our competition WMAK on 1300. If there were teenagers in the family, two of the buttons on the car radio were set on them. The parents – the fossils – got the other three.
One day in 1967, I went down to the studio to pick up my paycheck. There was a new window in a storage room across the lobby from the receptionist, and you could see two huge Schulke machines with enormous reels of audio tape on them. One of these was barely turning. “What’s that?” I asked the receptionist. “The FM,” she replied. Eight hours of beautiful music on a reel complete with spots and station IDs, with a switch to start the second machine when the first tape ran out. The receptionist rewound the first reel and popped in a new one every morning when she came in. Ten years later, we owned one of those FMs.
In 1969, my new car came with one of the latest options – an 8-track tape deck. I could play whatever music I wanted, whenever I wanted. I just had to be able to afford the tapes and find a place to store them in the car. Cassettes soon replaced 8-tracks. They sounded like crap, but you could dub your vinyl LPs, even choose separate tracks and create playlists if you had enough patience.
Jump ahead to 1979 now. A good friend worked for a bank in Atlanta, handling international accounts. He came back from Japan with the newest gadget. It was a portable radio with a built-in cassette player called a Walkman, small enough to fit in your shirt pocket. There was a flimsy set of headphones that put you into an audio cocoon. It looked like a toy, but the personal media zone was addictive. We didn’t realize it then, but the Walkman was a game changer. The iPod, Napster, podcasts and Pandora merely improved the concept.
So where does radio fit into this environment now and in the future? The radio business has been disrupted for the past 60 years. In the 50s, the networks took programming, the evening audience and national advertising to TV. At the same time, the number of radio stations on the air quadrupled. Commercial and non-commercial FM came along, and the number of stations quadrupled again. Next came speculative buying and selling radio stations, crippling debt service, the almost total migration of the audience from AM to FM and soon a third of all stations were effectively bankrupt, and another third hand-to-mouth operations. Massive ownership consolidation brought a momentary solution to radio’s financial woes but did little to correct the underlying problem of too damn many radio stations.
The most recent disruption is the loss of the 12-24 demo to streaming media and podcasts. Teens and young adult listeners are disappearing faster than king crab legs on a seafood buffet. There’s no assurance they’ll ever listen to radio.
Through all these disruptions, radio survived because it has had three inherent assets – it’s free, ubiquitous and accessible. I know my friends in Public Radio don’t like to talk about radio being free, but it is. And free entertainment and news are scarce as sun-worshipers in Seattle.
I haven’t been to Alaska or Hawaii, but I’ve traveled in almost every state of the lower 48 and have always been able to find at least one radio station in the car. Even in the high desert of northeast Arizona, you can hear KNDN – broadcasting in Navajo.
And everybody knows how to use a radio – or maybe not. Go to a car dealer, test drive a new model and see how long it takes to figure out how to listen to your favorite station on the multi-function touch-screen display. We’ve come a long way from two dials and five push buttons.
On this trip, I tried to find a radio station on the “clock radio” in my hotel room. It had easy-to-use controls on the front for the CD player, the iPod dock, even the clock. The radio controls were hidden away – on/off and volume on one side, tuning on the other – with labels printed in 3-point fonts. The tuner was bad; the antenna was worse.
Unlike the Walkman, your iPod or Galaxy S7 doesn’t have a radio receiver in it. You can download an app, figure out how to use it, hope you have WiFi or pay roaming charges.
In the car, by your bedside and on your mobile audio device, radio is a second-tier medium in the new audio environment, definitely not a Killer App.
So the hurdles for radio today and in the future are too many stations, the vanishing 12-24s and listening devices that make it inaccessible.
Letter from Dr. Bob Lochte, Chairman in the Arthur J. Bauernfeind College of Business