Radio Daze

Posted December 13th, 2010 at 2:53 pm (UTC-4)
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In 1897, the gifted American humorist Mark Twain dashed off a note to the New York Herald newspaper.  The recent rumor of his death, he wrote, “was an exaggeration.”

Can the same be said for the death knells that are ringing for American radio?  Let’s look back.

Early TV seemed like a miracle, all right.  But we still listened to new-fangled transitor radio. (John Atherton, Wikipedia Commons)

Early TV seemed like a miracle, all right. But we still listened to new-fangled transitor radio. (John Atherton, Wikipedia Commons)

Television was absolutely going to kill off radio when the new medium boomed into American homes in the 1950s. Instead, radio flourished as the transistor brought perky music and glib disc jockeys into cars and portable radios.  Medium-wave radio, especially, was pronounced dead when FM stations offering rich, static-free sound caught the public’s fancy.  But medium wave lives on as a source for news and conversation — for now.

When Congress relaxed ownership rules in the 1990s, big corporations gobbled up radio stations by the hundreds.  They installed computerized formats, jacked up the number of commercials, and raked in fat profits.  Soon, radio sounded pretty much the same from coast to coast.

Now, as the Wall Street Journal put it, domestic radio is “bleeding.”

Many medium-wave stations have gone out of business or become fringe operations in which entrepreneurs buy air-time from the stations and use it to aggressively sell their products.  You hear long-winded pitches for life insurance, retirement investments, and geriatric drugs of all sorts, since the dreaded “55+” crowd predominates in the medium-wave audience.

A lot of people, including me, have turned away from radio just because of the incessant, intrusive commercials. (Wikipedia Commons)

A lot of people, including me, have turned away from radio just because of the incessant, intrusive commercials. (Wikipedia Commons)

Listening to some AM (medium wave) stations, you can imagine what carnival hucksters selling snake-oil miracle cures must have sounded like a few generations ago.

I say “dreaded 55+,” thinking back to my own days as an AM news director in three large markets: Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and New Orleans.  And, believe it or not, our Washington station, which played lots of music as well as covering the news, had an astounding 25 people in its news department.

Today, AM stations count themselves lucky if they have anyone at all covering local news.

Even in the halcyon days, three decades and more ago, station managers and program directors were scrounging for “younger demographics” because younger people were bigger spenders.  Ergo, more advertisers would buy “spots” to reach them.  Older listeners were — and are — loyal, listen to a program longer than impatient young listeners, and generally have more money to spend than do younger people. 

But they don’t buy products such as beer and cars as often as the young’ns do.

When FM — with its higher-quality sound — caught on, medium wave became an old-folks’ home.  Music all but disappeared there, in favor of political talk, all-news, and all-sports formats.  Indeed, the radio spectrums in most big cities began to look like a pizza pie that had been cut into 50 tiny slices, with stations switching niche formats every year or so in a desperate search for something that would click with advertisers and young listeners.

A format such as “adult contemporary,” for instance, would be far too broad in today’s media lexicon.  A station might concentrate on nothing but music of the 1990s, for instance, figuring that it would draw listeners in their ’20s.

Over time, even powerful FM saw its listenership and advertising revenues slide steadily as satellite services began to steal listeners with imaginative music mixes — often without a single commercial.

This is a model of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in space.  Now, radio formats bounce off such satellites. (NASA)

This is a model of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in space. Now, radio formats bounce off such satellites. (NASA)

On the satellite, too, you could find play-by-play sports broadcasts of any team you follow.

Even on faraway Nevada’s forbidden “Extraterrestrial Highway,” for instance, I could listen to my hometown Washington Nationals’ baseball games.  Why would I want to dial around for a local Nevada station’s signal?

And here’s another threat to radio: people are building their own playlists of tunes they love on hand-held devices such as i-Pods.  Who needs some hot-shot programmer to pick my music when I can do it myself quickly, easily, and cheaply — and get only the songs I love, any time I want them, without a single annoying commercial?

Americans still do listen to SOME radio — mostly while trapped in their cars to and from work or on long trips.  Otherwise, their attention has been fragmented in a hundred directions — their computers, satellite TV and radio, “smart phones” — none of them involving a radio receiver.

Legendary Dallas, Texas, radio “personality” — a fancy name for a successful disc jockey — Ron Chapman, who was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters’ Radio Hall of Fame earlier this year, told the Dallas Observer blog, “Terrestrial radio is struggling, and the demographics are getting older. But is satellite the answer? I don’t see it making quantum leaps. It’s had some setbacks. Part of its growth was everyone getting that free first taste when they bought a new car. [Many cars now offer satellite-radio receivers.] Then people stopped buying new cars. And when the economy’s down, pay radio’s one of the first things you stop paying for. It comes from your iPod or online. So it’s certainly a different world.”

Chances are very good that this young woman ISN'T listening to radio.

A world in which those big, radio-conglomerate owners who were rolling in dough saw the bottom fall out of their investments.  They fired broadcasters and sales staff by the thousands, automated many stations’ formats, and piped in syndicated talk programming to save money.

On the stations that survive, program directors have tried all sorts of things to halt the erosion of listeners and advertising dollars, but it may be too late.  Many young people don’t even know that medium-wave radio, in particular, exists.

While reports of the death of radio may be, to quote Mark Twain, “an exaggeration,” the medium is, at a minimum, in serious distress.

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Ergo. Therefore, or consequently, as in, “I am an American man. Ergo, I like sports.”

Halcyon. Calm, peaceful, better. The word is often combined with “days,” as in “Back in our halcyon days . . . .”

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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